Can one indulgent meal hurt your heart?

November 29, 2022 | by Michael Brottman, M.D.
Categories: Healthy Driven Hearts

Whether we’re talking about regular trips to the fast food drive thru or indulgent holiday meals with family and friends, we know it’s more challenging for the body to process heavy meals full of saturated fats and sugar, than it is for it to digest healthier meals.

But does the occasional unhealthy meal do damage or increase risk of heart-related problems? And what’s the difference for our bodies when we compare the occasional unhealthy meal to the impact made by long-term poor eating habits?

The majority of American diets include more than the recommended amount of calories from added sugars, refined grains, sodium and saturated fats. Additionally, on average, Americans eat less fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats than they should. Whether frequent or not, unhealthy eating can affect your heart.

The impact of one bad meal. When you choose to indulge — and we all do sometimes — your body works harder to process a meal that contains more fat, sugar and salt than it’s used to. One study suggests the stress an indulgent meal places on the heart may quadruple heart attack risk in the first two hours after the meal. This increased risk may be related to changes in the ability of blood vessels to dilate or expand as needed, or to an increase in blood pressure during digestion.

Before you make plans to stop indulging completely, note that the amount of increased risk to your heart is believed to be about the same as having sexual intercourse or experiencing intense feelings of anger. Currently, there’s not a lot of definitive research on the exact amount of increased heart-related risk from just one unhealthy meal.

Chronically poor eating habits. It’s a very different story when we look at the impact of chronically poor nutrition. Study after study on diets laden with saturated fats, sugar and salt from meals made with lower-quality ingredients demonstrate increased risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes.

Consuming these foods regularly can increase weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides over time, all of which can take a toll on your heart. In fact, research says nearly half of the annual deaths related to heart disease, stroke and diabetes can be attributed to chronically poor eating habits.

Remember, the phrase “poor eating habits” refers to more than just foods we consume, but also those that we don’t consume often enough. As you think about how to improve your overall diet, find ways to increase intake of fresh vegetables and fruits, fish, whole grains and legumes, as well as healthy fats like those that come from nuts, seeds, avocado and olive oil.

The bottom line. It’s normal and acceptable to enjoy an indulgent meal from time to time, just don’t make it a regular occurrence. Don’t think of a bad meal as cheating, but rather as a “conscious indulgence.”

As long as you follow a healthy diet 90 percent of the time, you can have a “conscious indulgence” two to three times a week. If you focus on eating heart-healthy meals, rich in vegetables, fruits and good fats that nourish your body and help maintain your weight on most days, then you can enjoy your occasional indulgence.

Learn more about healthy eating and get healthy recipes.

To find out if you’re at risk for heart disease, take an online HeartAware assessment. You can also call 630-527-2800 to schedule a heart scan or make an appointment online.

Learn more about heart and vascular services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.


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