By Dawna Stone
Senior Vice President
The Mediterranean diet has long been touted as the best diet for heart health. A study however by the American Heart Association found that several types of diets may reduce risk factors associated with heart disease. Specifically, both low-calorie lacto-ovo-vegetarian and Mediterranean diets can help a person reduce overall weight and body fat, as well as contribute to better heart health.
Although different, both types of healthy diets helped produce bold impacts to peoples’ health: those on the vegetarian diet had lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDLs, a.k.a. the “bad” cholesterol) while those on the Mediterranean diet had lower triglycerides (a.k.a. unused calories stored in fat cells).
Francesco Sofi, M.D., Ph.D, lead study author and professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Florence and Careggi University Hospital in Italy, led the study. They evaluated over a hundred healthy but overweight participants. Both types of diets helped people lose around three pounds of body fat and four pounds of overall body weight while experiencing similar positive changes to their body mass indexes (BMIs), a measure of weight-to-height proportion.
“The take-home message of our study is that a low-calorie lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet can help patients reduce cardiovascular risk about the same as a low-calorie Mediterranean diet,” said Dr. Sofi. “People have more than one choice for a heart-healthy diet.”
This new research may give people more options when considering a heart healthy diet.
Follow the suggestions below to help boost heart health.
Consume More of These
A common misconception about eating healthily is that you sacrifice taste. That’s not true at all – there are plenty of heart-healthy foods that are also delicious and satisfying. Here are just a few choices:
- Oats – Oatmeal and barley are great sources of soluble fiber, which lowers cholesterol levels. Other whole grains like quinoa and farro can be used in place of refined flours, pasta, and breads.
- Fruits – Blueberries, strawberries, and citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits are linked to lower risks of heart disease. However, stay away from fruit juices with added sugar – stick to whole fruits and juices you squeeze or puree at home.
- Fatty fish – Salmon and other fatty fish like mackerel, albacore tuna, lake trout, herring, and sardines are all rich in omega-3s. Even crustaceans like squid, oysters, and lobster do an amazing job of keeping the heart healthy.
- Dark chocolate – Several studies have found that a small piece of dark chocolate (60-70% cocoa) a day helps lower blood pressure and ease clotting and inflammation thanks to polyphenols (flavonoids).
- Soy – Already a staple in diets of many health-conscious people, soy products like tofu and soy milk add protein with less or no fat and cholesterol. They can even reduce blood pressure and decrease LDL levels.
- Dark and leafy greens – Veggies like spinach, broccoli, and kale are all high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Even kale has a small amount of omega-3s.
- Nuts and seeds – Unsalted nuts and seeds are high in magnesium and potassium content. Pistachios and walnuts in particular can reduce the tightening of blood vessels. Nuts like macadamia and almonds are also rich in vitamin E and flax and chia seeds are high in fiber, and are easy to add to smoothies.
- Green tea – A study found that when people consumed at least four cups of green tea a day they had 20% less risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke.
- Coffee – Coffee on its own (not mixed with sugars and creamers) may help lower the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease by 30%.
- Avocados – These trendy fruits are rich in monounsaturated fats, which lower cholesterol.
There are many other great foods and drinks that promote heart health; the above are just a few suggestions to help you jump-start a healthier, heart-friendly diet.
Limit or Eliminate These
It’s totally fine to indulge in these foods from time to time. However, if they are part of your regular diet, your heart may end up suffering the consequences. In some cases, you might not feel the symptoms until it’s too late. As such, try to limit these foods or avoid them completely if you can.
- Red meat – If you do consume red meat, try leaner cuts like sirloin or an eye of round.
- Croissants – Just one piece can reach as much as 231 calories with 12 grams of fat.
- Pizza – Sure, ordering pizza is easy, but just one slice can max out your recommended daily allowance of saturated fat. It’s also high in sodium, considering plenty of popular toppings are often highly processed. If you must, make a healthier version at home with a whole wheat thin crust, low fat cheese, fresh veggies, and lean chicken breast.
- Eggs Benedict – Poached eggs on their own are usually fine, but when mixed with butter, Hollandaise sauce, bacon, and English muffins, you end up with about 700 calories and 35 grams of fat.
- Double cheeseburgers – The mix of red meat, a bun, sliced cheese, mayo, and fried onions make a cocktail of about 1,000 calories due to all the fat and frying.
- Fettucine Alfredo – Pasta is another easy meal to make, but butter, cheese, and heavy cream in the sauce alone increases fats and calories to often-unhealthy levels. As with pizza, you can create a healthier version with whole wheat noodles, low fat tomato-based sauces and fresh veggies.
- Breaded chicken – Most breaded chicken sandwiches are just as bad as their burger counterparts.
- Sausages – Processed meat often lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, clogged arteries, and obesity.
- Soda – Soda’s high sugar content can spike a person’s insulin levels, increasing the chance of a heart attack by 20%. Excess consumption may also lead to Type 2 diabetes.
- Ramen noodles – People on the go, especially college students, often turn to ramen for a quick and cheap dinner. However, instant ramen has at least 1,500 milligrams of sodium a serving. Steer clear or find a lower sodium option.
Other Lifestyle Changes
Other lifestyle changes that can boost heart health include:
- Maintain a healthy weight through better food choices. Eating a variety of nutritious foods is great, especially when partnered with regular exercise.
- Exercise regularly, try using up at least as many calories as you ingest. If you don’t currently exercise, start slowly and build up to 45-60 minutes a day at least three times a week.
- Avoid tobacco. Smoking increases blood pressure and the tendency for blood clots.
- Watch sodium intake. As mentioned in some of the no-no foods above, high sodium not only lowers blood volume but also causes an increased heart rate and high blood pressure, forcing your heart to work double time.
- Consume alcohol in moderation. A glass of red wine has been proven to have certain heart health benefits. However, alcohol abuse and heavy drinking can cause cardiomyopathy or disease of the heart muscle, as well as high blood pressure, among a number of other health risks like liver disease, peptic ulcers, and even cancer.
In general, make better, healthier choices. It’s not just your food intake you should watch – an overall heart-healthy plan should include stress reduction, regular exercise, limiting or getting rid of unhealthy habits like smoking or excess drinking, and other healthy lifestyle choices.
Senior Vice President
Dawna Stone is the author of seven books, a business owner, certified health coach, motivational speaker, and creator of the 5-Day Detox and the 14-Day Clean-Eating Program. Dawna appears regularly on local and national television. She has appeared on the Today show, Martha, MSNBC, HSN, and morning news programs on NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox. Dawna is a highly sought-after speaker and has done speaking engagements for Chobani, Disney, American Heart Association, Mass Mutual, Wharton Business School, Women’s Entertainment Television, PGA Tour, Super Bowl Leadership Forum, Susan G. Komen, and many more.