Nowadays, plenty of restaurants openly brag about having a 3,000-calorie "heart attack special" laced with straight lard and sugar. But coronary disease is no joke, and while most people don't worry about this stuff until they're old enough to have a kid in college, it's smart to pay attention to your ticker long before you require a Lipitor prescription.
Since there's a lot of information floating around about foods that'll supposedly stop your heart, we called up a legit cardiologist to set the record straight. Like any decent doc, Jeff Etherton stressed that everything in moderation is key. Eating a little bit of any of these foods won't kill you. Just don't go too crazy on the Chinese buffet.
At the risk of ruining state fairs forever, we have to break it to you that no fried food is actually heart-healthy. That's because they're so high in saturated and trans fats, two things that should comprise only a tiny amount of your diet. But the case against French fries is particularly damning. "What you’re doing is taking a pure chunk of carbohydrate and then you’re frying it and putting salt on it," Etherton explains. "The problem is our bodies do crave that sodium and fat. But it's good to substitute that stuff with healthier, plant-based snacks that are still delicious." Sadly, we already checked, and Cheetos don't count as vegetables.
Processed meats have enjoyed a terrible reputation among cardiologists pretty much since we figured out what that thumping thing in the middle of our chests was. And that's not for nothing -- that category of foods (which includes bacon, ham, and hot dogs) has been proven to increase your risk of heart failure. But contrary to popular belief, Etherton says bacon isn't the worst of the bunch. Sausage has a slight edge due to its higher saturated fat content, so you can feel marginally better about ordering a side of bacon strips over a side of sausage links for breakfast.
Red meats (plus pork!)
This is another case where people rag on it for a reason. Red meats have a considerable amount of cholesterol and saturated fat, as well as another terror called L-carnitine, which is why they make your doctor so nervous. Pros like Etherton advise patients to limit lean red meats to less than 10% of their average diet to play it safe, and don't think you can get away with replacing your porterhouse with a pork chop. "A lot of people say pork isn’t red, so you’re okay," Etherton says. "But it still has a lot of saturated fat, so you need to limit it as you would any red meat."
Potato and corn chips
There's a lot of stuff health experts hate about your chips. They're packed with carbs, sometimes high in trans fat, and, worst of all, swimming in sodium. And while your doctor is never going to be completely okay with a category of snacks literally dubbed junk food, Etherton recommends you read the labels so you can at least pick out a less gluttonous option. Also, maybe eat less than 10 servings in one sitting.
Soda bears the distinct honor of being the only item on this list to make our source straight-up sigh. "Sodas are really bad for you, they really are," Etherton says. "There’s between 50 and 60 grams of sugar in a standard soda. And that’s processed sugar." He would rather you drink some H20, but if you insist on more flavor, go with tea and honey.
Treats with tropical oils
You already know how to read a label for sugar and fat content, but one thing you should really look out for is the oils in the ingredient list. While Etherton says olive, canola, and sunflower oils are actually pretty excellent, tropical oils are the devil as far as your ticker is concerned. (Those include coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils.) Most potato chip companies ditched those guys years ago, but tropical oils are still present in some snacks, particularly packaged cakes and cookies.
Etherton cautions that even lighter Thai food can be stealthily unhealthy, but Chinese is the far guiltier takeout order. "Just look at something like General Tso's," he says. "It's got so much sodium and fat, plus it's fried." While that's an extreme example, the sodium levels in most Chinese food were concerning enough to merit an American Heart Association guide.
What fresh hell is this?! We didn't want to believe it either, but when we asked Etherton if the rumors about pizza were true, he couldn't lie: "The problem you run into with pizza is that it’s sort of like you’re being clobbered with large amounts of three items. The crust is high in carbs and sodium, and then, depending on cheese, it could have a fair amount of fat and sodium, and the sauce is usually prepared, so it’s also high in sodium. And that's not even counting whatever you put on it." He says you can undo some of the damage by ordering a whole-wheat crust pizza with olive oil, sliced tomatoes, and goat cheese, but we're too busy weeping into our pepperoni pie to hear him.
You probably picked up on the fact that sodium = bad in our chip discussion. But while most people know potato chips are full of the stuff, they tend to overlook another huge source: canned soups. Even those tiny cans of Campbell's that Andy Warhol worshipped can contain 600-800mg of sodium apiece. And while we're at it, canned veggies and the store-prepared meals in your supermarket are pretty potent sodium-bombs as well. We're usually tricked by these sodium sneak attacks because, as Etherton notes, "only 10% of the salt we eat comes from the shaker. The other 90% is hidden in the foods we eat." Which means that Morton girl was probably a covert operative in another life.
Butter-, mayo-, or sour cream-laden foods
Bad news for anyone modeling their lifestyle on Paula Deen's: butter is not great for you. (Also, you can't actually ride Emilio Estevez's hoodie strings.) Along with mayo and sour cream, it's a spread that's particularly high in saturated fat -- and all three have some cholesterol to consider, too. Just don't make the mistake of fully embracing margarine in its stead. "One of the tricky things is people say they’re going to substitute their butter for margarine," Etherton says. "But some margarines are high in saturated fat or trans fat. So they might not have cholesterol, but they have plenty of other stuff that's not great for you." Basically, be sure to choose your butter subs wisely. And don't let freakin' Fabio lead you astray.
Kristin Hunt is a Food/Drink staff writer for Thrillist, and hopes she has at least a few more years before she has to switch to goat cheese pizza. Follow her at @kristin_hunt.