5 ‘heart-healthy’ diet changes that can backfire

We all know that cheeseburgers, sugary sodas, candy, and deep-fried foods are bad for us.

So, like most people you may have made diet changes you thought were for the better… like less red meat and more chicken… swapping butter for margarine… and generally cutting back on the fat and sugar.

But are those changes as healthy as you think?

Let’s find out. Here are 5 foods you may have thought were fine that you may be surprised to learn are not as good for you as you think…

1. Chicken

People assume that switching from beef to chicken will make a big difference in their cholesterol levels.

Truth is, chicken and beef contain fairly similar levels of saturated fat, likely because modern farming methods have led to plumper chickens.  In fact, studies have shown that chickens today contain as much as 10 times the fat compared to chickens from a century ago.

We should probably be looking at all meat as meat – no matter whether red or white, light or dark, or what the source – and try to cut back on it in general.

An easy way to cut back is to simply switch the proportion of the items on your plate.  Instead of having meat with vegetables, have vegetables with meat.  It’s a subtle shift, but if you’re a reader of this blog you already know that small sustained dietary changes are incredibly powerful when it comes to improving health.

2. Bread

Did you know that bread is one of the top contributors of sodium in our diets?

A plain bagel can clock in at 450 mg – that’s about 1/3 of the total sodium you should have in a whole day if you’re trying to keep your blood pressure readings under control.

In addition, many types of bread are made with grains stripped of their most nutritious components (like the bran, germ, and endosperm) leaving just the starch.  This makes bread very easy to digest, leading to blood sugar spikes and, eventually, worsening cholesterol profiles.

Not all bread is bad — but you have to be really choosy and eat it in moderation — like favoring open-faced sandwiches and avoiding the bread basket when eating out.

Related: 8 ways to eat out without sabotaging your diet

And just because a bread is dark in color or contains the word “wheat” in its name does not make it automatically good for you.

Look for the words “whole grain” on the wrap and visible grains and seeds throughout the slice. Also, choose the higher fiber content listed on the nutrition label — aiming for at least 3 grams of fiber per 100 calories.

3. Margarine

Lauded as a great substitute for butter, margarine was pushed for years as the healthier spread.  Turns out, many margarines are WORSE than butter in terms of their health effects.

That’s because they’re composed of hydrogenated oils.  And the chemical process of hydrogenation creates trans fats.

Trans fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower HDL (good) cholesterol, and are highly pro-inflammatory.  About the worst possible combination of biochemical results for someone trying to reduce their risk of heart disease.  And more toxic than the saturated fat in butter.

Margarines that are solid at room temperatures are especially high in trans fats.  Ones that become oils at room temp are better.  But that begs the question — why not just use a little of the original oil instead?

Olive oil is a staple of the healthy Mediterranean diet and contains no saturated or trans fats.  Another great substitute for butter is avocado.  Yum!

4. Skim Milk

It may be a good source of calcium and free of saturated fat, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a perfect beverage.

Presented as a lower calorie version of fat-containing milk, this attribute does not seem to translate into weight loss.  In fact, people who drink skim milk tend to weigh more. That’s probably because taking the fat out of milk makes it much less satiating.

It also makes it harder to absorb the vitamins contained in milk.  Those vitamins (A, D, E and K) are fat soluble, which means they need fat in order to be absorbed by the body.

Milk, regardless of fat content, is also a high-calorie beverage containing between 90 to 150 of them per cup.  That rivals the calorie content of sugary soda. If you’re trying to lose weight, reducing the caloric impact of your beverages – by choosing water most of the time – can be the easiest way to shed pounds for good.

By the way, almonds, broccoli, kale, oranges, beans, edamame, figs, and canned salmon are just some of the many non-milk sources of calcium.

5. Diet Soda

It might not contain any sugar and be calorie free, but diet soda can still mess with your biochemistry.

Recent studies have revealed that the artificial sweeteners in diet soda can affect the gut biome, leading to easier weight gain and a predilection to developing diabetes. If you missed the Step One Foods blog about this topic, you can find it here.

So what to do now?

Besides choosing water as your beverage of choice, whenever you can, purposefully add in those items you KNOW are good for you — like fresh fruits and vegetables.

And remember this simple piece of advice when in doubt: Eat real (meaning whole) food. Not too much. Mostly plants (includes fruit).

If you do that, it will automatically help crowd out the items that are less healthful, which is one of our goals at Step One Foods.


  1. Switching from Beef to Chicken & Fish May Not Lower Cholesterol — NutritionFacts.org
Dr. Elizabeth Klodas MD, FACC

By Dr. Elizabeth Klodas MD, FACC

"Diet is a major driver of high cholesterol, but instead of changing the food, we prescribe medications. This never seemed logical to me.” Dr. Klodas has dedicated her career to preventive cardiology. Trained at Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins, she is the founder and Chief Medical Officer for Step One Foods. Dr. Klodas is a nationally sought out speaker and has an active role at the American College of Cardiology. Her clinical interests include prevention of heart disease and non-invasive cardiac imaging and she has published dozens of scientific articles throughout her career. Dr. Klodas has been featured on CNN Health for her mission to change how heart disease is treated. An independent study performed at leading medical institutions affirmed the ability of Step One Foods to deliver measurable and meaningful cholesterol-reduction benefits in the real world. The results of the trial were presented at the 2018 American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions. Dr. Klodas has also authored a book for patients, "Slay the Giant: The Power of Prevention in Defeating Heart Disease," and served as founding Editor-in-Chief of the patient education effort of the American College of Cardiology. In addition to her practice and her duties at Step One Foods, she also serves as medical editor for webMD.