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Which Medicines and Foods Should a Heart Patient Avoid?

Learn what’s okay and what’s not for your heart health

Foods that are not healthy for heart patients, including fried chicken, French fries, hamburgers, pizza, onion rings.

Learn what’s okay and what’s not for your heart health

People with heart conditions, such as coronary artery disease, may need to pay extra attention to what they eat and drink, as well as medications they take.


“Diet is a major factor in cholesterol, sodium (salt) levels, and weight — and all three of these contribute to cardiovascular disease and overall health,” David Cork, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines.


“Highly processed foods and foods high in saturated fat can increase harmful cholesterol, while high sodium boosts blood pressure. Both elevation of cholesterol and blood pressure can raise the risk of heart disease and stroke.”


Some medications, even those available over the counter, have side effects that can be potentially dangerous for heart patients or interfere with other drugs.

Foods and drinks to watch out for

People with heart disease or other cardiac conditions should try to avoid (or at least minimize) their intake of the following foods and drinks:

Processed meats

Processed meat is meat treated by salting, curing, smoking or adding chemical preservatives; examples include bacon, sausage, jerky, hot dogs and deli meat. Processing meat often adds significant amounts of salt to meats that are already high in saturated fat.


A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition1 found that eating 150 grams (just over 5 ounces) or more of processed meat weekly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease by 46% and the risk of death by 50%.

Red meat

Though not as bad as processed meats, beef, lamb and other red meats are high in saturated fat. Choose lean cuts of meat or, better yet, lean poultry or fish.

High-fat dairy

Whole milk, butter and cream are also high in saturated fat. Replace butter with olive oil-based spreads and opt for low-fat or nonfat milk and cream. Avoid nondairy creamers, which may also have high fat content.

Refined grains

Refined grains, such as white rice, white bread and pasta, have had the healthy fiber removed, along with some vitamins and minerals. Further, they can be high in sugar and have been associated with an elevated glycemic index, which can promote increased insulin use and in turn, body weight


A diet high in refined grains can lead to belly fat, which has been associated with heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Whole grains are a much healthier option; look for “100% whole grain” on labels.

Fried foods

French fries and other deep-fried foods are packed with fat and salt. Try using an air fryer for the fried taste and texture without the harmful effects.

Packaged meals and snacks

Frozen dinners and desserts, chips, crackers, cookies and baked goods can all be high in sodium and sugar; check the sodium and sugar content on the labels before consuming. 


“Making an effort to eat whole, unprocessed food can pay dividends with regards to body weight optimization and optimizing health,” Dr. Cork says.

Alcohol

If you drink alcohol, talk to your doctor about how many drinks are acceptable. Excessive alcohol intake can lead to high blood pressure and stroke, along with liver problems.


“Keep in mind that your overall dietary pattern is critically important to achieving your optimal health,” says Dr. Cork.


”You can enjoy a variety of foods, including snacks and alcohol, but moderation is advised, and a focus on consuming unprocessed foods can benefit patients with weight reduction, blood pressure optimization and improved blood cholesterol levels.”

Over-the-counter medications to avoid

Some drugs sold over the counter may be safe for most people, but can be risky for heart patients. Talk to your doctor before taking any of the following:

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS)

In addition to relieving pain, NSAIDS, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, Advil, Motrin or Aleve, can thin the blood. If you already take blood thinners to lower the risk of blood clots and stroke, you should not take NSAIDs. Tylenol is usually an acceptable option, but check with your doctor first.

Cold and cough medicines with decongestants

Many cold medicines contain NSAIDs. Some also have decongestants, which can raise blood pressure and heart rate, and may interfere with some heart medications.

Antibiotics

Certain antibiotics, including azithromycin (Z-Pak) or levofloxacin, may disrupt the heart’s electrical activity. Heart patients should check with their doctor before using any antibiotics. 

Antihistamines

If you’re taking medication to treat high blood pressure, antihistamine medications for colds or allergies could cause a spike in blood pressure.

When to check with your cardiologist

“If a doctor other than your cardiologist recommends an over-the-counter or prescription medication, make sure they know what heart conditions you have and what other medications you are taking,” says Dr. Cork. “And never hesitate to consult with your cardiologist before you take a new medication.”