As the famous saying goes, “You are what you eat,” and it is in fact true that our diet is intimately connected to health outcomes. When it comes to something that we have a lot of control over – our diet – why not take the next steps to make it healthier!
This article focuses on research-backed tips for achieving a more “heart-healthy” diet, which is especially important for people with diabetes, since the condition can increase the risk for heart disease.
Choose Unprocessed Foods
Many researchers will agree that population-based nutritional studies can be prone to many limitations. It can be very difficult to draw accurate and consistent conclusions about the specific effects of a single food or food group; instead, it is generally accepted that the overall dietary patterns and combination of specific foods consumed paint a more complete picture. However, most studies do agree on the importance of choosing whole foods over highly processed items.
For instance, ample evidence points to the harmful effects of highly-refined, high-glycemic load carbohydrates (e.g., corn syrup, white bread, most pre-packaged desserts), when it comes to cardiovascular health. The Cleveland Clinic recommends eschewing such carbohydrate sources and instead choosing less processed sources, like whole-grain bread and quinoa, for example.
Similarly, there has been some evidence to suggest that eating processed meats may increase heart disease risk. When possible, choosing unprocessed or minimally processed protein sources is the better choice.
Eating “clean” in this regard can also help you minimize your intake of trans fat, which has been consistently shown to increase heart disease risk.
Incorporate More Plants
Numerous studies point to the heart health benefits of a plant-based diet. Did you know that the vast majority of our pharmaceuticals are derived from plants? It’s no wonder that eating more plants can mitigate disease risk – they are packed with antioxidants, vitamins, fiber, and numerous other beneficial substances.
Have you ever heard of “eat the rainbow”? Choosing a variety of fiber-rich and colorful vegetables and fruits will help you incorporate a diverse array of heart-healthy nutrients.
Of course, for people with diabetes, the carbohydrate (sugar) content matters, so be mindful and opt for lower-glycemic-impact choices, like leafy green vegetables, zucchini, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and peppers. Consider choosing berries, and high-in-fiber, lower-in-sugar fruits to get the nutrients you need while also keeping the blood sugar level steady.
Don’t Shy Away from Fats
For many decades, it had seemed that dietary fat was public enemy #1 when it came to heart health. In particular, saturated fats and cholesterol (and thus many nutritious foods, like eggs and meat) earned a bad rep.
However, the picture turned out to be much more complicated. Experts explain that there has been a lack of consistency in the available data regarding the effects of saturated fat and cholesterol intake on cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk. Importantly, while some studies showed an association between red meat consumption and CVD, most of these studies were focused on processed meat products (see above).
What is well-established is that incorporating “healthy-fats” (in particular, omega-3 fatty acids) from sources like fish, avocados, and nuts, appears to have favorable effects on CVD risk. This is a large component of the famous Mediterranean diet, which has been consistently associated with improved cardiovascular health. In contrast, keep trans fat intake at bay (which should be easy enough when mainly eating whole, unprocessed foods).
Besides choosing whole foods (read: no sugar added!), it is equally important to stay smart about beverages. We live in a society that makes it easy and normal to choose sugar-laden drinks (from the orange juice or Macchiato in the morning to the soda at lunch, to the sweetened iced tea with dinner). Choosing to forgo sugar-sweetened beverages is highly recommended for better heart health.
While many nutrition studies can be inherently messy in their design and interpretations, a few well-accepted notions regarding a heart-healthy diet have consistently emerged. Overall, whole-foods-based, unprocessed meals that are low in sugar and high in omega-3 fatty acids, incorporating a variety of plants, and drinking water or unsweetened beverages, can help reduce CVD risk.
Anand SS, Hawkes C, de Souza RJ, et al. (2015) “Food Consumption and its impact on Cardiovascular Disease: Importance of Solutions focused on the globalized food system.” Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 66(14): 1590-1614. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4597475/
Cleveland Clinic (2018) “Heart Healthy Diet.” https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17079-heart-healthy-diet
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (2020) “Preventing Heart Disease.” https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/disease-prevention/cardiovascular-disease/preventing-cvd/
Kim H, Caulfield LE, Garcia-Larsen V, et al. (2019) “Plant-Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All-Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle-Aged Adults.” Journal of the American Heart Association 8(16). https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/JAHA.119.012865
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