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Effects of Saturated Fat, Sugar, and Sodium on Your Heart

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Heart filled with unhealthy foods

Heart disease affects approximately 85 million Americans. Diet and exercise are the gold standard for heart health and overall health in general, but what is a heart-healthy diet? To help navigate eating heart healthy, it is important to look at what nutrients are limited and why.
Saturated fat, sugar and sodium are three major nutrients that, in excess, can be detrimental to our heart. Here is a look into these nutrients, how they affect our body and nutrition tips based on the most current scientific research.
Saturated Fat          
Saturated fat is the first nutrient that comes to mind when thinking about heart health. For a long time it has been linked to increasing LDL cholesterol, commonly referred to as “bad” cholesterol. Our bodies package saturated fat into LDL particles so it can be “shipped in our blood” for cells to use as energy or fat storage. When there is an excess of particles, they cycle around in the blood waiting to be used. The saturated fat can end up making its way into the vessel walls, causing inflammation and damage to our blood vessels. It is this inflammation that leads to the development of plaque.
While the research behind this process and saturated fats has been controversial, the evidence still strongly recommends lowering saturated fats in the diet by replacing them with unsaturated fats and complex carbohydrates. American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting saturated fats to 5-6 percent of total daily calories.
Tips to reduce saturated fat:

  • Choose low-fat dairy products such as 1% milk or low-fat cheese

  • Choose lean meats such as fish and poultry more often

  • Remove the skin from chicken

  • Use oils such as olive oil in cooking instead of butter

  • Snack on nuts, which are rich in unsaturated fats (be mindful of serving size)

Sugar is increasingly being associated with heart disease, but first it is important to note there are two main types of sugars, also known as (carbs):

  • Complex carbs – found naturally in whole grains, legumes and some fruits

  • Simple carbs/sugars – occur naturally in some fruits, but are primarily in added sugars, high fructose corn syrup and “processed” foods made with these ingredients

Consuming too much simple sugar is associated with weight gain and can increase risk of serious health problems. Persistent high blood sugar damages the blood vessels, which causes inflammation. AHA recommends women have no more than 6 teaspoons daily of sugar (equal to 25 grams) and men have no more than 9 teaspoons daily (equal to 37 grams).
Tips to reduce simple sugars:

  • Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables

  • Cut out sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas

  • Use moderate amounts of sugar-containing condiments such as jelly, honey, ketchup and salad dressing

  • Make fruit your sweet treat instead of a dessert

Sodium is a mineral we primarily get from salt. It is important for our body to function, as sodium is involved in muscle contractions, nerve impulses and fluid balance. Excessive amounts of salt in our diet can lead to high blood pressure and damage the heart. Sodium causes us to hold on to water, increasing the blood volume.  The higher volume raises blood pressure and increases the work of the heart. AHA recommends limiting sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams a day (equal to 1 teaspoon of salt).
Tips to reduce salt/sodium intake:

  • Eat less processed foods such as chips and deli meats

  • Replace high-sodium condiments such as salad dressing with olive oil and vinegar

  • When eating out, ask for condiments on the side

  • Try salt-free seasonings such as herbs, spices and lemon juice to add flavor to your food

For more information about Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services, visit or call 972.560.2655.

Article provided by Ellee Ellison, Texas A&M University student, and Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services.