The American Heart Association recently published updated dietary guidance to promote heart health. The recommendations, published in November, are focused on emphasizing the importance of healthy dietary patterns rather than focusing on individual foods, nutrients, or calorie counts.
That means instead of insisting that patients eat particular foods and avoid others, the guidelines aim to be realistic by recognizing that people have different food preferences and ethnic backgrounds–but that overall, there are features of a heart healthy diet that everyone should try to incorporate.
The benefits of a heart healthy diet can’t be overstated. When people eat too many highly processed foods, fried foods, or sugary foods, their risk of heart disease increases. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, causing about 1 in 4 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, diabetes, and obesity are health conditions that increase the risk of heart disease–and all are connected to what we eat.
Poor diet can also increase your risk for fatty liver disease, kidney disease, stroke, and other medical conditions.
Here is an overview of the American Heart Association’s recommendations and tips for incorporating them into your diet. The good news? You can eat just about anything, but eating certain foods in moderation can help improve your overall health.
Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.
Be active! The standard recommendation is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise over the course of the week. Many people aim for 30 minutes, five days a week. Regardless of how you break it up, find an activity you enjoy. Bring a friend or family member with you for more fun. And remember, ten minutes of exercise three times a day is just as helpful as 30 minutes once a day.
Eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.
Whether fresh, frozen, canned, or dried, fruits and vegetables are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. If you don’t like vegetables, push yourself to try one new vegetable a week until you find something you find tasty. Keep fruit visible, perhaps in a bowl on the counter, so it’s ready to grab and enjoy. Check labels to make sure there’s no salt or sugar added, particularly those that come in a can.
Choose foods made mostly with whole grains rather than refined grains.
Try whole grain pasta and whole grain bread. You may not even taste the difference, but you will be improving your heart health.
Choose healthy sources of protein.
Lean proteins, such as chicken and fish, are a great choice. Remember not to fry them because that will minimize the health benefits. Legumes and nuts are also good sources of protein. Two to three servings of fish per week can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Aim for low-fat or fat-free dairy products instead of full-fat dairy products. Try skim or 1 percent milk rather than whole milk, for example. Look for low-fat cheese and yogurt. Try to limit processed forms of meat, such as sausage and deli meat.
Remember, some fat is vital to our health and brain function. The omega 3-fatty acids found in foods such as salmon, avocados, and walnuts help minimize inflammation in the body and support overall health.
Choose minimally processed foods.
Ultra-processed foods are associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Use liquid plant oils rather than tropical oils, animal fats, and partially hydrogenated fats.
Soybean oil, olive oil, canola oil, and sunflower oil are examples of oils to include in your cooking. Coconut oil, palm oil, butter, and lard should be limited.
Minimize drinking beverages with added sugars.
Avoid soda and choose water instead. Keep water near you to help you stay hydrated and feel full throughout the day.
If you don’t drink alcohol, don’t start, and if you do drink alcohol, do so in moderation.
I recommend no more than one alcoholic beverage per day for women, and no more than two per day for men. Remember, alcohol contains sugar too.
Take a holistic, gradual approach.
The American Heart Association recommends sticking to these recommendations regardless of where food is prepared. So keep these tips in mind whether eating at home or dining out.
I recommend starting by making small changes to your diet, and incorporating this advice bit by bit. Before making any significant changes, talk to your primary care physician for guidance.
It’s never too early–or too late–to start making changes in your diet. I recommend parents be good role models for their children so that kids adopt healthy eating habits early in life. Childhood obesity continues to be a problem in our country, so helping children develop healthy eating habits is vital for their long-term health. That means candy, salty snacks, and sugary juices on occasion. Involve children in grocery shopping and cooking.
Remember that improving your diet is only one way to improve your overall health. Being physically active plays a key role, as does getting adequate sleep. Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep a night. Good sleep hygiene–going to bed and waking up the same time every day; avoiding screens an hour before bed; keeping the room cool–can help improve duration and quality of sleep.
The bottom line?
It’s okay to enjoy food but keep a balance. About half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables, about a quarter should be grains, and a quarter should be protein.
So many chronic diseases are related to what we eat. If we improve our diets–and commit to getting adequate exercise and sleep–we can improve our overall health. It’s worth the work!
Liliana Gomez-Medley, MD, is a board-certified family medicine and obesity medicine physician with the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. She sees patients at the Kaiser Permanente Falls Church Medical Center, where she also manages the lifestyle medicine clinic.
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