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Heart Healthy Diet Plan: Eat Well, Be Happy & Thrive

Author: Amanda Cofer, MPH

When you go get your annual physical your healthcare provider checks a multitude of metrics, ask you what you’ve been eating, or how is your exercise going. One of the main purposes of taking all these measurements like (blood pressure, weight, and cholesterol), asking you all these questions, is to check up on your heart and its health. If your blood pressure or cholesterol are high, they might recommend a heart healthy diet plan. Which begs the question, what is a heart healthy diet plan and what does it do? 

What is a heart healthy diet plan?

When your primary care provider or any other healthcare provider you might see urges your to seek out heart healthy options to lower your cholesterol, blood pressure, or create a healthier lifestyle you might be left with some initial questions. Specifically, what the heck is a heart healthy diet plan in the first place? According to the American College of Cardiology a heart healthy diet is one that is heavy in fruits and vegetables, nuts, lean animal protein and/or plant-based protein, and whole grains. This diets also work to limit salt (sodium) and sugar as well as saturated and trans fats. They also emphasize that fiber is an important component to a heart healthy diet along with variety and lifestyle change to help a diet like this stick. 

This probably sounds like common sense, right? But with processed foods at every turn it can be tougher to spot the stuff that is truly heart healthy sometimes. If you are venturing into the aisles at the grocery store this is where reading the nutrition labels becomes important. You’ll want to take note of the serving size, calories per serving, and then how many of these calories are coming from fat, and then break this down even further to see what kind of fat calories these are. Remember, trans fats or “partially hydrogenated oils” are a hard no go when it comes to your heart health. So what are some signs that you can toss an item into your grocery cart? Check out the percentages on the label. A heart healthy diet plan will aim for a 20-35% of the calories coming from fat. If you’re looking for something low in sodium, the daily value percentage should be 5% or something high if fiber you’ll want to spot a daily value of at least 20%.  A heart healthy diet plan will work to limit foods that are “labeled” and have you working towards unpackaged items like produce, but this know how is important for our busy lives today. 

What does the research say?

With heart disease being a top 5 killer of men and women all over the world and a top healthcare spender, it’s no wonder that so much research has been done on the topic and how to prevent it with diet and exercise. In fact, approximately every 40 seconds someone in the United States has a heart attack and about 1 in 3 deaths is attributed to a heart related disease. So what does the research on a heart healthy diet say? The first thing to note is that when talking about heart disease, many studies look at the cardiovascular system as a whole, not just the heart itself because disease usually starts in the arteries as atherosclerosis, or a buildup of plaque that hardens and weakens the vessel. We know that nutrition so when it comes to your arteries, what’s been shown to help? Let’s start with fiber. 

Generally we hear about dietary fiber being associated with digestive health and system regularity (yes, we sugar coated that), but fiber intake has also been associated with heart health and is important for a heart healthy diet. Fiber helps us control our blood sugar levels and helps in lowering our cholesterol. When our blood sugar and cholesterol are more controlled our bodies experience lower levels of inflammation, our arteries stay happy and clear of plaque longer, and we have lower levels of triglycerides (fats in the bloodstream). It’s recommended that men eat approximately 38 grams of fiber per day and women eat about 25 grams per day. Is this making you want to enjoy for oatmeal? Us too! 

Second, decreasing the amount of saturated and processed fats in your diet has been shown to have an effect on heart health. Saturated fats are usually made from animal products and are solid at room temperature, like butter, margarine, or cooled grease. Foods high in fat like baked goods or fattier cuts of meat might lead to health problems when consumed in excess. The research on this is torn because we all have different genetic components at play when it comes to metabolizing and break down these types of fats, but one thing remains certain; that moderation is still key. Trans fats (aka processed fats) found in processed foods, on the other hand, have been strongly linked to heart disease and other chronic ailments such as stroke and diabetes. An article published through Harvard Medical School states that for every 2% of calories taken in from trans fat, there is a 23% increase in heart disease risk. 

Is the heart healthy diet plan enough?

While the previous statistic might feel a little scary and you’re now probably wondering about your own heart health and how to actually make the hearty healthy changes your doctor recommended, there is certainly hope! In the midst of the talks with your provider, the metrics and, the heart healthy diet recommendations there’s a need for support in making changes. For a lot of us, overhauling habits is a tough road. Support is where Noom comes in! Heart disease risk might be something that lessens over time as you lower your cholesterol and become a healthier you, but these issues are chronic and require lifetime attention. Changing your eating habits and switching to a heart healthy diet plan for good takes time and a deeper dive into the why behind your habits. So how does Noom do this you might ask?

To help you reach your heart healthy goals, your Goal Specialist (aka Noom health coach) will be there working with you side by side to help you through some self discovery, working with you to design what action steps to take, and empowering you through accountability and gentle nudges. This person is highly skilled in health coaching and will also take note of your doctor’s recommendation and will understand a holistic approach to your wellbeing. Another aspect provided through Noom is community. Knowing that you’re not alone in feeling scared, apprehensive, or even excited about some of these changes is important and has been shown to make a difference in reaching long term behavior change success. This community is provided through a group component and safe space to talk with others who might be in the same boat. You’ll connect on struggles and challenges as well as the wins! Each of these methods for support go hand in hand with a psychologically based and evidence based curriculum that goes deeper than cutting out red meat or using olive oil more often. 

The Bottom Line: Heart Healthy Diet Plan

The bottom line is that heart health is not to be taken lightly (all jokes aside), and understanding your heart disease risk is important. Talking with your doctor will be a great place to start! A heart healthy diet does include some general healthy eating habits like making sure you get in your fruits and veggies as well as enjoying desserts in moderation but there are also some specifics like focusing on fiber and avoiding trans fats. Noticing these items on a nutrition label might take some practice but when you’re working with Noom you’ll find that the goals you set and the support you experience will lead to a healthy heart and a healthy lifestyle.