Reston Hospital Center July 05, 2018

A heart-healthy diet is about eating more—more fruits, more vegetables, more whole grains, and more unsaturated fats.

Paleo®, Atkins®, South Beach®, Mediterranean, Keto, DASH...you’ve heard of, and maybe even tried, them all. But, are these just fad diets and what is the best way to help you lose weight and stay healthy in the long-term? A heart-healthy diet is not about deprivation. It is about eating more—more fruits, more vegetables, more whole grains, and more unsaturated fats. When you focus on putting more of these nutrient-rich foods in your diet, there is naturally less room for the not-so-heart-friendly foods—those high in saturated fat and low in nutrients. In short, the best diet is really a lifestyle change, not a short-term fix. 

More importantly, healthy eating habits not only help lose excess weight, but also help reduce 3 of the major risk factors for heart attack: 

  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Excess body weight or obesity 

Components of a Healthy Diet

So, how does this translate into your grocery list and onto your dinner plate? To help you eat the heart healthy way, The American Heart Association (AHA)1 suggests these dietary guidelines to improve and/or maintain your heart health: 

  • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, at least 4-5 servings each day.
  • Eat a variety of fiber-rich whole grains, at least 6 servings of grains a day. Aim to make half of your grains whole grains. 
  • Include protein, such as fat-free and low-fat milk products, fish, legumes, beans, skinless poultry, and lean, white meats. Limit red meats and processed meat. For nuts, legumes, and seeds, eat at least 4-5 servings a week. For lean meats, poultry, and seafood, eat less than 6 ounces a day. When eating fish, choose oily fish, like salmon. 
  • Limit foods high in saturated fat, trans fat, and/or cholesterol, such as:
    • Full-fat milk or other dairy products
    • Fatty meats
    • Tropical oils, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, and egg yolks
  • Trans-fats found in snack foods, fried foods, and pastries
  • Instead, choose foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Limit your intake of foods high in calories or low in nutrition, including soft drinks and candy that have a lot of sugars. For sweets and foods with added sugar, stick to 5 or fewer servings a week.
  • Eat less than 1,500 milligrams of salt per day. Read food labels to look for hidden salt, which may appear as sodium.
  • Limit alcohol to 1 drink per day if you are a woman and no more than 2 if you are a man. 

Is there any validity to fad diets?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics2 provides some sound advice for what may or may not work in fad diets. As they point out, many diets have conflicting claims—eat less meat/eat more meat, combine certain foods/don’t combine foods—no wonder the average American is confused about the best way to lose weight and keep it off. 

You should be particularly leery of any diet plan that calls for: 

  1. Rapid Weight Loss

There is no such thing as a quick fix. Healthy plans aim for steady weight loss of no more than 1 to 2 pounds per week. If you lose weight quickly, you actually lose muscle, bone, and water, and are more likely to regain the weight quickly. 

  1. Quantities and Limitations

Any diet that calls for eating unlimited quantities of a given food, like grapefruit or cabbage, is worthless. Likewise, diets that restrict or eliminate an entire food group, such as carbohydrates, run the risk of depriving your body of nutrients that are essential for it to function properly. 

  1. Food Combinations

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just eat a certain combination of food, or eat at certain times throughout the day to lose weight? Unfortunately, there is no evidence that this actually works. In turn, it also is not true that certain combinations or timing of eating will turn foods into fat or produce toxic substances in your body. 

  1. No Flexibility

Strict diets that severely limit food choices or only allow certain meal plans are a recipe for disaster. If the diet does not provide a healthy variety of foods that you could eat for the rest of your life, then it is not the diet for you. 

  1. No Exercise

Regular exercise is essential for good health and for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. The goal is to achieve a healthy weight while building muscle and losing fat. Playing sports, walking with a friend, and gardening are among activities that can be both fun and give you the 30 to 60 minutes of exercise you need on most days of the week. If you have health concerns, be sure to consult your doctor before starting any new exercise program. 

The DASH Diet

Of the most popular diets around today, the DASH Diet is one of the most promising. Developed by The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)3, DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Its concept is simple: 

  • Eat more fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy.
  • Cut back on foods that are high in saturated fat, cholesterol, trans fats, and sugar.
  • Lower your sodium (salt) intake. 

Compared to more restrictive diets, DASH uses a sensible approach to eating. Combined with regular exercise, often the result is success in reducing blood pressure, lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol, and losing weight over the long-term. 

What is the Bottom Line?

If a diet seems too good to be true, then it probably is. While there are many effective diets out there, the one that is best for you is the one that you will stick with over time. That means looking at the components of each diet and finding the one that best meets your needs. For example, if you are a bread lover, the Atkins diet probably will not work for you, and if you do not like to be bothered with logging your food intake, than the Weight Watchers® program may not be the best fit. If you are feeling overwhelmed or confused by all the options out there, consider working with a registered dietitian to develop a flexible, customized plan that fits your lifestyle. 

Sources:

1American Heart Association: www.heart.org

2American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: www.eatright.org

3 The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI): www.nhlbi.nih.gov