Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Eat this, not that – follow this diet, not that one. Dietary advice comes from all angles and avenues, and if you’re just trying to eat well for your heart health, all of the dos and don’ts can be overwhelming. But instead of focusing on fad diets and cutting out specific foods or ingredients, experts suggest that it’s time to try a new approach: Overhaul your lifestyle, not just your diet.
In November 2021, the American Heart Association (AHA) released its updated dietary recommendations, the first big update since 2006. And with these changes, the AHA is suggesting that you emphasize dietary patterns, not individual nutrients or numbers. When you’re working towards better heart health, your overall lifestyle is more important than a single food or food group.
Instead of trying to stick with the latest diets, the AHA’s new guidelines suggest focusing on your habits. With easy-to-follow advice and an emphasis on overall healthy choices or changes, here’s what that means for you and your heart health.
Building heart-healthy habits is in, dieting is out
According to the AHA’s 2021 Dietary Guidance to Improve Cardiovascular Health, the key to better heart health lies not in any one particular diet, but in your dietary patterns. This new guidance suggests that it’s better to take a look at how you’re eating as a whole rather than singling out foods and nutrients here and there.
What, exactly, does that mean? Well, instead of focusing on cutting out – or upping your intake of – a couple of key foods or nutrients, you should instead try to create an overall healthier lifestyle and approach to your nutrition. Building healthy habits that you can incorporate into every day is the way to go.
So, which habits are the best for your heart? The AHA guidelines highlight key features that contribute to a heart-healthy eating plan, including:
- Adjusting your energy intake and output to achieve and maintain a healthy weight
- Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables
- Choosing mostly whole-grain foods over refined grains
- Eating healthy proteins, like plant-based proteins, fish and alternatives to full-fat dairy
- Opting for plant oils over tropical oils, animal fats and partially hydrogenated fats
- Choosing minimally processed foods over ultra-processed foods
- Limiting foods and drinks with added sugar
- Eating and preparing foods with little or no salt
- Limiting (or avoiding) alcohol
The goal of these guidelines is to help people highlight easy changes they can make to their eating patterns. And they’re completely customizable to your own personal preferences, steering clear of suggesting any key foods that should be eaten or avoided. You can work them into your existing diet to make it even heart-healthier.
And instead of suggesting any pro-dieting changes like weight loss or lower caloric intake, these new guidelines give you plenty of flexibility. The emphasis is on good-for-you food patterns – food patterns you likely already try, if you’re following a clean eating approach! – that will work with what’s available and your own nutritional needs.
Focus on what works for you, both now and for the long-term
One of the biggest changes seen in the new AHA guidelines is their flexibility. Designed for individuals to make customizations based on their own needs, from dietary restrictions to cultural adaptations to health concerns, this guidance is all about finding heart-healthy habits that work for you.
Unlike fad diets, which rarely stick and are difficult to adapt to, this new approach to heart-healthy eating can bend and flex depending on your needs. And that should make it easier for you to put them into practice – both now and for years to come.
With these new AHA-approved guidelines, you can think about eating for a healthier heart as a lifestyle, not a diet. Every tweak and adjustment you make, like choosing an extra serving of veggies daily or adding one more workout to your weekly schedule, can help you build overall better habits that keep your cardiovascular system strong. And when you do find changes that fit seamlessly into your everyday life, they can have a significant impact in the long run.
Small steps matter the most
If you don’t think making small changes matters, think again! Good heart health is all about prevention – meaning that taking small steps now can benefit you for years to come by potentially lowering your overall risk of complications and diseases.
Think about it this way: Is it easier to go cold-turkey on all of the unhealthy foods you might eat, or to replace one ultra-processed food with a minimally processed alternative? Whether you’re trying to step up your fruits and vegetables or get in an extra workout, starting small will help make the change more manageable. And, as you build and stick with new healthy lifestyle changes, you can add in more when you’re ready.
Don’t rush to overhaul your diet and lifestyle all at once for better heart health. Small steps are more effective and more likely to stick than huge changes. Completely altering your diet or lifestyle is difficult to sustain; you’ll likely only reap the benefits for a few months. However, if you take heart-healthy changes one at a time, you can wholly incorporate them into your daily life – and make them lifelong habits.
Ready to start making small changes for improved heart health? Keep reading for more healthy habits and tips: