If you’re looking for a big-time heart health boost, put down the low-fat cookies and low-sodium chips and, instead, start filling your shopping cart with items from the produce section.
In a recent study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, just over 1,000 people who’d had a heart attack were monitored over the course of a year to see if their eating habits made a difference in whether they suffered a second attack. Turns out, they did. Those who followed a Mediterranean style of eating—which involves plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, virgin olive oil, legumes, fish, and nuts—showed much better heart function, specifically in artery flexibility and overall blood flow.
These findings fall right in line with other studies that have shown the Mediterranean diet’s protective effects on the cardiovascular system, says Robert Greenfield, MD, medical director of non-invasive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center. (Related: The One Vitamin Doctors Are Urging Everyone to Take Right Now.)
“There’s a reason this way of eating has such longevity in terms of being recommended,” he says. “It’s not a short-term plan that involves deprivation or cutting out food groups. It’s a lifestyle change that’s full of heart-healthy options.”
For example, he says, the healthy fats that come from choices like avocado, olive oil, and salmon help to lower inflammation in the body, which keeps blood pressure regulated. Greenfield adds that these fats also allow you to better absorb certain fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as minerals including calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc.
While the Mediterranean diet does appear to be more effective than a standard low-fat diet (which has been popular among cardiologists for the last couple of decades), it’s not a one-size-fits-all type of approach, according to Francesco Cappuccio, MD, professor of cardiovascular medicine and epidemiology at Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, UK.
Another option, he adds, would be a diet known as DASH—an acronym for “dietary approaches to stop hypertension”—which is very similar to the Mediterranean plan, but also calls for a significant reduction in sodium. Research has supported the use of that diet for heart health, particularly for people trying to lower blood pressure, Cappuccio says.
“The takeaway message of both these diets is to cut the amount of red meat and dairy, and load up on fruits and vegetables much more,” he advises. “That will give you the fiber, potassium, antioxidants, and polyphenols that keep your cardiovascular system strong.”
For more, be sure to read 26 Best Omega-3 Foods to Fight Inflammation and Support Heart Health.