Dietary Patterns for a Healthy Heart

Social media influencers promote several different "heart-healthy" diets. How do we choose a diet that does benefit our hearts? Thankfully, the American Heart Association (AHA) has provided guidelines for a heart-healthy diet. More importantly, the AHA recently ranked diets based on their alignment with the AHA guidelines. Let's discuss the top three heart-healthy diets today.

Key takeaways:
  • arrow-right
    The American Heart Association (AHA) has published guidelines for heart-healthy diets.
  • arrow-right
    These guidelines inform us about nutrients, dietary patterns, and relevant foods.
  • arrow-right
    The AHA has ranked ten popular diets based on their alignment with the AHA guidelines.
  • arrow-right
    The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), vegetarian, and Mediterranean diets align most closely with the AHA guidelines.

In the U.S., heart disease is the leading cause of death, and early action can save lives. One of the ways to prevent heart disease is to eat healthier. A healthy diet helps in keeping cholesterol and triglyceride levels low and prevents cardiovascular diseases. But misinformation is rampant. Today on social media, various diets are discussed and promoted without considering associated scientific evidence. How does one determine what is a heart-healthy diet?

Thankfully, in 2021 the AHA provided ten guidelines for a heart-healthy diet, and people can choose diets that align with these guidelines. Some of the important guidelines are:

  • Fruits and veggies. Include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet.
  • Whole grains. Include whole grains in your diet instead of refined grains.
  • Protein. Include healthy sources of protein such as plant proteins, fish, lean-cut poultry, and low-fat dairy.
  • Salt. Do not use salt or use less amounts of salt.
  • Alcohol. Limit alcohol intake.
  • Added sugar. Avoid foods and drinks with added sugars.
  • Processed foods. Eat minimally processed foods instead of ultra-processed foods.

But determining whether a particular diet follows the AHA guidelines or not is difficult for many people. People usually follow dietary patterns such as the Paleo diet, or commercial programs (e.g., Atkin’s diet or Weight Watchers). To make it easier for the public, the AHA has now evaluated various dietary patterns and their alignment with the guidelines. These dietary patterns were ranked based on the points each diet received.

Top 3 diets supporting heart health

Here we discuss the top three heart-healthy diets:

Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet

This Nordic/Baltic style diet scored the highest possible score (9/9) and is most aligned with the AHA guidelines. The overall goal of this diet is to include nutrients that lower blood pressure and avoid food items that increase blood pressure.

The DASH diet has an emphasis on food items such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and low-fat dairy. Lean meat and poultry, fish, and non-tropical oils such as olive oil are also consumed in this dietary pattern. While on this diet, saturated fat, salts, fatty meats, refined grains, added sugars, and alcohol are best avoided. People can choose from a wide range of food items.

Vegetarian (pescetarian) diet

Vegetarian diets can be of three subtypes: pescetarian, ovo-lacto, and vegan. A pescetarian diet means people consume fish but no other animal protein sources such as poultry or meat. The pescetarian diet also includes eggs and dairy. In an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet pattern, people eat eggs and dairy but avoid fish or any animal proteins. In a vegan diet pattern, all animal protein, including eggs and dairy, is avoided.

The pescetarian diet also includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Added sugars, refined grains, solid fats, alcohol, meat, and poultry are best avoided. The pescetarian diet scored 8.25/9 points and ranked second in the AHA ranking of dietary patterns.

Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet originated in Mediterranean region countries, such as Greece, and Italy, but has now become popular all over the world. This diet includes foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, poultry, fish, fatty seafood, extra-virgin olive oil, and red wine. A distinguishing feature of this diet is that it allows low to moderate amounts of alcohol.

People following this dietary pattern avoid dairy, meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, commercial baked goods, sweets, and pastries. This dietary pattern scored 8/9 and is considered one of the top-tier diets.

In addition to these top three diets, low-fat, low-carb, ketogenic, and paleo dietary patterns were also evaluated. They scored less than 7/9 points and were not considered in alignment with all the AHA dietary guidelines for heart-healthy diets.

Barriers and challenges

Vegetables, fruits, and whole grains are often expensive, and families may not be able to afford to have a heart-healthy diet. It is crucial to realize that the consequences of not having a heart-healthy diet (e.g., medicines for heart disease, hospitalization due to heart disease) can be more expensive. Doctors and nutritionists can suggest low-cost, affordable alternatives such as frozen produce or no-sodium canned produce.

People may misunderstand or misinterpret dietary patterns. For instance, in the DASH diet, olive oil is consumed instead of other oils such as coconut oil. But if olive oil is eaten without portion control, then the diet will not be beneficial, as it increases the total caloric content. Hence, it is crucial to stay connected with your care team even when following top-tier diets.

Most of us can prevent heart disease by adopting a healthy diet. With the ranking system for dietary patterns, the AHA has made it easier to determine whether your current diet meets its guidelines. The DASH diet, vegetarian (pescetarian) diet, and Mediterranean diet are closely aligned with the AHA guidelines. If you need to switch to a healthier diet, talk to your doctor or nutritionist before making any changes.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked