Heart-Healthy Labels: Are These Foods Really Good for Your Heart?
When you walk down your supermarket aisles or shop for groceries online, it’s common to see labels claiming that certain food products are healthy for your heart. From cereal, soups and applesauce to salad mixes, fish and poultry, people are influenced by what the labels say.
The question is: Do heart-healthy labels really represent foods that are good for your heart?
Since 1995, the American Heart Association has guided shoppers to make healthier choices with its Heart Check Mark Program, which provides certified heart-healthy labels on food products. Certification is based on FDA nutrition requirements that allow foods to make heart disease health claims. Not all labels can be trusted, though, says Aristotelis Vlahos, M.D., a cardiologist at Riverview Medical Center.
“I think labels are an effort by the industry to guide us toward making healthy choices,” he says. “Sometimes they’re valid and sometimes they’re just a marketing ploy.”
The keyword here is “guide,” because you still need to look at the full nutritional content of foods and beverages to ensure that the ingredients are healthy as advertised.
Eat This, Not That
Diet improvements can lower your risk for heart disease in many ways:
- Lower high cholesterol
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower blood sugar and insulin levels
- Prevent obesity
- Improve the function of your heart and blood vessels
Heart-healthy foods contain antioxidants, vitamins, monounsaturated fats and omega 3-fatty acids, and include:
- Leafy green vegetables
- Whole grains
- Fatty fish and fish oil
- Dark chocolate
Foods and beverages that aren’t heart-healthy contain high levels of sodium, nitrates, sugar and refined carbohydrates, and include:
- Processed meats (hotdogs, bacon and deli meats)
- White bread
- Sports drinks
Dr. Vlahos says the worst ingredients for your heart are sugar and sodium, which is why he urges everyone to look beyond the heart-healthy label to the nutritional content. These so-called sneaky ingredients exist in high levels in foods you wouldn’t expect. For example, ketchup, bread and canned soups can be are loaded with sugar and sodium, and people don’t even realize it. High-sugar and high-sodium diets can cause obesity, inflammation, and high triglyceride, blood sugar and blood pressure levels that contribute to heart disease.
“If you can get rid of those, you’re well ahead of the game,” Dr. Vlahos adds.
Family History Is Key
Genetics play a huge role in heart health, says Dr. Vlahos, who learns as much as he can about family history while treating patients. “Eighty percent is the result of genetics,” he says. “We can control some things in our lives, but not our genetics.”
Still, lifestyle is important, he notes, and you can control your diet and how often you exercise to help your heart and minimize health risks.
That doesn’t mean that you have to avoid fun foods altogether. “I’m not telling you that one piece of cheesecake or a regular Coke is going to kill you, but drinking a gallon of that every day is not a good idea. Just do it in moderation.”
Learn how Hackensack Meridian Health's cardiac experts never rest when it to comes to finding new and better ways to care for your heart. Dr. Vlahos practices in Tinton Falls. To make an appointment, call 732-741-7400.