Bacon, doughnuts, French fries, ice cream — they’re all unhealthy foods you should avoid, right? The short answer is yes; the longer answer is, find out what’s in the foods you’re eating, whether you think they’re healthy or not.
“Don’t look at cutting out a single food, but look at ingredients, processing, and preparation,” says Julia Renee Zumpano, RD, LD, who works in preventive cardiology and rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic. It isn’t easy, but by avoiding certain unhealthy foods and ingredients, you can reduce your risk of developing many chronic health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and even some cancers.
Unfortunately, many ingredients linked to serious health problems, such as heart disease, are hard to avoid. Salt, saturated and trans fats, refined sugars, and processed foods (because they can easily contain all of the previous items) are among the worst offenders. Here’s why, and how to spot them on food labels.
Unhealthy Hydrogenated Oil
“Hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil would be number one” on the list of food ingredients to avoid, Zumpano says. The oils, both containing trans fats, increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels in the body, so it’s like a double whammy, she adds. Trans fats can contribute to atherosclerosis, the buildup of cholesterol and other substances on the inside of arteries, resulting in narrowing or blockage of the arteries. Atherosclerosis increases the risk for stroke, heart attack, and heart disease.
Because they help preserve food, making it last longer and look better on store shelves, the oils are used in many different foods, including crackers, cookies, and packaged cakes. To avoid trans fats and other unhealthy ingredients, shoppers need to read nutrition labels carefully, both to see if trans fats are on the list and, if so, how much. The American Heart Association recommends that no more than 1 percent of your daily calories should come trans fat — for a typical 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, that’s a max of 20 calories.
Food labels list ingredients in order of weight; the more there is of an ingredient, the higher it appears on the list. “If hydrogenated oil is one of the first five ingredients, avoid that food altogether,” Zumpano says.
Sugar Ain’t So Sweet
Refined sugar is another ingredient to limit as much as possible because it contributes to obesity and high triglycerides, a fat in your blood. High levels of triglycerides can lead to atherosclerosis which, once again, increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart disease. High triglycerides and abdominal obesity (fat around the waist) are also components of the metabolic syndrome, a condition that increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Unfortunately, refined sugars, including table sugar, brown sugar, sucrose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, and dextrose, among others, are found in countless food items. “It’s very difficult, in this day and age, to cut out all high-fructose corn syrup” and other refined sugars, Zumpano says. She recommends limiting modified and refined sugars to “as little as possible” in your diet, opting to sweeten up with natural sugars like pure maple syrup, molasses, and sugar in the raw instead.
Another way to limit your sugar intake is to drink water instead of soda and other sweetened beverages.
Stop Shaking, Start Reading
Increased salt consumption has been linked to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. Fortunately, table salt is easy to avoid: Just don’t pick up the shaker and skip or limit the amount you use in cooking.
It’s harder, but just as important, to avoid sodium compounds found in prepared and processed foods. Americans get as much as 75 percent of their total sodium intake from eating processed and prepared foods like canned soups, condiments, and mixes.
A single food item can contain several different sodium compounds, so to avoid excess salt consumers need to pay close attention to ingredient labels. In addition to the word “sodium” in an ingredient name, look for the word “soda” or the symbol “Na” on labels.
It may seem impossible to eliminate all unhealthy foods from your diet. A closer look at food labels, however, will help you avoid choices with the worst ingredients. And it’s a worthwhile effort: Limiting your exposure to unhealthy foods can lower your risk of many serious health problems, including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and diabetes.