The 6 Best Diets for Heart Health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide.

Good lifestyle choices such as exercising regularly and not smoking can help reduce your risk of heart disease. That’s because inflammation, blood pressure, cholesterol, and other heart disease risk factors are affected by what you eat.

In particular diets high in fiber, healthy fats and antioxidants have been shown to help support heart health. High intakes of added sugar and processed meats are associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

It’s important to choose a diet that has backed by scientific evidence, and is easy to maintain long term.

The 6 best diets for heart health are:

1. The Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet is based on the eating patterns of people living in Greece and southern Italy during the 1960s.

The diet includes whole, minimally processed foods. These include whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish and extra virgin olive oil. It also includes moderate amounts of poultry eggs and dairy products.

It limits or eliminates added sugars, refined carbs, processed snacks and red meats.

Studies show a Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of heart disease and its associated diseases, including high blood pressure.

A review of 11 studies found that following a Mediterranean diet reduced overall risk of heart disease by 40%.

Whole foods and healthy fats are believed to be the driving force behind the heart-healthy benefits of this diet.

For example, extra virgin olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fat and compounds with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

A review of 32 studies found that a higher intake of monounsaturated fat — not other fats — might help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Other factors like exercising, eating fewer added sugars and eating a more healthful diet may also contribute to the diet’s beneficial effects.

2. The DASH Diet

DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension and reduces your risk of heart disease. The DASH diet doesn’t require a specific list of foods. It limits fat, sodium, and cholesterol intake.

Instead it suggests specific amounts of food groups based on your calorie needs, which focus on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low fat dairy and lean meats while limiting red meats, refined grains and added sugars.

Moreover, it recommends a limit of 1 tablespoon (2300 mg) per day of sodium — and a lower salt version encourages no more than 3/4 tablespoon (1500 mg) per day.

Sodium intake should be reduced for those with high blood pressure. The DASH diet and sodium reduction have been shown to significantly reduce blood pressure when combined.

However, research suggests that this effect is less significant among people with normal blood pressure levels.

The diet’s emphasis on high fiber foods, such as whole grains and vegetables, and its elimination of added sugars and saturated fats may also contribute to its heart benefits.

Indeed, research shows that the DASH diet reduces risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure, obesity, and waist circumference, cholesterol levels and insulin resistance.

A review of 7 studies linked the DASH diet to a 20% reduced risk of heart disease, 19% reduced risk of stroke and 18% reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.

3. Vegan and vegetarian diets

Vegan diets are eating patterns that exclude all meat. These include poultry, red meat and fish.

Vegetarians, but not vegans, include other animal products that do not come from animals such as eggs and dairy. Vegans avoid all animal-derived ingredients including dairy, eggs, bee pollen, honey, and gelatin.

Instead of these diets, people eat a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, soy products and whole grains. Nuts and seeds are eaten in small quantities while plant-based oils and fats are consumed in high amounts.

A high ratio of plant foods makes vegan and vegetarian diets healthier. For example, these diets are often rich in fiber antioxidants, which can help heart health.

Consuming soy foods like tofu is associated with heart benefits. In a review of 46 studies, soy protein intake was found to significantly reduce LDL (bad) and total cholesterol levels.

Furthermore, observational studies of over 200,000 people linked a regular intake of tofu and soy isoflavones to a moderately reduced risk of heart disease.

Several other reviews have found vegetarian and vegan diets to significantly improve heart disease risk factors including high cholesterol, blood pressure, overweight and obesity, and unmanaged blood sugar levels.

Observational studies show that people who are more adherent to vegetarian diets have a lower risk of heart disease and related mortality.

Of course diet quality remains important. Diets that are high in added sugars, refined grains, and heavily processed foods don’t have the same heart health benefits as those high in whole minimally processed plant foods.

4. The Flexitarian Diet

The Flexitarian Diet was developed by a dietitian named Dawn Jackson Blatner. It is an eating pattern that emphasizes plant foods, but allows moderate amounts of meat, fish, dairy products and other animal products. It encourages you to get most of your protein from plants.

There is no set rule on how much or how often you should eat animal products so it depends on your preferences.

You’re encouraged to eat mostly whole foods and limit or avoid processed foods.

