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Heart-Healthy Substitutes for Unhealthy Foods

Heart-healthy substitutes to unhealthy foods

Your heart is the center of your circulatory system, delivering oxygen-rich blood to every other organ in your body so they can function correctly. So, it’s key to keep your heart healthy, as your whole body depends on it

Since your diet is one of the most significant contributing factors to your heart health, we’ve compiled some heart-healthy substitutes to unhealthy foods below so your heart can stay strong for the rest of your body. 

Heart-Healthy Substitutes for Unhealthy Foods

Most foods affect your heart health in either a positive or a negative way. For example, most vegetables are excellent for your heart, whereas processed foods are often hard on your heart. 

Here are some foods that affect heart health and substitutes to help you make the most heart-healthy choices with your diet.

Saturated and Trans Fats

There are healthy fats, and there are unhealthy fats. Healthy fats provide energy and support cellular function. Too many unhealthy fats can negatively affect your heart health. While unsaturated and omega-3, -6 and -9 fatty acids are healthy, saturated and trans fats are not. 

Both trans and saturated fats raise your LDL cholesterol levels, sometimes called “bad” cholesterol. Trans fats can also lower your HDL cholesterol levels, or your “good” cholesterol. 

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting your saturated fat consumption and eliminating trans fats from your diet as much as possible. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends keeping your saturated fat intake below 10% of your calorie consumption

In contrast, the AHA suggests adults who need to lower their bad cholesterol levels keep their saturated fat intake below 6%. For a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, 10% would be approximately 22 grams of fat, while 6% would be around 11 to 13 grams. 

While there is some debate on the impact saturated fats have on heart health, trans fats are unquestionably bad for your heart. Simply put, your body has no use for trans fats. Trans fats form when vegetable oils solidify at room temperature, a process known as hydrogenation. These fats are often used as preservatives in processed foods to keep them fresh for more extended periods. 

Substitutes for Foods With Trans and Saturated Fats

Foods that are high in trans and saturated fats and their substitutes include:

  • Full-fat cheese: An ounce of full-fat cheese contains approximately six grams of saturated fat. Depending on your cholesterol health, that ounce accounts for one-third to one-half of your recommended daily intake of saturated fat. Thus, full-fat cheese is a hefty saturated fat. Some heart-healthy substitutes for full-fat cheese are nutritional yeast, reduced-fat cheese or vegan cheese sourced from healthy fats like nuts or beans. 
  • Fatty cuts of red meat: While all red meat is high in saturated fat, lean and grass-fed beef contains reduced levels of saturated fat than grain-fed beef. High red meat consumption is also linked with coronary heart disease. Choose well-sourced lean beef and limit your portion sizes. If you are looking for heart-healthy alternatives to red meat, skinless poultry has lower levels of saturated fat, while fish is an excellent source of omega-3, -6 and -9 fatty acids. 
  • Mayonnaise: An ounce of mayonnaise contains 3 grams of saturated fat, or 15% of your daily value, with little nutritional value. Some healthier options include smashed avocado, hummus, pesto or low-fat Greek yogurt. 
  • Eggs: A single, large egg contains 1.6 to 2 grams of saturated fat, depending on the cooking method. However, due to the many nutritional benefits of eggs, the best practice is to eat eggs in moderation. The general recommendation is an average of one egg per day for healthy adults and four eggs per week for adults with high LDL cholesterol levels. 
  • Processed foods: Processed foods are a significant source of trans fats. These include frozen pizzas and other ready-to-eat meals. Many fast-food restaurants also use highly processed foods. Try to eat fresh or frozen food without preservatives as much as possible. Be mindful of the ingredients in the food you buy to limit how much processed food you eat.


Salt is a staple for many. It has a unique ability to bring out the best flavor in most dishes. It also benefits our bodies in important ways. Salt is composed of 40% sodium and 60% chloride. Our bodies need sodium to maintain proper nerve and muscle function. That means some salt intake is necessary for our health. 

Too much salt can harm your heart health, and most people eat too much salt. The daily recommended value of sodium is less than 2,300 milligrams per day, but the average American consumes around 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day. High-sodium diets are linked with an increased risk of high blood pressure, a key contributing factor to stroke and heart disease. 

Salt and Sodium Substitutes

For those who swear by salt as they cook, the good news is that over 70% of our sodium intake comes from processed and pre-packaged foods. In such foods, salt is used as a preservative. The most effective way to limit your sodium consumption is by steering clear of highly processed foods, from fast food to canned goods. 

You can also limit your sodium intake by using other flavor boosters, so you do not rely as heavily on salt. Some alternatives include:

  • Basil
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Chilis
  • Citrus fruits, like lemons and limes
  • Cumin
  • Garlic and onion
  • Ginger
  • Paprika
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Vinegars like apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar

Refined Carbohydrates

Like cholesterol and fats, some carbohydrates are good while others are bad. Good carbohydrates are known as whole carbohydrates, while the bad ones are refined carbohydrates. Whole carbohydrates contain natural fibers and are minimally processed, while refined carbs are heavily processed with altered or removed natural fibers. 

Beyond good and bad, there are three types of carbohydrates — sugars, starches and fibers. Sugars are simple carbs, as they give the body a quick boost of energy without much nutritional value. Starches and fibers are complex carbs because your body digests or breaks them down slowly and uses their nutritional value over a longer period. 

Whole carbohydrates are complex carbs, and refined carbohydrates are simple carbs. But not all simple carbs are refined, as some natural sugars contain vitamins and minerals that our bodies need. These natural sugars are mainly found in fruit, known as fructose. 

That said, some examples of whole carbohydrates include:

  • Vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Quinoa
  • Potatoes
  • Oats
  • Beans
  • Whole grains

In contrast, here are some common types of refined carbs:

  • Breads, doughs, pastries and tortillas containing white flour
  • Corn syrup
  • Refined sugar
  • White rice
  • Jams
  • Milk chocolate

Heart-Healthy Substitutes for Refined Carbs

Given the examples of whole and refined carbohydrates, here are some heart-healthy substitutes to help you consume fewer refined carbs:

  • Swap out burritos for bowls that don’t use tortillas or chips.
  • Use corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas.
  • Replace pasta with spaghetti squash or zucchini noodles.
  • Spread mashed avocado, banana or almond butter on your toast instead of jam.
  • Use riced cauliflower instead of white rice.
  • Eat dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate.
  • Use natural sweeteners like cinnamon, vanilla extract or dates in baking.
  • Snack on dried fruit instead of candies and sweets.
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Modern Heart and Vascular, a preventive cardiology medical practice, has several offices around Houston. We have locations in Humble, Cleveland, The Woodlands, Katy, and Livingston.

We are Modern Heart and Vascular Institute, a diagnostic and preventative medicine cardiology practice.

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At the Modern Heart and Vascular Institute, we offer state-of-the-art cardiovascular care with innovative diagnostic tools and compassionate patient care. Our priority at Modern Heart and Vascular Institute is prevention. We help patients lead healthier lives by avoiding unnecessary procedures and surgeries.

Contact us online to learn more and book an appointment. If you’d like to learn more about our practice, read our providers’ bios.

This article does not provide medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need cardiovascular care, please call us at 832-644-8930.

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