7 Worst Junk Foods for Your Heart

Give your favorite dishes a healthy makeover to prevent heart disease.

burger, fries, remote, tv, television, fast food
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For many people, the worse a food is, the more likely they are to want it. But there's only so much junk food we can eat before it catches up with us (usually in the form of heart disease). The good news is, you don't have to swear off your favorite foods to keep your heart healthy. You just have to know how to make small changes in order to enjoy them in healthier ways. We've got strategies to lighten up seven of the worst junk foods for your heart so they can have a (small) place in your diet.

pizza, pizza slice, man eating pizza
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Worst Junk Food #1: Pizza

If you count pizza as its own food group, watch out. Cheese and pizza are the No. 1 and No. 2 sources of artery-clogging saturated fat in the American diet. One slice of extra-cheesy pizza can contain as much as two-thirds of your daily saturated fat limit. Nutrition expert Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, author of Read It Before You Eat It, offers these tips to lighten up your pizza: Top it with veggies instead of pepperoni and sausage. While you're at it, say "no" to breadsticks and "yes" to a side salad, and you're on the way to preventing heart disease.

pasta, alfredo, fettuccine
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Worst Junk Food #2: Fettuccine Alfredo

A Mediterranean diet isn't a license to gorge on pasta 24/7. Mounds of fettuccine are bad enough for the waistline, but there's nothing heart-healthy about Alfredo sauce. With only three ingredients (cream, butter, and cheese), the dish can contain 50 grams of saturated fat, which raises LDL (bad) cholesterol. To put that in perspective, an entire pint of Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby comes in at 40 grams. Love your pasta? Choose whole-grain noodles and keep the serving size to 1 cup. Add fresh, chopped herbs; vegetables sautéed in olive oil; and lean protein, such as beans or chicken.

sandwich, processed meat, lunchmeat, lunch meat
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Worst Junk Food #3: Submarine Sandwich

To many guys, the submarine sandwich is the world's most perfect food. It requires neither a stovetop nor utensils, and contains all the major food groups. That's where its virtues end. According to Taub-Dix, the monster sandwich supplies up to 6 servings of white bread, plus a quarter-pound (or more!) of cured meats. Researchers have found that eating just one serving of processed meat daily (one to two slices of deli meat) is associated with a 42 percent higher risk of heart disease and a 19 percent higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Turn your sandwich into a real heart hero by using whole-grain bread and roasted turkey or chicken breast.

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Worst Junk Food #4: Fast Food

Fast food is loaded with saturated fat and sodium (both of which contribute to heart disease), but its trans fat is even worse: It raises LDL (bad) cholesterol while lowering helpful HDL cholesterol. Food manufacturers love it because it has a long shelf life. Doctors hate it for the same reason. Since trans fat won't break down, it does an extra good job of clogging arteries. The Food and Drug Administration recommends no more than 1.11 g of trans fat per day, but some doctors say there's no safe amount. When you hit up the drive-thru, choose the grilled chicken sandwich and hold the fries. Go with fruit and yogurt instead.

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Worst Junk Food #5: Soda

Soda and diet soda are linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. According to Adam Bernstein, MD, ScD, research director at Cleveland Clinic's Wellness Institute, soft drinks are the biggest source of sugar in our diet. Guzzling large quantities of soda can cause a spike in blood sugar and lead to inflammation, insulin resistance, and hardening of the arteries. A better beverage choice when you want caffeine is unsweetened iced tea or coffee. If it's the carbonation you crave, try seltzer with a dash of fruit juice and a twist of lime, Taub-Dix says.

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Worst Junk Food #6: Big Pancake Breakfast

That large stack of pancakes with syrup is a plateful of refined carbohydrates that rapidly increases your blood sugar and harmful triglycerides to raise your risk of heart disease. Guys who binge on white-flour goods have a greater chance of sudden death from heart attack. (A small stack of pancakes delivers the equivalent of four servings of bread.) A better breakfast option is a whole-grain English muffin with ham and eggs. If you must eat flapjacks, make them with whole-grain flour, walnuts and berries, and go easy on the syrup.

burrito, burritos, tortilla
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Worst Junk Food #7: Big Ol' Burritos

Not all Mexican food is bad for your heart, but cheesy nachos and gargantuan burritos filled with steak, rice, sour cream, and cheese sure can be. It all comes down to how you dress your tortilla, Taub-Dix says. For a heart-healthy meal, choose chicken over steak, black beans over lard-filled refried beans, brown rice instead of white, and vegetable condiments such as salsa, pico de gallo and guacamole in place of sour cream and cheese. At home, try swapping sour cream for plain, low-fat Greek yogurt. If you don't trust yourself to make healthy substitutions when eating out, order the sizzling chicken or shrimp fajitas instead.

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