What is a Heart-Healthy Diet?

By Carolyn Burris, MS, Nutrition of Forum Health Knoxville

My hope is that I will encourage you to be your own best health advocate on what you should eat. One word I want you to consider while reading this article is indoctrination.

 

As I research and study the many recommendations… low carb, paleo, low fat, vegan, Mediterranean and Myplate.gov. etc., I recognize that we have to be careful to sort out any bias and indoctrination of any possible profit motive information that would distort accurate research and information to benefit our health.

 

Keep in mind that there is not one perfect diet. Many diets claim to be the one best way to eat. A one-size-fits-all approach never works—nutrition is no different. We must realize that we are in different stages of life and some of us are very healthy while others are struggling with compromised health.

 

The American Dietary Guidelines indoctrinated us into believing that an unhealthy low fat, high carb (also refined) diet was healthy even heart-healthy. Instead of improving health, statistics point to a declining health in Americans. This can be found in the rising rates of heart disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and other chronic disease states. Let us take a closer look at the heart disease statistics.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • About 600,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year- that’s 1 in every 4 deaths.
  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women.
  • Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease, killing more than 385,000 people annually.
  • Every year about 715,000 Americans have a heart attack. Of these, 525,000 are a first-time heart attack and 190,000 occur in people who have already had a heart attack.
  • Coronary heart disease alone costs the United States $108.9 billion each year. This total includes the cost of health care services, medications, and lost productivity. Not to mention life, which you cannot put a price tag on.

 

Unfortunately, we are again indoctrinated into thinking that it is normal in our country for many to develop atherosclerosis and to die from cardiovascular disease—“fete de compli”.  Once cardiovascular disease is diagnosed, the only options for treatment are: medications, surgery and you guessed it, a low-fat, higher carb diet. 

 

This belief will become reality if we consume the standard American diet (SAD) that most people eat today. The SAD diet is typically high in sugar, processed foods, unhealthy fats and the usual frequent dining out. But a significant number of research studies (published in LancetJAMAAmerican Journal of Cardiology, and Journal of Family Practice) have documented that heart disease is almost completely preventable and possibly reversible through a diet rich in plant produce and lower in processed foods and animal products. Think of that. A diet that prevents cardiovascular disease and a diet that heals. Such a novel concept–nutrition to heal.

 

The surgical interventions commonly used to treat heart disease, such as angioplasty and bypass surgery have not shown to be very successful. The COURAGE trial and other studies conducted more recently, have documented that patients undergoing these invasive procedures do not live longer nor do they have fewer heart attacks compared to those receiving medical therapy with modest lifestyle changes. Surgical interventions are not long-term solutions to heart disease; they only focus on a small portion of a blood vessel, while cardiovascular disease continues to progress throughout the body’s entire cardiovascular system.

White pad next to a manometer to measure blood pressure and a stethoscope in a hospital, conceptual image

Unfortunately, drugs that treat hypertension and elevated cholesterol also carry many risks that need to be considered. These medications do not stop heart disease from progressing. Cholesterol-lowering statin drugs are known to increase the risk of diabetes, cataracts, liver dysfunction, kidney injury, and impair muscle function. Each different class of blood pressure-lowering medications have side effects as well. ACE inhibitors usually can cause a persistent cough; diuretics are linked to a higher risk of diabetes; beta blockers are associated with increased likelihood of stroke; calcium channel blockers may increase your risk of heart disease and breast cancer; and finally Angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBS) are associated with a higher risk of lung cancer. And don’t forget all the drug induced nutrient depletions and drug to drug interactions.

 

Sound scientific research shows that modest lifestyle changes emphasizing whole foods high in plant produce and minimizing processed foods and animal products reduces cardiovascular disease. What are we waiting for? A heart attack?

 

No poly-pharmacy. No pill-popping. No cutting required. Just modest lifestyle changes are required. If you do make a decision to make modest lifestyle changes, including a change in diet and you are on medications, please do not make any changes to your heart medications without first talking to your physician.

 

There is variability in what is the best eating plan for each individual. Your Forum Health team takes this very seriously. At Forum Health, we create customized wellness plans founded in nutrition and science. Our goal is the best lifestyle changes to bring about the best health outcomes for our clients.

In general, focus on daily:

Goal of one pound of raw vegetables such as broccoli, variety of lettuces, kale, Bok Choy, Swiss Chard, cabbage, green, yellow, red, orange peppers, carrots, onion, celery, sprouts, cucumber, radish, tomatoes, spinach, etc.

 

Goal of one pound of cooked vegetables such as squash, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, green beans, eggplant, kale, onions, peppers, spinach, Brussels sprouts, etc.

 

2-3 servings of starchy vegetables/grains such as winter squash, corn, sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown rice, non-Asian.  (Avoid GMO wheat)

 

1-2 cups of cooked legumes/peas.

 

3-4 servings of organic, preferred whole fruits such as apple, pears, berries, oranges, grapefruit, banana, pineapple, mango, kiwi, etc.

 

1-2 servings of nuts/seeds such as walnuts, macadamia nuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, etc. raw or unsalted lightly roasted without fats added.

 

Modest amounts of fats such as unrefined organic coconut/oil, avocado/oil and organic olive oil. Avoid processed fats.

 

If non-vegan then focus on organic, wild-caught, non-Asian, non-GMO and free range animal proteins such as wild salmon, Icelandic cod, organic turkey/chicken. Keep red meats and eggs to a minimum and if consumed, keep it to organic and grass-fed. Limit animal proteins to one serving per day, preferably only 3-4 servings per week.

 

If non-vegan for dairy- minimal and organic/grass fed such as butter; low-fat yogurt and kefir, plain or sweetened with fruit. 3-4 servings per week.

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