The Healing Power of a Heart-Healthy Diet

Hallie Levine wrote . . . . . .

Advice for a heart-healthy diet used to focus on numbers. How many grams of fiber should you consume? How many milligrams of sodium is too much? What percentage of your calories should come from fat?

That’s a problem, says Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “Eating that way doesn’t make practical sense, and it’s easy to get confused.”

Focusing too much on specific nutrients and not enough on overall dietary patterns can also harm your heart in the long run. For example, a low-fat diet can be bad for your heart if you get there by eating lots of sugar and refined grains (such as white bread) and avoiding nuts, olive oil, and other fatty but heart-healthy foods.

A true heart-healthy diet can be powerfully effective, says Walter Willett, M.D., chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Diet alone can reduce heart disease risk by about 30 percent,” similar to taking cholesterol-lowering drugs, he says.

Eating a heart-healthy diet doesn’t have to be complicated, either. Follow these tips and the numbers will take care of themselves:

For a heart-healthy diet, make vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and beans the centerpieces of your meals, says Linda Van Horn, Ph.D., professor of preventive medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

Those foods contain heart-protective antioxidants, fiber, and healthy fats. Though eating more of each of those foods cuts heart disease risk some, an overall plant-based diet has an even greater effect.

One study of about 450,000 adults found that people whose diets were 70 percent plants had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease over 12 years compared with those whose diets centered on meat and dairy.

Think of Meat as a Condiment

That means eating beef, poultry, and pork occasionally or in small, 3- to 4-ounce portions—about the size of a deck of cards. Especially avoid processed meats, such as bacon, deli meat, and sausage.

A review by Harvard researchers linked a daily serving, equal to one hot dog or two slices of bacon, to an increased risk of early death from heart disease and cancer.

Limit Sweets

Too much added sugar—sugar that is put into foods, not the naturally occurring sugar found mainly in fruits and dairy—raises blood pressure and cholesterol levels, according a 2014 review in the journal Open Heart.

Limiting sugary beverages, the leading source of added sugars in the American diet, is key. Having just one soda per day could raise diabetes risk by about 20 percent.

Don’t Fear All Fat

Many fatty foods—avocados, fatty fish like salmon, nuts, seeds, and olive and other vegetable oils—are rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fats. New U.S. Dietary Guidelines no longer limit how much of those fats you eat as long as you keep your total calories in check.

But you should still try to avoid foods packed with saturated fat (such as meat, cheese, and butter) and trans fat (in foods with partially hydrogenated oils). Those foods cause your body to produce more cholesterol, the substance that gets deposited in your artery walls.

The best bet, Willett says, is to swap saturated-fat-laden foods for those rich in unsaturated fats. A 2015 Harvard study found that substituting 5 percent of saturated fat in your diet with the unsaturated variety lowered heart disease risk by up to 25 percent, depending on the foods chosen.

On the other hand, risk remains high if you cut back on saturated fat but eat more sugary foods or refined grains such as white bread, white rice, and some cereals.

Give Eggs a Go

Many people think they should completely avoid eggs because they are high in cholesterol, adding to the amount that your body produces on its own.

But new research shows that the cholesterol in food has a smaller impact on your overall cholesterol levels than once thought. For foods that are high in cholesterol but low in saturated fat—such as eggs, lobster, and shrimp—a serving each day is fine.

Minimize Processed Foods

You don’t have to avoid everything in a bag or a box, but such foods do tend to be higher in refined grains, sugar, and, especially, sodium.

Source: Consumer Report

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