A cardiologist shares the truth about a heart-healthy diet.
With all the diet names floating out there, it may be overwhelming to know the right way to eat for your health. Here’s the thing: There’s not one “right” heart-healthy diet. In fact, several of the most popular diets for heart health are actually kind of similar.
Common Diets for the Heart
Some of the diets that get a lot of praise include:
- The DASH diet: The acronym stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. To lower high blood pressure, it recommends eating lots of fresh produce, and limiting red meat, sodium, and added sugars.
- The Mediterranean diet: This is an eating pattern inspired by the traditional diets of cultures living around the Mediterranean sea. It prioritizes whole foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts) and minimizes processed foods, added sugars, and red meat.
- The plant-based diet: There are different definitions of this diet, but it essentially means avoiding (or at least limiting) foods that come from animals. This means getting most of your nutrients from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy, nuts, and seeds.
Which Heart-Healthy Diet Is Best?
You may notice that the above diets aren’t actually that different. The DASH diet puts a higher emphasis on limiting sodium. However, the Mediterranean diet and plant-based diet inherently limit sodium intake by focusing on whole, unprocessed foods.
Another difference is that the Mediterranean diet explicitly promotes eating healthy, unsaturated fats. For example, fats like olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocado get a lot of attention in this diet. As of 2020, the American Heart Association supports the Mediterranean diet as a heart-healthy diet as evidence continues to support its benefits.
The plant-based diet is very similar to the Mediterranean diet, although it might be more explicit about avoiding animal foods. That said, both the DASH diet and Mediterranean diet encourage you to limit red meat.
In other words, the different diets emphasize different points, but they’re quite similar. The point is, a heart-healthy diet focuses on:
- Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds
- Limiting intake of saturated fat, which is found in red meat and high-fat dairy
- Eating lean protein, including legumes, fish, and seafood
- Limiting fried foods and heavily processed foods
- Limiting added sugars and oils
If you’re not confident about the best foods for your heart health, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian. They can help you learn about healthy eating patterns and how to incorporate them into your lifestyle. (Find out what to expect at your first appointment with a registered dietitian here.)
Eugenia Gianos, MD, is a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health.
- How does plant-forward (plant-based) eating benefit your health? Dallas, TX: American Heart Association. (Accessed on February 22, 2021)
- Managing blood pressure with a heart-healthy diet. Dallas, TX: American Heart Association, 2016. (Accessed on February 22, 2021)
- What is the Mediterannean diet? Dallas, TX: American Heart Association, 2020. (Accessed on February 22, 2021)