Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, making it a significant public health concern.1 Everyone should be aware of their heart health and the impact dietary choices can have. A heart healthy lifestyle, including diet, can help lower your risk of developing heart disease.

What is a Heart Healthy Diet?

A heart healthy diet used to be only focused on reducing fat, but that recommendation has changed in recent years. The American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association’s guidelines for reducing blood cholesterol and managing heart disease recommends a diet low in saturated fats, processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and sugar. You might notice that they no longer recommend reducing dietary cholesterol, as it has been found to have little impact on blood cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.2,3 

The current guidelines recommend emphasizing vegetables, fruits, low-fat protein, legumes, and heart healthy fats. These guidelines align more with the foods allowed on the Mediterrean diet, known as one of the healthiest diets in the world. The Mediterranean diet has been found to reduce the risk of heart disease, as well as other conditions such as diabetes and cancer. The Mediterranean diet is rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and monounsaturated fats, which may be why it is associated with a lower risk of disease.4

The Mediterranean diet focuses on including whole, naturally occurring, fresh foods rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients. The bulk of the diet is mostly vegetables, whole grains, and fresh fruits. Protein comes primarily from fish, shellfish, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Extra virgin olive oil is used liberally as a source of fat. The diet may also include moderate amounts of dairy products and poultry. 

The Mediterranean diet limits red meat, refined carbohydrates, processed foods, concentrated sugars, and artificial ingredients. 

There is also a lifestyle that goes along with the Mediterranean diet. People who live in this region of the world tend to focus more on sourcing food locally. They also have deep social ties and enjoy leisurely meals together. This slower lifestyle is also believed to play a role in the lower rates of heart disease seen in this part of the world.

A diet for heart health should be a lifelong journey, not a quick fix. Healthy eating patterns throughout life help protect the heart and lower your overall risk of disease. If you want to start eating for the health of your heart, a few simple changes to make include:

  • Using olive oil in sauteing or low-heat cooking. 
  • Reducing your intake of high fat red meat and processed meats.
  • Eating 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
  • Swapping out refined grains for whole grains.
  • Cooking at home more often.
  • Limiting sugar and processed foods. 

Focusing on eating as many whole foods as possible can help protect the health of your heart. But, lifestyle matters as well. Avoid smoking, maintain a healthy weight, and aim to exercise at least 30 minutes daily. Focusing on a healthy diet and lifestyle will help your heart and your health.

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