Spotlight on Heart Month: Understanding the American Heart Association’s Latest Dietary Guidelines

Each year, the American Heart Association (AHA) dedicates the month of February to public health efforts surrounding cardiovascular health and education. Recently, the organization released their first update to their dietary guidance since 2006, emphasizing the importance of heart-healthy dietary patterns as well as the critical role of nutrition early in life.

“Dietary patterns are defined by the combination of foods and beverages we consume regularly, including those we prepare inside the home and those prepared and consumed outside the home, such as at restaurants or coffee shops,” said Sharon Smalling, MPH, RD, LD, clinical dietitian specialist at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. “Healthy dietary patterns are designed to help individuals achieve adequate nutrition while supporting heart health and overall wellbeing, but they are also intended to encompass personal preferences as well as cultural or religious practices.”

The below guidance offers a snapshot of the AHA’s current recommendations for a heart-healthy dietary pattern:

  1. Adjust your energy intake and expenditure to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. In other words, consume less calories than you expend if you need to lose weight. To keep your weight stable, match your activity level to your calories.
  2. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and choose a wide variety. Dietitians like to say, “Eat the rainbow.”
  3. Choose foods made mostly with whole grains rather than refined grains. The emphasis here is mostly whole grains—refined grains should be as limited as possible.
  4. Choose healthy sources of protein, emphasizing protein from plants (legumes and nuts). Other sources can include fish and seafood, low fat or fat-free dairy products, and unprocessed lean cuts of meat or poultry.
  5. When cooking, use liquid plant oils rather than tropical oils (like coconut, palm and palm kernel), animal fats (butter, ghee, and lard) and partially hydrogenated fats.
  6. Choose minimally processed foods instead of ultra-processed foods.
  7. Minimize your intake of beverages and foods with added sugars.
  8. Choose and prepare foods with little or no salt. This is especially important when eating at restaurants, where sodium content is unknown and often extremely high.
  9. If you do not drink alcohol, do not start, and if you choose to drink alcohol, limit intake.
  10. Adhere to this guidance regardless of where food is prepared or consumed. This point reiterates the concept of a dietary pattern—where consistency is important.

“This guidance can greatly reduce a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease, and we recommend implementing changes that reflect these recommendations as soon as possible—the earlier the better,” Smalling said. “Research on dietary patterns has found a 14 to 28 percent lower cardiovascular disease mortality among adults with high adherence to healthy dietary patterns—a staggering wakeup call for many. This lowering of risk extends to those with a strong family history of heart disease as well.”

The AHA’s new guidance also includes a special section on the critical role of nutrition early in life and throughout a person’s lifespan. The guidance cites research showing a growing evidence of maternal-fetal nutritional origins, as well as well-documented evidence that the prevention of pediatric obesity is a key in preserving a person’s long-term cardiovascular health.

“Dietitians are acutely aware of the effects of diet and lifestyle choices from birth on conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and elevated blood pressure, which ultimately affect cardiovascular health,” Smalling said. “We applaud the AHA for highlighting this and reinforcing the importance of adopting heart-healthy dietary patterns in childhood.”

Smalling added that for many people, following a dietary pattern such as this could seem overwhelming or impossible. She recommended small steps and slowly building toward an overall heart-healthy plan.

“Pick up a calorie-free sparkling water instead of a soda or use olive oil in place of butter. Choose a banana or apple instead of an ultra-processed candy or granola bar,” Smalling suggested. “While you can generally have anything in moderation, the goal is to limit those foods that might not be as healthful. Trust me—your heart will thank you for it!”

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Ali Vise