When it comes to eating heart smart, there can be a bit of a food fight. Diet experts continue to debate the healthiness of some foods, but certain choices seem to be clear heart-health boosters.
To help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, beans, seeds, and nuts but low in salt, sugar and saturated fats. Some health care providers are also recommending some foods that were once categorized as unhealthy.
The Sunny Side of Eggs
“Eating eggs, which was thought to be very bad for you, is really not bad for you at all,” said Michael Rothkopf, MD, a specialist in interventional cardiology on the medical staff at Baylor Medical Center at Irving, TX. “They are a great source of protein and don't necessarily raise your cholesterol.”
For the past four decades, the US government and the AHA issued warnings about how eating too many eggs could raise “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, cholesterol). Research has shown that LDL contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries, which can in turn lead to heart attack or stroke.
Dr. Rothkopf’s view is in line with the new 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPH). The Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee suggested that cautions on eating cholesterol-rich foods may be dropped. Research has now shown that cholesterol in the diet may not significantly affect the cholesterol in the body, according to the ODPH. That means that eggs, shrimp, and lobster may be back on the heart-healthy menu.
Some other foods that were once considered bad for the heart are now shifting over to the good column — when consumed in moderation. These include red wine, coffee and dark chocolate. Studies have shown that these items have antioxidants, which can reduce inflammation in the body.
While the AHA warns against eating too much salt, new studies have called into question how much sodium is truly dangerous. Current guidelines suggest that people consume no more than a teaspoon of salt a day, and people over age 50 should set a limit of just under three-quarters of a teaspoon per day. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2014 indicated that people might safely eat double that amount without significantly affecting their heart health.
The debate on how much salt is heart-safe is ongoing, but health experts agree that too much sodium can raise blood pressure and overwork the heart.
Saturated Fat Remains a Villain
The Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee recently continued its warning against foods that are heavy in saturated fats. These include fatty red meats, whole milks, certain cheeses and butter. Many baked goods are loaded with saturated fats. Also, some plant-based oils, such as palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil, are rich in these fats.
Because saturated fats may raise the level of LDL cholesterol in the blood, the AHA recommends limiting consumption of such foods.
In general, these foods may also pack on the pounds, which can add more stress to the heart. The AHA recommends a diet that limits red meat and emphasizes fish and poultry. If eating meat, opt for lean cuts. Processed meats are usually high in saturated fats, too. Those trying to stay heart-healthy are advised to steer clear of sausage, bologna, salami and hot dogs.
What Diet Is Best for the Heart?
There may not be one specific diet that is best for the heart, but the AHA recommends DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). Besides limiting salt and saturated and trans fats, this plan encourages eating meals that are rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, high-fiber, beans and seeds. It also suggests eating fish that contain omega-3 fatty acids at least twice a week. These fish include salmon, trout and herring.
The AHA also urges heart patients to get sufficient potassium in their diets because potassium helps control blood pressure. Bananas, sweet potatoes and spinach are just a few foods that are rich in potassium.
In addition, DASH warns against excessive sugar consumption.
“Sugar is the enemy when it comes to heart disease,” Dr. Rothkopf said.
He recommended limiting foods that are rich in carbohydrates. These are processed as sugar in the body. They include white bread, flour, pasta, rice, chips, most desserts and drinks with sugar in them.
When there is excess sugar in the bloodstream (glucose), the pancreas will produce more insulin. Excess insulin may promote inflammation. This inflammation can increase the risk of heart disease. These sugars and carbs can also lead to weight gain, which can be an extra burden on the heart.
“I would issue a challenge for anyone who is trying to lose some weight to go on a diet ... and pretty much eliminate sugar for a month,” Dr. Rothkopf said. “I believe ... you could lose 10 pounds in a month.”