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8 Surprising Facts About Heart Disease

We're going to shock you with astonishing facts about the top health threat to women. Because what you don't know about heart disease really can hurt you.
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Illustration by Lorenzo Petrantoni

1. Sugar is the new salt.
Unfortunately, what's good for your sweet tooth is bad for your heart. "Excess sugar adheres to proteins in your blood, causing them to be thick or sticky," explains Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., coauthor of The Great Cholesterol Myth. "Those proteins get lodged in your arteries, which can eventually lead to inflammation, plaque buildup and other serious risks for heart attack."

The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar intake (that's the kind that doesn't naturally occur in food) to 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 for men—less than what you'd find in a single bottle of sweetened iced tea. However, Bowden suggests restraining yourself even more. "Sugar is the most destructive ingredient in the American diet, but it's impossible to avoid completely," he admits. Start by committing to these smart habits: Don't add sugar to coffee or tea, skip eating sugary breakfasts and snacks, avoid drinking sodas and juices, and try not to overindulge in breads and pastas. The sweet stuff also is found in unlikely places, like ketchup and jarred tomato sauce, granola, baked beans, packaged oatmeal and dried fruit, so read nutrition labels and check ingredients lists carefully.

2. The flu shot cuts your risk in half.
Protecting yourself against an acute respiratory infection (which often accompanies influenza) might also offer defense against plaque in the arteries, heart attack and stroke.

3. Comfort food can be good for your heart.
Guilty pleasures like burgers and pizza are go-tos when you need to get dinner on the table fast or the kids are having a bad day. But they're also dietary land mines thanks to their high saturated fat and sodium content. "What you buy and how you prepare food is the difference between preventing heart disease and causing it," says Janet Bond Brill, R.D., author of the best-selling book Cholesterol Down. These simple substitutions can make comfort food healthy and delicious.

Fish and Chips

  • Bake your fish. Packed with lean protein, white fish like cod, halibut, flounder or haddock are great, but people who eat fried fish more than once a week have a 44% greater risk of stroke than those who rarely fry their fish.
  • Swap sweet potatoes for white potatoes, use extra virgin olive oil to roast them and sprinkle with fresh rosemary, cinnamon or other herbs and spices instead of salt for flavor.

The difference?

  • A medium order of fast-food fish and chips (Jack in the Box): approximately 830 calories, 1,680mg sodium, 4g saturated fat
  • One 4-ounce wedge of oven-baked cod and a serving of eight sweet potato "chips": 358 calories, 153mg sodium, 2.5g saturated fat

Pepperoni Pizza

  • Opt for a whole-grain crust instead of one made with white flour. The fiber in the whole grains improves digestive health. And choose a thin crust, not deep-dish.
  • Load it with veggies like eggplant, spinach, bell peppers and broccoli instead of pepperoni. You'll significantly increase the vitamin and mineral power of your pizza as well as up your intake of powerful disease-fighting antioxidants and fiber.
  • "Ask for half the cheese and extra sauce to reduce the amount of fat and up the antioxidants from the tomatoes," says Brill.

The difference?

  • One slice of a 12-inch thin-crust pepperoni pizza: 200 calories, 610mg sodium, 4g saturated fat
  • One slice of a 12-inch thin-crust vegetable pizza: 180 calories, 530mg sodium, 3g saturated fat

Cheeseburgers

  • Replace beef with ground turkey breast or salmon. If beef burgers are all your family will eat, make sure to use 95% ground beef, which usually has the least fat.
  • Or opt for veggie burgers, but read the label. Some have as much as 1,000mg of sodium, which is two-thirds the American Heart Association's recommended daily amount. Consider Dr. Praeger's California veggie burgers or MorningStar Farms' spicy black bean burgers. They have between 250 and 350mg of sodium per patty.
  • Pair your burger with a slice of low-fat or soy cheese and eat it on a whole-grain bun.

The difference?

  • One 8-ounce beef burger: 530 calories, 200mg sodium, 14g saturated fat
  • Two 4-ounce salmon burgers: 340 calories, 660mg sodium, 2g saturated fat
  • Two 4-ounce ground turkey burgers: 280 calories, 540mg sodium, 2g saturated fat
  • Two 3-ounce veggie burgers: 200 calories, 560mg sodium, 0g saturated fat