Heart Healthy Diets

Let’s start out the New Year with a fresh look at our diets and how we can change them to look after our most vital organ, our heart.

Visit www.cardiosmart.org/nutrition for more ideas, but, straight from the cardiologist’s desk, these are the key things you should be doing (and we’ll look at each in more detail):

  • Boost your intake of fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Cut back on sodium, sugars and saturated fats
  • Don’t forget to exercise.


We can all eat more fruit and vegetables, particularly fresh ones (not tinned or jarred, though frozen is fine). There are three specific diets that Cardio Smart recommend: 1) Mediterranean, 2) DASH and 3) Vegetarian. All involve an increase in fruit and vegetables compared to a general US diet.

Let’s look at them in more detail. First the Mediterranean, for centuries well known as one of the healthiest diets out there. This diet is light on meats and sweets and concentrates instead on larger portions of fruits and vegetables, beans, legumes and whole grains, fish, nuts and olive oil. It would not be uncommon to find that dessert would be a plate of naturally sweet watermelon or strawberries instead of sugar-laden cake, for example.

med diet


They also tend to eat seasonally – that is they eat whatever fruit and vegetables are available locally that season; that way they are not paying a premium price for imported goods and the goods they buy can be grown locally, thus supporting local farmers. A win win. Also, when you buy produce that has been brought in all the way from South America, say, in refrigerated containers on ships, it can be weeks if not months old by the time you get it. Local produce is fresh, and if it’s organic too, all the better. Organic fruit and vegetables contain up to 50% more nutritional value than their non-organic counterparts. Something to remember when you balk at the price tag.





Everything is cooked in olive oil, a healthy fat, and it is also used as the base for any dressings or sauces. This, combined with the low meat levels, means low levels of saturated fats are consumed.

Second in line is what they call the DASH diet – Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH). This focuses on limiting salt to less than 1500 mg per day. The key factors to the diet are 1) Lean meats and low-fat dairy, 2) Fruits, vegetables and whole grains, 3) limiting salt – checking labels and adding salt at the table as opposed to during cooking.

Salt (or sodium) is a key factor in hypertension, so if you suffer from this or if it is a problem in your family you should seriously look at this diet. My husband, the cardiologist, would always tell his patients to add salt at the table, purely because you tend to use less that way. Once it’s dissolved into cooked food, often people will still add more after anyway, so you end up doubling up on it.

salt cellar

Another thing to be aware of is the actual meaning of the terms used for sodium on food labels. “Light or reduced sodium” means 25% less sodium than what the food normally contains, “Low sodium” means 140mg or less in one serving, “Very Low Sodium” means 35mg or less in one serving, “Sodium-free” means 5mg or less in one serving, “Unsalted” is the only one which actually means NO Sodium added to the food.




Thirdly, the vegetarian diet, which obviously concentrates on fruits and vegetables, legumes, grains, seeds and nuts. No meat, though some “vegetarians” still eat fish and dairy is optional (vegans eat neither meat, fish nor dairy). This is a harder one for most Americans to follow, though I have to say I am meeting more and more vegetarians these days and it is all down to the health benefits. Personally, I cannot go entirely vegetarian, but I do limit my intake to purely organic meat and wild caught fish. Quality not quantity.

mediterranean diet

All three of these diets will help you maintain a healthy weight naturally, lower the risk of heart disease AND improve blood pressure. Surely good enough reasons for us all to try a little harder to eat healthier this year? But let’s not forget the exercise! Even walking for 10-15 minutes a day will have positive health benefits: increased lung capacity, improved resting heart rate, pumping oxygen around your body especially if exercising outdoors is wonderfully beneficial for both heart and mind. When you get home from work, or before you leave – or even at lunchtime – just take a walk around the block. I promise if you do this EVERY day, you will see the benefits. Of course, the whole package is diet and exercise combined. One thing you don’t hear about the Mediterraneans is that after every meal they WALK. It helps digestion, it gets the blood flowing and stops that sluggish feeling after a big meal (and believe me they can eat a lot of food, but they walk it off!) So, happy eating and happy walking in 2018!

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