Heart healthy diet starts with your habits, says statement

That doesn’t quite mean giving up take-away or the five-minute meal set from the grocery store. The diet guide encourages people to adapt these habits to their lifestyle.

The statement identifies 10 features of heart-healthy eating patterns – including guidance on combining a balanced diet with exercise; consume most nutrients through food rather than supplements; eat whole grains; reduce sodium, added sugar and alcohol intake; use non-tropical vegetable oils; and eat minimally processed, rather than ultra-processed, foods.

“What’s really important now is that people are making changes that can be sustainable in the long run,” said Alice Lichtenstein, director of Tufts University’s Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory and chair of the writing group for the AHA’s new statement.

The report’s writing group evaluated literature and devised 10 features of heart-healthy diet patterns. The group also extended guidance in recognizing the need for sustainability and societal challenges that may be obstacles to achieve proper nutrition.

Lichtenstein said eating behavior has changed since the AHA last published a statement with dietary guidance 15 years ago. In the past, the main options were eating out or eating in, but eating habits have been less consistent in recent years. There has been a trend – exacerbated by the pandemic – with more options for convenience foods, such as delivery, meal sets and ready-made meals.

Make changes that go a long way

The focus of the AHA’s new guide, Lichtenstein said, is to do what works for you, no matter what dietary restrictions or cultural adjustments you want to make. Lichtenstein discourages people from making drastic changes based on fashion diets – instead, sustained efforts to incorporate these healthy habits may be more beneficial in the long run.

Lauri Wright, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of North Florida and national spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, welcomes this long-term mindset. Wright, who was not involved in the AHA’s statement, stressed the focus on building lifestyle habits, regardless of people’s age and background.

“When we talk about pattern or a lifestyle, we’re not just talking about a diet – something temporary,” Wright said. “This is truly a lifestyle and it can truly accommodate all of your individualities.”

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A heart-healthy way of eating can have other benefits, the statement said, promoting more sustainable practices for the environment. This year is the first time that the AHA guide includes sustainability. Lichtenstein said there is still room for research on plant-based alternatives, such as vegan animal products, which are not always the healthier options. But in general, consuming more whole foods and fewer animal products can benefit both your health and the environment.

The opinion also recognizes societal challenges for the first time, such as food insecurity, dietary misinformation and structural racism, all of which can affect a person’s diet and access to food. A study from Northwestern University from 2020 showed that black and Latin American households are at greater risk of experiencing food insecurity.

Tackle 1 adjustment at a time

More comprehensive food education from an early age can also instill lifelong healthy eating habits. The emphasis is on prevention, Lichtenstein said, rather than short-term solutions.

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Healthy foods have become more convenient, she said. Frozen fruits and vegetables, which can be cheaper than fresh, are comparatively nutritious. Dairy products have low-fat and non-low-fat options. Added seltzers are also readily available as alternatives to sodas.

It can be overwhelming to implement all of these changes at once, but Lichtenstein said this shift could start with one element at a time. Read the label on a snack you buy each week, such as biscuits, and grab the whole grain option. Or choose the options with reduced fat and sugar, if available. Maintaining these habits is about making minor adjustments and gradual changes.

“Think of your entire diet, not individual foods or nutrients,” Lichtenstein said. “We just have to take advantage of what we may not have realized was out there.”

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