Your Diet Can Stave Off Heart Disease

There is no perfect diet, but little improvements count.(VEER)

A good diet is always important for health, but the stakes are especially high for people with heart disease. Food can either help protect the heart or provide fuel for a heart attack.

The diet plan you choose to prevent heart disease will depend on your unique risk factors. People with hypertension, for example, should choose a plan low in sodium and fat.

Those with high cholesterol should consider a diet rich in olive oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and other heart-healthy fats.

Those who need to lose weight should consider a calorie-restricted version of their heart-healthy diet. On average, cutting 500 calories a day from your diet leads to a loss of one pound per week. The safest way to lose weight is to aim to drop up to one pound per week; crash diets can be harmful and rarely lead to permanent weight loss.

It is unlikely that you'll ward off heart disease through diet alone—exercise and heart medications matter too—but your choices at the dinner table really can determine your future.

A healthy weight is a healthy heart

One reason it's important to eat healthfully is to keep your body weight in a normal range.

A study of nearly 30,000 men found that overweight men (BMI 25 to 28.9) had a 72% increased risk of developing coronary heart disease over a three-year period, compared with men of a normal weight. Obese men had a 244% increased risk.

Another study found that adhering to any weight-loss plan—even a high-fat program—over one year can reduce your LDL/HDL ratio by 10% and modestly lower overall cardiac risk factors.

Do eat like a Greek

The composition of your diet matters, even if you don't need to lose weight.

While the American Heart Association recommends getting less than 30% of calories from fat, you can also give your heart a boost by following a Mediterranean-style diet, which goes easy on red meat but loads up on healthy fats.

The landmark Lyon Diet Heart study found that heart attack survivors who adopted a Mediterranean-style diet—low in red meat and dairy but rich in olive oil, nuts, fish, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables—lowered their risk of heart attacks and sudden-cardiac-related death by up to 70%.

A small four-year study of heart attack survivors found that the AHA and Mediterranean approaches are equally effective. Compared with the typical American diet, both diets cut the risk of complications—including death, another heart attack, stroke, or hospitalization for heart trouble—by about two-thirds.

Anyone concerned about heart health would do well to add more fruits and vegetables to their diet. The Physicians' Health Study followed more than 15,000 men without heart disease for 12 years. Those who ate at least two-and-a-half servings of vegetables each day cut their risk of heart disease by about 25%, compared with those who didn't eat the veggies. Each additional serving reduced risk by another 17%.

Lowering sodium can help the heart

The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is another option, especially for those whose heart disease is caused or complicated by hypertension.

The plan, which is heavy on fruits and vegetables but low in fat and sodium, can reduce systolic blood pressure (the upper number) by about 12 points and diastolic pressure (the lower number) by about six points. It can reduce total cholesterol levels by about 7%.

"I'm a believer in the DASH diet," says Harvard cardiologist Thomas Lee, MD. "Even if a patient is already taking medications to lower their cholesterol and their blood pressure, the DASH diet—or something like it—can still protect the heart and reduce the risk of a heart attack."

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