Is your diet heart-healthy? Whether you're a staunch vegan, a meat-eating barbecue fan or someone who rigidly follows a Mediterranean diet plan, it's worth checking the latest guidelines from the American Heart Association. The association has recently released its 2021 guidelines on how to improve cardiovascular health, offering a selection of key diet tips to future-proof your heart.
Eating healthy isn't just about portion control or avoiding weight gain. You could be drinking lots of water, consuming some of the best fish oil supplements or best vitamins for women over 50 to support your lifestyle, and still be wolfing down lots of processed meats and sugary snacks.
The new research (opens in new tab) recommends looking at a "balance, variety, amounts and combination" of foods that are eaten, ensuring a healthy diet has a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, protein sources and micronutrients. Even dedicated bodybuilders and Hollywood stars who stick to chicken, broccoli and rice should be introducing more variety to ensure the heart stays healthy.
The 10 dietary rules outlined by the American Heart Association can be read below:
- Balance food intake with exercise in order to maintain a healthy weight.
- Choose lots of different fruit and vegetables to get a medley of micronutrients from whole foods.
- Choose whole grains over processed, high-GI carbohydrate sources.
- Include healthy sources of lean and/or high-fiber protein in your diet, and limit red and processed meat intake.
- Use liquid non-tropical plant oils such as olive or sunflower oils rather than palm oil.
- Opt for more "natural" foods rather than ultra-processed foods wherever possible.
- Minimize your intake of products with "added sugar".
- Choose or prepare foods with as little salt as possible.
- Reduce or eliminate your alcohol consumption where possible.
- Apply this guidance no matter where food is prepared or consumed, from restaurants to your kitchen at home.
Why this advice works
Following this advice will not only ensure you get a wide variety of vitamins and minerals to keep your body working optimally – it'll also help you maintain a healthy weight and a healthy "body composition ratio". The BCR is the ratio of fat, to bone, to muscle in your body, and is a slightly more complex indication of someone's health than a number on a scale.
Generally speaking, overweight and obese people have less muscle and more fat, which means you're predisposed to a sedentary lifestyle and all sorts of associated cardiovascular risks. If you're balancing food intake with exercise, eating less red and processed meat and ultra-processed foods, fewer products with added sugar, and consuming less alcohol, you're unlikely to be as unhealthy as someone who does indulge in these dietary practices.
Red meat and ultra-processed meats are specifically linked to heart disease risk, according to studies from the university of Oxford (opens in new tab). Not sure which tip to start with? Swap a couple of instances of burgers, hot dogs or beef with vegetarian options each week. You don't have to go full vegetarian – just reduce your meat consumption to see a difference in heart health. Our best vegan cookbooks is a great place to start for meat-free options.
Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and News Editor at Fit&Well, covering all things exercise and nutrition on the Fit&Well website. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.
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