The diet that allows for so much variation makes it hard to study whether people who eat a plant-based diet are less likely to have heart disease.

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes have been tied to improvements in heart disease risk factors.

The Flexitarian Diet may be a more realistic option for those who want the heart benefits of a plant-based diet without having to give up meat and other animal products.

5. The TLC diet

The Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes Diet was developed by the National Institutes of Health to help prevent heart disease and stroke.

It includes dietary and lifestyle recommendations to promote optimal cholesterol levels and a healthy weight such as:

(1) Eating a balanced diet.

(2) Maintaining an exercise regimen.

Exercising regularly (getting at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per day) is important.

  • Aim for 25–35% of your daily caloric intake from fat.
  • Limit fat to no more than 7% of your daily caloric intake.
  • Limit dietary cholesterol to no more than 200 mg per day.
  • Consume at least 2 grams of plant sterol or stanols per day.

To maintain a healthy weight, an individual must consume enough calories to support the body’s needs.

Several studies have revealed that the diet lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. One older study in 36 adults showed that the TLC diet can reduce this marker by 11%.

The diet is thought to work by increasing your intake of soluble fiber, found in foods like oat bran nuts seeds beans lentils and several fruits and vegetables.

High fiber intake is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Soluble fiber in particular has been shown to lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.

The TLC diet also recommends a daily intake of plant sterols or stanols, which are naturally occurring compounds in foods like fruits vegetables whole grains legumes nuts and seeds.

Research suggests that eating 2 grams of plant sterols or stanols per day as the diet recommends may help reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol levels by 8–10%.

A strength of the TLC diet is its recommendation to get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day.

Studies show that regular exercise is important to maintain heart health and protect against disease. Physical inactivity may account for up to 6 percent of heart disease cases worldwide.

6. Low carb diets

Low carb diets restrict your intake of carbohydrates, and this may make you feel full. It is also higher in protein and/or fat than the typical Western diet. Low carb diets limit foods like breads grains pasta potatoes and sugary snacks and beverages for a feeling of fullness

The amount of carbohydrates that a person should eat depends on the diet. The number of carbohydrates varies between 10 and 40 percent of daily calories.

Low-carb diets may help keep you healthy by reducing certain heart disease risk factors such as overweight obesity and high triglyceride and blood-pressure levels while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol.

While one review found an increase in LDL (bad) cholesterol, it also showed a greater increase in HDL (good) cholesterol. This suggests that low carb diets may help maintain a favorable LDL to HDL ratio. These results are promising, but further research is needed.

Do not think that all low carb diets are heart healthy. Some observational studies show an increased risk of heart disease and related death in people following these diets.

A study that considered the quality of diet showed that low carb diets rich in plant protein and fat were associated with a reduced risk of death from heart disease and all causes, whereas those high in animal protein and fat had an increased risk.

A good diet is key. In particular a low-carb diet should include adequate amounts of fiber from plant foods like vegetables and emphasize healthy fats such as avocados, nuts, seeds, minimally processed plant oils, and fish rich in omega-3s.

How to choose a heart-healthy diet

When choosing a heart-healthy diet, consider factors like nutrition quality scientific evidence how easy it is to follow and whether you can sustain it long term.

Dietary research shows that diets high in whole foods, especially plant-based ones benefit heart health.

Therefore healthy diets provide a variety of whole foods and are low in added sugars and processed fats. Current research suggests that it is the type of fat — rather than the amount — that is most important when it comes to heart health.

For example, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats may aid heart health. Trans fats increase LDL (bad) cholesterol decrease HDL (good) cholesterol and worsen inflammation.

There is inconclusive evidence that saturated fats may be bad for you, but the USDA recommends no more than 10 percent of your daily calories to come from saturated fats.

There are several lifestyle factors that can be involved in heart disease prevention. A plan for healthy weight and regular physical activity can promote a healthy heart.

Before starting any diet, be sure to ask your medical professional if it’s the right choice for your needs.

The bottom line

Several diets have been shown to increase heart health. These eating patterns emphasize whole foods and discourage processed ones. Every item on this food pyramid emphasizes whole foods, with the exception of a few high in added sugar and saturated fat.

Of course, diet is just one piece of the puzzle.

It is important to exercise your heart regularly, refrain from smoking, and reduce stress levels.


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