Heart disease remains the leading killer of American men and women, but there are plenty of ways to reduce your risks. Avoiding tobacco, getting active and maintaining an optimal weight make the list of heart-healthy habits. Your diet can help reduce your risks of heart disease, too.
According to the 2018 diet rankings released by the U.S. News and World Report, a number of diets—DASH, MIND and Mediterranean to name a few—can help protect your heart. Many of the diets share the same key ingredients, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats, but they're certainly not all the same.
The dietary approaches to stop hypertension or DASH diet is an eating plan that encourages consumption of produce, whole grains, fish, poultry, healthy fats, foods high in potassium, like Brussels sprouts and bananas and calcium-rich eats, like kale and nonfat yogurt. The diet also recommends limiting foods that contain saturated fats, added sugars and too much sodium.
"It's a multifaceted approach to a healthy eating pattern as opposed to either glorifying or vilifying a specific food group," Dr. Aznaurov says. "It's a relatively easy thing to follow."
This plan was designed to help lower blood pressure prevent hypertension, and research suggests the DASH diet is effective in doing both. When you load your plate with blood pressure-reducing foods like fiber and potassium, you leave little room for processed junk that might up your risk for heart conditions.
In 2018, U.S. News and World Report ranked the DASH diet number one for heart health. If you're looking to build a DASH-friendly meal, top a bed of spinach with your favorite vegetables, a serving of quinoa, 3 ounces of grilled salmon and a drizzle of olive oil.
A Mediterranean diet emphasizes eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and olive oil. Nuts and legumes, like almonds, cashews, beans and lentils, are also encouraged on this plan. Food high in saturated fat, like red meat, butter and eggs, and sugar-sweetened treats should be consumed rarely, if at all.
The plan typically includes a moderate amount of red wine, about 5 ounces a day for women and 10 for men. There has been some controversy over the benefits—and potential dangers—of alcohol, but some research suggests, in moderation, it can help protect your heart.
"It's similar to DASH in that it's not really a diet. It's more a set of dietary principles, and it tends to focus on unsaturated fats, specifically omega-3 fatty acids, and low-glycemic index foods," Aznaurov says.
According to the American Heart Association, some of the heart benefits come from the diet's high monounsaturated fat content, which doesn’t raise cholesterol levels the way saturated fats do.
There's more. A 2016 study of 15,482 people with heart disease suggests a diet rich in healthful foods, like a Mediterranean diet, is associated with a greater reduction in heart disease-related complications.
In addition to preventing heart disease, this diet might also help control diabetes, boost brain health and aid in weight loss. Following a Mediterranean-style diet can be simple—and delicious. Try sautéing a serving of mackerel in olive oil and plate with a helping of green beans and wild rice.
The goal of this plan is to eliminate the fats, unhealthy carbohydrates and animal proteins your body doesn't need. And there's some evidence to support its claims. The Ornish diet has been effective in reversing diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, if you can stick to it.
So, what can you eat? The Ornish diet is rather restrictive, limiting food groups to whole grains, fruits and vegetables; the more fiber, the better. Healthy fats, from nuts, seeds and oils, can be consumed in moderation, but should make up no more than 10 percent of daily calories. The eating plan entirely eliminates animal proteins, including red meat, poultry and even fish, so reach for plant proteins—like beans, peas and lentils—to get your fix.
Like many other heart-healthy diets, the main purpose of the diet isn't weight loss, so calories are unrestricted. Although, "there's quite a bit of evidence this lifestyle is associated with weight loss," Aznaurov says. A healthy weight is also linked to a lower risk of heart-related complications.
There are other aspects of the Ornish lifestyle that make it good for your heart. The plan also encourages regular exercise and stress management, both of which help protect your heart from damage.
TLC can stand for a number of different things, like “tender loving care” or “therapeutic lifestyle changes,” both of which are good for your heart. The TLC diet is an eating plan designed to lower unhealthy cholesterol levels, which are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
The TLC diet encourages limiting foods high in cholesterol and saturated fats, like butter, red meat and full-fat dairy products. Diet followers should instead fill up on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and moderate amounts of healthy fats, found in nuts, fish and olive oil.
What makes this diet good at lowering cholesterol? Soluble fiber, found in many TLC-approved foods like broccoli, beans and apples, can also help lower bad cholesterol; it's recommended you consume between 10 and 25 grams daily.
