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Diet & Nutrition

Best Heart-Healthy Food Choices

Experts affiliated with the nonprofit Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) have recommended whole food, plant-based eating patterns for optimal heart health.

The recommendation, by PCRM president and founder Neal Barnard, M.D., F.A.C.C., was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Twelve co-authors worked with Barnard on the article “Trending Cardiovascular Nutrition Controversies.”

Barnard and the cardiovascular researchers, including Andrew Freeman, M.D., Pamela Morris, M.D., Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D., Dean Ornish, M.D., and Kim Williams, M.D., reviewed the latest research behind popular food trends to create an evidence-based prescription to provide clinicians with a quick guide to relay to patients in a clinical setting.

Leafy green vegetables, berries, especially blueberries and strawberries, and plant proteins, such as lentils and beans, earned top accolades for supporting cardiovascular function. They combine into a plant-based dietary pattern that lowers blood pressure, stabilizes blood sugar, and breaks down arterial plaque, the early formation of atherosclerosis. These foods should be consumed whole, compared to blended in juices or grounded into antioxidant supplements.

Olive oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, and nuts provide healthful sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, but should be consumed in moderation due to their high calorie content.

Dietary cholesterol should be limited. A Southern dietary pattern, rich in added fats, fried foods, eggs, organ and processed meats, and sugar-sweetened beverages, along with coconut oil and palm oil should be avoided.

And, the investigators said, gluten-containing foods should be avoided only if patients have sensitivities or allergies. A gluten-free diet reduces morbidity and mortality for people with celiac disease, which is about 1 or 2 percent of the population. Nonceliac gluten sensitivity may impact 6 percent of the population.

“It’s no surprise people are confused about what constitutes a heart-healthful diet,” Barnard said. “With thousands of studies published each year, we get contradictory headlines. We collaborated on this review to provide a real-time prescription based on the best available peer-reviewed research.”

Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. Nearly half of Americans have at least one controllable risk factor, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking.

“In addition to eating colorful, plant-based foods, it’s important to make time for sleep, exercise, and stress management, which could come in the form of social support or even listening to music,” Barnard said. “Diet comes first, but what we eat should fuel a heart-healthful lifestyle.”