If you’re like most of my patients, you already have a good grasp on the fundamentals of eating heart-healthy. Whole grains, leafy greens, fresh fruit, beans and nuts? Good for your heart. Fast food, soft drinks, fried or processed meats, sugary sweets? Bad for your heart.
But it doesn’t take much to shake our confidence in what we know. Myths can spring up around the health benefits (or detriments) of certain foods. New scientific research can get misinterpreted or cherry-picked by online health and wellness influencers. Sometimes all it takes is a YouTube ad shouting at us to “stop eating X!”
It also doesn’t help that sometimes the best and worst foods for your heart… are the same food, just in different forms! Let’s talk about three of the most common — and confusing — foods:
Science has gone back and forth on whether coffee is good for your heart. Coffee does contain antioxidants (namely polyphenols and hydrocinnamic acids) that can have a beneficial effect on our HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) and inflammation. But those benefits are canceled out if we drink too much coffee. The caffeine from multiple cups can also cause heart palpitations, not to mention tummy troubles such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Studies show that moderate consumption of coffee is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease; I’d recommend limiting yourself to 1–2 cups of coffee per day, taken either black or with a small amount of cream. Do not add sugar. Instead, try adding a dash of cinnamon. It adds a wonderful flavor (especially during these cold months) and packs its own potent punch of heart-healthy antioxidants.
Adding to the coffee confusion is the fact that we all take our coffee differently. Remember what I just said about cream and sugar? Well, if you’re fond of coffee chains like Starbucks and their seasonal procession of pumpkin spice lattes, peppermint mocha lattes, Irish cream cold brews and so on, your coffee is getting buried under a LOT of cream and sugar.
Processed sugar increases our risk of heart disease, and a grande-sized pistachio latte, for example, contains 45 grams of it. That can be more sugar than a typical glazed donut. The next time you go to a coffee shop, I suggest ordering black coffee and adding a dash of cinnamon. If you add any cream, make sure to do it yourself and go light.
Tomatoes get their deep red color from a pigment known as lycopene. This powerful antioxidant helps prevent damage and inflammation that can contribute to heart disease. Adding tomato slices to your sandwiches or salads can have positive effects on your blood pressure.
It’s hard to shake the image we form in childhood of ketchup just being liquid tomatoes. However, the dominant ingredient in store-bought ketchup is not tomatoes but processed sugar such as corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup. The “tomatoes,” meanwhile, are usually tomato concentrate and not actual produce.
A tablespoon of ketchup may contain as much sugar as a chocolate chip cookie. If you need to use ketchup, make sure it doesn’t have high-fructose corn syrup. One way to ensure this is to make your own.
Coconut water is the liquid found in the center of a young, green coconut. (This is not to be confused with coconut milk, which is made by adding water to the grated meat of a coconut.) Loaded with electrolytes and naturally sweet, coconut water became a full-blown health craze around 2010, when celebrities such as Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow made it their post-gym hydration of choice.
Coconut water deserves to be more than a fad, though. Try some after your next workout (or if you’re just feeling thirsty). Just make sure it contains no added sugar, sweeteners or flavoring. If you have kidney disease, be sure to discuss with your doctor first.
If you’ve seen anything on social media or elsewhere about the alleged health benefits of using coconut oil for cooking, you should know that those claims have so far been largely unsupported by scientific study. In fact, coconut oil is sky-high in saturated fat; think butter and then add another 50%. Coconut oil fans may assert that some of those fats (the medium-chain trigylcerides) raise HDL cholesterol, but only a small amount of coconut oil’s fatty acids is medium-chain. In truth, coconut oil raises both the good and the bad kinds of cholesterol.
Unless a significant body of research changes our understanding of coconut oil, I would recommend cooking with olive oil or just plain water instead.
Talk to your primary care doctor or cardiologist about what you can eat to stay heart-healthy. Don’t have one? Find an AMITA Health doctor near you
Ways to Give
For Patients & Visitors
Billing & Insurance
For Healthcare Professionals