Limiting unhealthy fats may also have another benefit—weight loss. "Fats are a dense source of calories, so dramatically reducing fat intake tends to lead to total caloric reduction and weight loss," Aznaurov says. He adds that weight can increase the risk for hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes, which are risk factors for heart disease
There are some benefits to a plant-based diet, like lower rates of heart disease and diabetes and better digestion. But, if you're not willing to quit meat cold turkey, this adaptable plan, known as the flexitarian diet, may be right for you.
Flexitarians typically stick to a plant-based or vegetarian diet, but consume meat and fish on occasion. Their meals largely consist of fresh produce, whole grains and plant proteins, like eggs, beans, lentils and other legumes, nuts and nut butters.
"The sources of protein tend to be relatively high in fiber, low in calories and have a lower glycemic index, which means that at the end of a lighter meal you feel satisfied," Aznaurov says.
These diets are typically lower in total fat, saturated fats and dietary cholesterol than those that include more animal proteins, which may be the reason plant-based eaters tend to have lower rates of high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity. Aznaurov agrees, "In general, there is evidence that strict vegetarians do tend to be slimmer than carnivores."
He adds, "These diets do tend to promote at least some weight loss, thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular events."
Evidence also links a vegetarian-style diet to lower rates of diabetes, a condition that often accompanies heart disease. Results from a 2017 study suggest a primarily vegetarian and whole food diet can help prevent and treat type 2 diabetes.
Guidelines for a vegan diet are less lenient than those for the flexitarian diet, though some of the eating patterns are similar. Vegans eliminate all animal products and byproducts from their diets, including meat, dairy, eggs, honey and even gelatin. Instead, they fuel with plant products, like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes.
Similar to the flexitarian diet, veganism slashes saturated fat from your diet. Beef, pork, cheese and cream are loaded with unhealthy fats, which have been linked to a higher risk of heart disease, and should be eliminated from a vegan diet. Evidence suggests replacing saturated fats with the unsaturated kind can reduce this risk. Nuts, seeds, avocados and oils, like olive and canola, are good sources of healthy fat.
To reap the greatest benefits for your heart, enjoy whole foods. Sure, there are plenty of processed options with a vegan label, but that does not make them healthy. A 2017 study even linked a processed plant-based diet to higher rates of heart disease.
There are some drawbacks to veganism, like the potential for vitamin and mineral deficiencies. If you're looking to make the jump from a meat eater to a full-blown vegan, it's important to speak with your doctor about getting the nutrients your body needs.
The MIND diet, designed to boost brain health, is an eating plan that combines elements of the Mediterranean and DASH diets. Studies have shown the diet's efficacy in preventing cognitive decline and have even linked it to a reduction in conditions like Alzheimer's disease.
The diet may help protect your heart from disease, too. This year, the MIND diet ranked fifth on the U.S. News and World Report's list of best diets for your heart, next to the vegan and flexitarian diets.
There is no set eating pattern for the MIND diet, instead followers should select their food from 10 brain-healthy groups, which include:
- Leaf greens
- Whole grains
- Olive oil
The diet is not without restrictions, and there are foods experts recommend against eating, like red meat, butter and margarine, cheese, pastries and fried foods.
Incorporating elements of the MIND diet into your lifestyle can be simple. Try swapping your typical protein for a serving of beans or lentils or reduce the amount of dairy, like butter and cheese, you use in your recipes.
Adopting A Heart-Healthy Diet
A healthy diet, regardless of its title or acclaim, can be good for your whole body, including your heart. Many heart-healthy eating plans share similar principles, like eating whole foods and steering clear of the processed junk. And you don't have to stick to a specific set of guidelines to help protect your heart from disease.
If you're looking to reduce your heart disease risk, make yourself a grocery list that includes:
- Vegetables and leafy greens
- Lean protein, like skinless chicken breast, salmon or beans
- Whole grains
- Olive, canola and avocado oils
- Nuts and seeds
Reducing your sodium intake and controlling portion sizes are two heart-healthy steps you can take, as well. Unhealthy fats, saturated and trans fats found in products like butter, should be limited, as they raise cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
You needn't deprive yourself of the occasional treat, but it's usually best to reach for the least processed option.