Eating healthy foods is one of the best ways to maintain your overall well-being and protect yourself from chronic diseases.
For people who already have heart disease, a shift to a healthier diet plan can prevent your condition from getting worse and, in some cases, can even reverse the damage that has been done.
Types of Healthy Diet Strategies
There are many different types of heart-healthy diets.
Your doctor or a nutritionist can help you find the diet that is best suited to your individual needs and lifestyle.
The most commonly recommended, evidence-based heart-healthy diets are:
Based on the traditional eating patterns of people living in Greek and Italian regions, the Mediterranean diet is high in:
- whole grains
- nuts and seeds
- olive oil
Plus moderate amounts of poultry, eggs, and red wine.
It is low in or absent of processed foods, refined carbs, added sugars, and red meat.
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet aims to reduce high blood pressure (and therefore reduce your risk of heart disease).
It recommends essentially the same food groups to eat and avoid, but with more allowance for dairy, less fish and salt, and more careful control of calories and portion sizes.
Plant-based eating is slightly different than vegetarian and vegan diets.
Vegetarian and vegan diets focus on completely excluding meat (and all animal products like dairy, cheese, eggs, etc.) for vegans. In contrast, a plant-based diet emphasizes the healthfulness of whole plants (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds).
Vegetarians and vegans can eat potato chips, candy bars, and other unhealthy foods because they are not meat.
Someone following a plant-based diet would avoid or significantly limit these foods because they are not whole plants. On a rare and special occasion, they might allow themselves to eat a less healthy snack or some meat, but the vast majority of their diet would come from whole plants.
Beyond Dietary Labels
Mediterranean, DASH, and plant-based diets are all effective, and it’s hard to conclude that one is any better than the other.
They all agree on eating heart-healthy foods:
- whole grains
And avoid or limit:
- processed meats
- refined grains
- sugar-sweetened beverages
- added sugar
- trans fat
- saturated fat
A named diet can give you a general framework to guide your decision-making and help you communicate your choices to others. Still, ultimately, the goal is to reduce your weight, decrease inflammation and arterial stiffening (atherosclerosis), and improve cholesterol levels. This is done by consistently eating 5+ servings of vegetables every day and rarely or never eating highly-processed foods with added sugar and lots of salt.
Don’t think of these diets as restrictive or hard to follow. Explore new foods and flavors, learn new recipes, and discover a better way of enjoying food that supports your health.