This Research-Backed Trick Can Help Your Heart-Healthy Diet Stick

Science suggests that shifting your focus can make a big difference.

  • A meta-analysis published in the American Heart Association’s Circulation journal in 2019 found that heart-healthy diets are naturally low in cholesterol.
  • Overall heart-healthy dietary patterns that lower saturated fat and dietary cholesterol intake, such as the Mediterranean diet, reduce the risk for heart disease.
  • Focusing on the health of the overall diet rather than a numerical value of cholesterol is more effective in making successful dietary changes.
  • Heart-healthy diets include fresh vegetables, fruits, lean meats, and aim to limit foods high in saturated fats such as butter, cheese, and red meat.

Overhauling your diet—especially when it comes to lowering your cholesterol—might sound daunting, but recent research has found that focusing on your diet as a whole (rather than just cholesterol intake) starting with some simple swaps can help make eating healthier stick. Making a few dietary changes can make a big difference when it comes to your heart health.

In a 2019 scientific advisory published in the American Heart Association (AHA) Circulation journal, researchers analyzed over 50 studies, including several meta-analyses, and found heart-healthy diets are also naturally low in cholesterol, which is important because high blood cholesterol can up your risk for heart attack and stroke.

And, the one-trick researchers found when digging through the data was that focusing on the overall diet rather than tediously tracking a numerical value of cholesterol intake is more effective in helping you successfully stay on track with healthy eating.

Focusing on heart-healthy dietary suggestions (think: lots of fresh vegetables, fruits, lean meats, and less of foods high in saturated fats such as butter, cheese, and red meat) works because totality of the diet matters, especially for people who need to lower their cholesterol, Jo Ann Carson, Ph.D., R.D.N., immediate past chair of the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee told Runner’s World. Plus, people more often arrange their diets based on foods—not from a list of nutrients—so food-based advice relates more directly to daily dietary decisions.

“It gives the health care professionals the basis for clarifying that too much cholesterol in the diet can be bad for you, but you can enjoy sources of cholesterol in moderation. This includes perhaps an egg a day, or an occasional shrimp cocktail,” Carson said. “The advisory also reinforces the message that it is the entire dietary pattern that contributes to heart health.”

Because having high blood cholesterol increases your risk for heart disease, it’s important to exercise and eat well to keep LDL (bad) cholesterol low and HDL (good) cholesterol levels up. Additionally, keep in mind that many foods contributing to high cholesterol are high in saturated fat, which can lead to increased levels of LDL cholesterol and increase a person’s risk for heart attack or stroke.

Foods That Are Part of a Heart-Healthy Diet (and Foods That Aren’t)

To optimize your heart health, following a Mediterranean or DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet, which is low in cholesterol by nature) can help lower the risk for heart disease and stroke. The Mediterranean diet isn’t actually a “diet” that you’re done with in a few months, but rather a lifestyle that incorporates the foods popular in the Mediterranean region, such as Spain and Greece. These foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, lean protein sources, as well as healthy fats from nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils into your diet, Carson said. When including healthy foods in your diet, be careful not to exceed your calorie needs, Carson cautioned. This will more likely happen if you add too much fat or sugar.

While it’s important to note that some studies show a relationship between dietary cholesterol and heart disease, others show no link. Even though more research is needed on whether or not eating foods high in cholesterol directly raises your heart disease risk, the evidence shows that eating a balanced diet of fruit, veggies, and whole grains and is rich in polyunsaturated fats (found in nuts, seeds, and fish) and monounsaturated fat (found in olive oil and avocados) and avoiding high intake of saturated fat is one way to create a heart-healthy diet.

Foods that are high in cholesterol, like fried foods, don’t fit that heart-healthy bill. And, because the fat in animal foods is typically higher in saturated fat and contains cholesterol, reducing fat in your diet from animal sources is one simple way to help reduce cholesterol, Carson said. Below are some simple tweaks Carson suggested you can make.

Heart-Healthy Swaps:

  • Breakfast: Start with a bowl of oatmeal as your base and add berries and nuts. Making it with fat-free milk instead of water will add more protein without adding saturated fat or too many calories. Forego the bacon and sausage.
  • Lunch: In place of a fast-food hamburger, choose the leaner grilled chicken sandwich, or find a healthy plant-protein food, such as hummus and pita bread.
  • Snacks: Reach for fruit or nuts instead of cookies or candy.
  • Dinner: Keep your meat portions on the small side—3 or 4 ounces. To make the portion more satisfying, try adding it into a stir fry or an entree salad rather than a very small steak.
  • When eating out: Watch the type of fat that is added in food preparation. For example, in traditional Mexican restaurants, refried beans likely contain lard, so instead select the charro beans or black beans.

Check in with your doctor to make sure your cholesterol levels are healthy and always consult with your doctor before making any major dietary changes.

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