By Sherry Liang
A full belly makes a happy heart, but your heart will be happier if you focus on sustaining long-term habits.
Heart-healthy eating starts with your eating patterns, according to the American Heart Association’s recent scientific statement, “2021 Dietary Guidance to Improve Cardiovascular Health.”
That doesn’t mean giving up takeout or that five-minute meal kit from the grocery store altogether. The dietary guidance encourages people to adapt these habits into their lifestyle.
The statement identifies 10 features of heart-healthy eating patterns — including guidance to combine a balanced diet with exercise; consume most nutrients through food over supplements; eat whole grains; reduce sodium, added sugar and alcohol intake; use non-tropical plant oils; and eat minimally processed, over ultra-processed, foods.
“What’s really important now is that people make modifications that can be sustainable in the long term,” said Alice Lichtenstein, director of Tufts University’s Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory and chair of the writing group for the AHA’s new statement.
The statement’s writing group evaluated literature and devised 10 features of heart-healthy dietary patterns. The group also expanded on the guidance, recognizing the need for sustainability and societal challenges that can be obstacles to achieving proper nutrition.
Lichtenstein said eating behaviors have changed since the AHA last published a statement with dietary guidance 15 years ago. Previously, the main options were to eat out or dine in, but eating habits have been less consistent in recent years. There has been a trend — exacerbated by the pandemic — of more convenience food options, such as delivery, meal kits and premade meals.
Make changes that go the distance
The focus of the AHA’s new guidance, Lichtenstein said, is to do what works for you, whatever dietary restrictions or cultural adaptions you want to make. Lichtenstein discourages people from making drastic changes based on fad diets — instead, sustained efforts in incorporating these healthy habits can 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 spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, seconds this long-term mindset. Wright, who was not involved with the AHA’s statement, emphasized the focus on building lifestyle habits, regardless of people’s ages and backgrounds.
“When we’re talking pattern or a lifestyle, we’re not just talking about a diet — something temporary,” Wright said. “This is really a lifestyle, and it really can accommodate all of your individualities.”
A heart-healthy way of eating can have other benefits, the statement said, fostering more sustainable practices for the environment. This year is the first time the AHA guidance has included sustainability. Lichtenstein said there is still room for research about plant-based alternatives, such as vegan animal products, which are not always the healthier options. But generally, consuming more whole foods and fewer animal products can benefit both your health and the environment.
The statement also recognizes societal challenges for the first time, such as food insecurity, diet misinformation and structural racism, which can all affect a person’s diet and access to food. A 2020 Northwestern University study found Black and Hispanic households are at greater risk for experiencing food insecurity.
Tackle one 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.
Healthy foods have become more convenient, she said. Frozen fruits and vegetables, which can be cheaper than fresh, are comparably nutritious. Dairy products have low-fat and nonfat options. Flavored seltzers are also readily available as alternatives to soda.
Implementing all these changes at once can be overwhelming, but Lichtenstein said this shift could start with one item at a time. Read the label on one snack you purchase every week, such as crackers, and reach for the whole-wheat option. Or choose the reduced-fat and sugar options if those are available. Sustaining these habits is about making minor adjustments and incremental change.
“Think about your whole dietary pattern, not individual food or nutrients,” Lichtenstein said. “We just have to take advantage of what maybe we didn’t realize was out there.”