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Which Heart-Healthy Diet Is Best?

There are a lot of heart-healthy diets to choose from. But which ones are cardiologist approved?


Preparing a healthy meal

A healthy diet and lifestyle* are essential to preventing and managing cardiovascular disease. Quitting smoking, moderating alcohol intake and getting the recommended amount of exercise each week are some of the larger lifestyle changes you can make for better health. In this blog post, we’re going to focus on the healthy diet portion of the cardiovascular health equation.

You may be familiar with some of the more popular heart-healthy diets, such as Mediterranean, Ornish, DASH, flexitarian, TLC, vegan and vegetarian diets, among other options. But which one of these is most effective? And are all these diets cardiologist approved? Let’s find out.

There’s No Such Thing As a Perfect Diet

Not all diets are equally beneficial. Some are better than others. But at the same time, a diet is only beneficial if you’re able to stick with it and make it a regular part of your life.

“There’s no perfect magical diet. However, there is scientific evidence that supports the Mediterranean diet because it encourages eating patterns that are lower in animal fat and rich in plant-based proteins,” says Dr. Muhammad Awan, MD, a cardiologist at The Iowa Clinic’s Methodist Medical Center campus. “Extra virgin olive oil is another key component of the Mediterranean diet that has scientific evidence showing it may reduce heart disease.”

“The best diets tend to be the ones that include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and seafood options,” adds Dr. Awan. “Adding those things into your diet is a good start.”

Dr. Awan has also seen evidence supporting the health benefits of the Atkins and ketogenic diets. However, you still need to complement a healthy diet with regular physical activity.

“If you focus only on diet and you’re not getting in any physical activity, you will keep gaining weight in calories consumed and that risk factor will add up,” says Dr. Awan. “I encourage patients to focus on both diet and exercise to reduce the risk factors of heart disease.”

Dr. Awan recommends that people who haven’t been active in a while should consider starting with aerobic physical activity, like brisk walking or jogging, if they are comfortable doing that.

Focus on Portion Size and Variety in Your Meals

While stressing out over your daily eating habits can do more harm than good, it’s still beneficial to take a step back and assess your own dietary habits and patterns when looking to eat better. You can start by thinking about what types of food you eat most often and looking at portion size.

“If you’re eating a lot of meat in your diet, make an effort to reduce that portion size and try substituting in fresh fruits and vegetables to fill that deficit in calories,” says Dr. Awan. “I’m not saying don’t eat meat, but you want to focus on incorporating more fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds into your diet. You may even find you feel more energized.”

Some people also try to eliminate fat and salt from their diet completely in an effort to get healthy. While Dr. Awan says limiting your intake can be beneficial, you don’t want to eliminate fatty acids from your diet altogether. Monounsaturated fatty acids from things like extra virgin olive oil contain antioxidants that prevent unwanted anti-inflammatory response.

Preparing a healthy meal

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“For patients with hypertension, managing the intake of fat and salt is quite helpful,” says Dr. Awan. “All of the processed food we eat has a lot of salt in it. So cutting out or limiting those types of foods and reducing overall salt intake is good for patients that have congestive heart failure.”

“If you cut out salt altogether, for the average person, it can lead to electrolyte problems,” says Dr. Awan. “So oftentimes it’s not a simple matter of eliminating salt from your diet. It depends on your individual health status including cardiovascular risk factors and diet and eating patterns.”

Examples of Heart-Healthy Foods

You may be wondering just what exactly are heart-healthy diet approved foods, anyways? As mentioned, the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes incorporating fruits, vegetables, olive oil and fish into your diet is a good place to look to gain some inspiration on mixing up portions.

“I would recommend adding a portion of fresh vegetables and fruits to your plate whenever you can,” says Dr. Awan. “Freshness has cardiovascular benefits. If you find yourself eating a lot of sweets, work on cutting down that carb component. Add nuts and seeds into the mix, as well.”

Common Examples of Heart-Healthy Foods

Easy-to-find heart-healthy foods include:

  • Fresh vegetables, including tomatoes, broccoli, asparagus and carrots
  • Salads consisting of leafy greens like Romaine lettuce, spinach and kale
  • Fresh fruits like apples, blueberries and oranges
  • Healthy nuts, such as almonds and walnuts
  • Seeds, including flaxseeds and chia seeds
  • Fish high in omega-3s, such as salmon and canned, light tuna
  • Whole-grain foods, such as oats, whole-grain pasta and brown rice

Short on time? Canned vegetables that are low in sodium or frozen vegetables without added butter or sauces are still healthy options that require very little prep time. Canned, frozen or dried fruit can also make adapting your diet easier, but check the label to avoid added sugars.

It’s Never Too Late to Get Started

Whether you choose to follow a more structured diet or simply incorporate more heart-healthy foods into your meals, the best thing you can do for your health is to make the effort.

“It’s never too late to start making changes in your diet,” says Dr. Awan. “I would start today. Reflect on your eating habits in the last week, month or year. Work on one thing at a time. Try to cut down, but not eliminate, meat consumption. Add more fresh fruits and vegetables.”

“Start working out,” adds Dr. Awan. “If you haven’t been active, start slowly. Aim for 5 to 10 minutes daily. Even that can help mental health and physical appearance. From there you can build to the recommended 30 to 45 minutes of activity for lasting health benefits.”

Even if you have already received a cardiovascular disease diagnosis, adopting a healthier diet and lifestyle will help manage your condition and reduce the risk of a future cardiovascular event. Building healthier habits today can also help improve your cholesterol and lower blood pressure.

Your Primary Care Physician Can Help

Feeling like it’s time for a change, but still not sure how to get started on the path toward better heart health? Building a relationship with a primary care physician you trust is often the first step in early detection or treatment of heart disease and other heart conditions. They can review your medical history with you and help determine your risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Your primary care physician can also refer you to a cardiologist for more specialized care.

“The Iowa Clinic has a strong primary care base,” says Dr. Awan. “Our goal in cardiology is to improve the cardiovascular health of the community. Our focus is patient-centered. We work to understand the lifestyle of our patients and can provide recommendations for better health.”

“We emphasize preventive cardiology to help avoid major cardiovascular events,” adds Dr. Awan. “That’s how we differentiate. We also do advanced imaging and executive physicals. I am proud of the level of care we are able to provide for cardiovascular patients at The Iowa Clinic.”

As Dr. Awan said, it’s never too late to adopt a healthier lifestyle and improve your cardiovascular health. Schedule a primary care appointment and take the first step toward healthier living.


*Disclaimer: The health experts at The Iowa Clinic always recommend speaking with a doctor before starting any new diet or exercise program. A primary care physician can help determine what lifestyle changes are best for you based on your health status and individual needs.

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