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What a Cardiologist Wants You to Know About the New Heart-Healthy Diet Guidelines

For the first time in 15 years, the American Heart Association updated its guidelines for a heart-healthy diet. Amitoj Singh MD, a cardiologist at Banner – University Medicine North in Tucson, AZ said, “The new guidelines include findings from some major studies that wrapped up in the last five years.”

Those studies found that a higher-quality diet is consistently associated with a lower risk of death from heart disease, cancer and other conditions. They emphasize a general focus on healthy eating rather than seeking out specific foods or nutrients. They also acknowledge some of the factors that can make it challenging to eat a high-quality diet, such as marketing of unhealthy foods, neighborhood segregation, food and nutrition insecurity and structural racism.

The new guidelines also support some popular diet plans, including the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (dietary approaches to stop hypertension) diet. Although for other diets, such as the keto diet and intermittent fasting, there’s not enough evidence that they promote heart health.

Here are the new dietary guidelines, with details from Dr. Singh about why following them is good for your heart.

The new guideline: Adjust energy intake (calories) and expenditure (exercise) to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.

Why it’s important: Carrying extra body weight can harm your heart. It can increase your risk of blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and sleep apnea, and all of these health conditions raise your risk of heart disease. Monitoring how much you eat—your energy intake—and how many calories you burn—your exercise levels—can help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.

The new guideline: Eat plenty, and a variety, of fruits and vegetables.

Why it’s important: Many studies have found that a diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables (except white potatoes) lowers your risk of heart disease. Choose fruits and vegetables in place of processed foods that contain added salt, sugar or preservatives.

The new guideline: Choose whole-grain foods and products.

Why it’s important: Clinical trials report that eating whole grains every day can lower your risk of heart disease, stroke and metabolic syndrome. Whole grains are also rich in fiber, which can support your digestive system and the healthy bacteria that live in your gut. Replacing white bread and pasta with whole grains can make a positive impact on your heart health.

The new guideline: Choose healthy sources of protein (mostly plants; regular intake of fish and seafood; low-fat or fat-free dairy products; and if meat or poultry is desired, choose lean cuts and unprocessed forms).

Why it’s important: Basing your protein intake around nuts and beans can help lower your risk of heart disease. Replacing animal foods with plant-based whole foods also reduces your carbon footprint and contributes to the planet’s health.

The new guideline: Use liquid plant oils rather than tropical oils and partially hydrogenated fats

Why it’s important: Many studies have found that replacing saturated and trans fats like butter and shortening with unsaturated fats is good for your heart health. Good choices are oils that come from soybean, corn, safflower, sunflower, walnut, flax seeds, olives, peanuts, tree nuts and canola oil.

The new guideline: Choose minimally processed foods instead of ultra-processed foods.

Why it’s important: Ultra-processed foods promote weight gain and can eventually lead to diabetes and heart disease.

The new guideline: Minimize the intake of beverages and foods with added sugars.

Why it’s important: Added sugars can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and excess body weight.

The new guideline: Choose and prepare foods with little or no salt.

Why it’s important: Too much salt can lead to high blood pressure and heart failure. To cut back on salt intake, eat less packaged and processed food. Some whole-wheat and organic foods can be high in salt, so check the label.

The new guideline: If you do not drink alcohol, do not start; if you choose to drink alcohol, limit your intake.

Why it’s important: Drinking alcohol increases your risk of stroke and a heart rhythm disorder called atrial fibrillation (AFib).

The new guideline: Adhere to this guidance regardless of where food is prepared or consumed.

Why it’s important: People often follow heart-healthy guidelines when they prepare food at home but make less-healthy choices when they order food or eat out. But it’s crucial to make these food choices part of your overall lifestyle.

The bottom line

Choosing a healthy diet can reduce your risk of heart disease and many other health problems. A diet centered around fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy proteins and fats can help keep your heart healthy. If you would like to connect with a dietitian who can help you find ways to improve your diet, reach out to Banner Health.

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