A full stomach makes the heart happy," says the old saying. But the American Heart Association (AHA) takes a different approach. The influential medical association in the United States released its latest 2021 dietary recommendations on Tuesday, aimed at improving cardiovascular health. It's the first time in over 15 years that the AHA has updated its recommendations, and it aims to adapt them to current eating habits, which have been influenced by the trend, exacerbated by the pandemic, of increasing fast food options such as home delivery, meal kits, and pre-prepared foods. The new suggestions aim to make them more practical for everyone, regardless of dietary restrictions or cultural adaptations they may want to implement. The AHA recommends incorporating these healthy habits in the long term, rather than making radical changes based on trendy diets. Here are the AHA's 10 recommendations for keeping your heart healthy.
- Adjusting Energy Intake and Expenditure to Achieve and Maintain a Healthy Body Weight
According to the American Heart Association, maintaining a healthy body weight throughout life is a crucial factor in reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases (CVD). This holds especially true in an era where food consumption is on the rise, and lifestyles are becoming more sedentary. The report specifies that energy needs vary widely depending on age, activity level, gender, and individual size. However, in adulthood, energy needs decrease by 70 to 100 calories with each decade of life.
"A clinical and public health approach aimed at promoting the adoption of a healthy eating pattern […] alongside portion control and energy balance is essential to reduce weight gain and the risk of CVD," it says.
- Eat Plenty of Fruits and Vegetables (and a Wide Variety of Them)
The AHA's report reminds us that most subgroups of fruits and vegetables have been associated with reduced mortality. "Consuming a wide variety of these food groups provides essential nutrients and phytochemicals in sufficient quantities. All forms of fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen, canned, and dried) can be incorporated into heart-healthy diets," it says. Blueberries contain anthocyanin, which has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.
Cardiologists particularly recommend consuming brightly colored fruits and vegetables and eating them whole rather than in juice form. They also advise limiting those that contain added salt and sugar.
- Eat Whole Grain Foods Instead of Refined Grains
The AHA's report highlights that several studies reaffirm the benefits of consuming whole grains rather than refined ones. In general, they recommend products made up of at least 51% whole grains. Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of premature death.
- Choose Healthy Protein Sources
According to the AHA, it is important to primarily choose protein sources of plant origin, such as legumes and nuts. Common types of legumes include soy (including edamame and tofu), beans, lentils, chickpeas, and peas. "It's worth noting that replacing animal-based foods with whole plant-based foods has the added benefit of reducing the dietary carbon footprint, contributing to planetary health," it adds.
The best way to have a diverse diet is to consume foods of different colors. However, it cautions against the consumption of plant-based meats, as these are currently highly processed products that contain added saturated sugars, fats, salt, stabilizers, and preservatives. "Currently, the evidence regarding the short- and long-term health effects of these plant-based meat substitutes is limited," says the AHA.
- Regular consumption of fish and seafood.
- Low-fat or non-fat dairy products instead of whole dairy products.
- If you desire red meat or poultry, choose lean cuts and avoid processed forms.
- Use Liquid Vegetable Oils
The AHA advises against using so-called tropical oils (such as coconut and palm oils), as well as animal fats (butter and lard) and partially hydrogenated fats. Instead, it recommends using oils like soybean, corn, safflower, and sunflower oils, as well as walnut and flaxseed oils. The same goes for canola, olive, walnut, and peanut oils, as well as most nuts and nut butters. Coconut oil, in particular, contains more saturated fats than butter.
- Choose Minimally Processed Foods Over Ultra-Processed Foods
Similar to other reports of its kind, the document emphasizes that the consumption of many ultra-processed foods is concerning due to their association with adverse health effects, including overweight and obesity, cardiometabolic disorders (type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases), and increased mortality. "The general principle is to focus on the consumption of unprocessed or minimally processed foods," it says.
- Reduce the Consumption of Beverages and Foods with Added Sugars
Another recommendation that the AHA emphasizes is to limit the consumption of added sugars in foods or beverages, whether it's glucose, dextrose, sucrose, or other types of sweeteners like corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, or concentrated fruit juice. It also suggests limiting the intake of low-energy sweeteners and low-content mono- and disaccharides, the potential benefits of which have not yet been determined.
- Reduce or Eliminate Salt Consumption
As a classic recommendation from cardiologists, the AHA suggests limiting salt intake. This time, it's not just about added salt to foods, but also about keeping an eye on processed foods, those prepared outside the home, or those that are canned and packaged. "A promising alternative is to replace regular salt with potassium-enriched salts, especially in food preparation settings," it says.
- If You Don't Drink Alcohol, Don't Start; If You Choose to Drink Alcohol, Limit Your Consumption
The AHA acknowledges that the relationship between alcohol and cardiovascular diseases is "complex," as "the risk appears to vary depending on the amount and pattern of alcohol consumption, age, and gender." A sedentary lifestyle and a diet high in fats increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
"The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 to 2025 continue to recommend not exceeding one alcoholic drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
- Follow These Guidelines Regardless of the Location of Food Preparation or Consumption
According to the AHA, these recommendations should apply to all foods and beverages, regardless of where they are prepared, purchased, and consumed. "Policies should be adopted to encourage healthier food choices, such as providing whole grain-based products instead of refined grains and reducing the sodium and sugar content of products," the report states.