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10 Features of a Heart-Health Eating Pattern

The cardiovascular specialists of CHI Mercy’s Shaw Heart & Vascular Center would like to share some important new information from The American Heart Association.

This month, the AHA outlined 10 key features of a heart-healthy eating pattern while emphasizing the importance of overall dietary pattern rather than individual foods or nutrients and underscoring the critical role of nutrition in all stages of life. These features can be adapted to accommodate individual food likes and dislikes, cultural traditions and whether most meals are consumed at home or on-the-go.

Here are the AHA’s 10 features of a dietary pattern to promote heart health:

  1. Balance food and calorie intake with physical activity to maintain a healthy weight.
  2. Choose a wide variety and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to get a full range of nutrients from food rather than supplements.
  3. Choose whole grain foods.
  4. Include healthy sources of lean and/or high-fiber proteinsuch as plant proteins (nuts and legumes), fish or seafood, low fat or fat-free dairy products, lean cuts of meat. Limit red meat and processed meats.
  5. Use liquid plant oils (olive, canola, or sunflower oils). Avoid tropical oils (coconut oil, palm oil), butter, and hydrogenated fats.
  6. Choose minimally processed foods rather than ultra-processed foods as much as possible.
  7. Minimize intake of beverages and foods with added sugars.
  8. Choose and prepare foods with little or no salt.
  9. Limit alcohol consumption; if you don’t drink, don’t start.
  10. Apply this guidance no matter where food is prepared or consumed.

Processed foods include meats that are preserved by smoking, curing or adding chemical preservatives, and plant-based foods that have added salt, sugar or fats. Many processed meats are high in salt, saturated fat and cholesterol. Research shows that replacing processed meat with other protein sources is associated with lower death rates.

It is important to balance your calories with your lifestyle. The goal is to use up as many calories as you take in. The recommendation from the AHA is to aim for at least 150minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week. If you’re sedentary, sitting less is a good place to start and then increase your activity from there.

The AHA’s recent dietary announcement reflects the latest scientific evidence on the benefits of heart-healthy eating throughout life and that poor diet quality is strongly associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death. The announcement emphasizes the importance of looking at the total dietary pattern rather than “good” or “bad” individual foods or nutrients.

A dietary pattern refers to the balance, variety, amounts and combination of foods and beverages regularly eaten. The statement also highlights the critical role of nutrition education, starting healthy eating early in life and maintaining throughout the lifespan, as well as societal and other challenges that may make it harder to adopt or maintain a heart-healthy diet pattern.

“We can all benefit from a heart-healthy dietary pattern regardless of stage of life, and it is possible to design one that is consistent with personal preferences, lifestyles and cultural customs. It does not need to be complicated, time consuming, expensive or unappealing,” said Dr. Alice H. Lichtenstein, senior scientist and director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Team at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.

Because food is often eaten in places besides the home, the AHA emphasizes that it is possible to follow a heart-healthy dietary pattern regardless of whether food is prepared at home, ordered in a restaurant or online, or purchased as a prepared meal.

“You can absolutely adapt a heart-healthy diet to different lifestyles,” said Lichtenstein, “including one that incorporates eating out at restaurants. It might take a little planning; however, after the first few times it can become routine.”