The Not-So-Fab-Five: Foods That Increase Stroke and Heart Disease Risk

By: Sadie Wangler

May 05, 2017

Snacks in bowls

Did you know that 80 percent of all strokes are preventable? Learn which foods should be eaten in moderation to reduce your family's risk of stroke.

Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the nation and a major cause for disability, killing 130,000 people each year. But did you know that 80 percent of all strokes are preventable, according to the American Stroke Association? Several stroke risk factors -- high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, physical activity level, obesity, high cholesterol and heart and artery disease -- can be controlled, treated and improved, right down to the foods we choose to consume each day.

Diets high in sodium can increase blood pressure, putting you at greater risk for stroke. A high-calorie diet can lead to obesity -- another risk factor. And foods high in saturated fats, trans fat and cholesterol will raise your blood cholesterol levels causing blood clots, which -- you guessed it -- can lead to a stroke.

The “not-so-fab” five foods listed below play a large role in damaging your body and causing vascular disease, stroke and heart disease and should be avoided on a regular basis. However: Moderation is the key to life, in my opinion. Sure, everyone is going to have a soda here and there or a steak off the grill, but keep it off the main menu. 

1. Packaged and Fried Food

Have you noticed foods like hot dog buns and bottled salad dressings rarely go bad? Ever asked yourself why? This is due to the use of hydrogenated oils, which are trans fats. Hydrogenated oils stay solid at room temperature and do not require refrigeration. Convenient? Yes. Healthy? No. Unfortunately, many frozen foods and meals also fall into this category, except for frozen fruits and veggies.

So here’s the lowdown on trans fats: They’re considered by many experts as the worst type of fat you can consume, raising your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lowering your HDL (“good”) cholesterol. While some meat and dairy products contain small amounts of naturally occurring trans fat, most dietary sources are formed through an industrial process adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, causing the oil to solidify at room temperature. 

The FDA is in the process of restricting or possibly banning trans-fats from food in the U.S. A study published in JAMA Cardiology compared data from counties with and without trans-fat restrictions and the findings were substantial: There was a 6 percent decline in hospitalizations for heart attack and stroke in counties with trans-fat restrictions. 

Bottom line: Ideally no processed food should pass your lips, but realistically, aim for less than 2 grams of trans fat per day. Skip the store-bought treats at the office and fries at lunch. Also avoid crackers, regardless of what you are dipping them in. Choose to eat fruits to satisfy your sweet cravings and veggies and hummus to satisfy the savory. 

2. Lunch meat

Processed meats, including bacon, smoked meats and hot dogs, are all on the DNE (Do Not Eat) list, unless you want to play with fire. Processed meats are a no-go if you want to keep your arteries clear of plaque buildup. So what is the alternative to your salami sandwich?  Try a healthy alternative like a tuna sandwich with avocado (a great alternative to mayo) or a veggie sandwich.

3. Diet soft drinks

First of all, when a drink is sweeter than a candy bar but it contains zero sugar and zero calories, buyer beware. Many consumers think because a soda is labeled “diet” it’s a better choice, but studies have linked diet soft drink consumption with an increased risk of stroke and vascular disease. In a nine-year study of more than 2,500 people, those who drank diet soda daily were 48 percent more likely to have a heart attack or stroke or die from those events, compared with those who rarely or never drank soda.

What else are you supposed to drink? If you must drink soda, break the everyday habit and drink it on special occasions; otherwise water rules. And if you don’t like water, try flavoring your water with fruit slices.

4. Good-old red meat

So is there ANY good meat out there you ask? The answer is yes, but it’s not red. In the journal Stroke, an article showed women who consumed large servings of red meat regularly had a 42 percent higher incidence of stroke. Red meat is high in saturated fat, which clogs arteries with plaque.

The alternative to red meat is a heart-healthy protein like poultry or fish, or even non-animal products like beans, nuts and tofu. 

5. Canned foods

Steer clear of factory processed soups, beans and sauces. Canned items all have incredible amounts of sodium or MSG or baking soda/powder to maintain their freshness and shelf life. One study showed if you consume more than 4,000 mg of salt per day, you more than double the risk of stroke compared to diets with less than 2,000 mg.

Another tip: When possible, plan and make meals from scratch.

Making the wrong meal or snack choices is one of the biggest contributing risk factors for stroke and heart disease. Most people know what good food choices are, but they don’t realize the serious impact the bad choices have on overall health. Learn what is most beneficial to your body to consume. It will be a life changer – literally.


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