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Fresh fruits vegetables and heart shape with stethoscope health diet concept

Best Heart Healthy Diets

The US News and World Report ranked the best heart healthy diets.  What do they all have in common?  Plants!  That’s right - diets proving to be effective in the prevention and management of heart disease are rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.  The standard American diet is lacking in vitamins and minerals but instead, is rich in processed foods and sugary beverages.  Plants are nutritional powerhouses rich in fiber, phytochemicals and vitamins, while naturally low in fat and sodium.  Let’s breakdown the top 3 diets and see what might be a good option for you.

Mediterranean Diet - Tie for Top Heart Healthy Diet

The Mediterranean diet has a focus on healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds.  Produce and plant foods are emphasized with protein coming from seafood, legumes and nuts.  The diet is named after patterns found in countries near the Mediterranean Sea.  The plan recommends keeping meats and sweets as a monthly treat, while encouraging eating with others and drinking red wine.

  • Pros: Encourages nutrient dense foods without completely eliminating food groups.
  • Cons: Could require more costly ingredients and cooking skills.

The Ornish diet - Tie for Top Heart Healthy Diet

This diet program formulated by Dr. Dean Ornish tags itself as the first program to “scientifically proven to undo (reverse) heart disease by optimizing four important areas of your life”.  This “lifestyle plan” focuses on food, exercise, stress management and emotional support.  Quality carbohydrates coming from whole food sources, plant based protein and quality fat are at the center of this diet.  Ornish’s plan also recommends reduced intake of stimulants like caffeine.

  • Pros: Complete lifestyle plan with program support for stress and emotional health.
  • Cons: Program requires certification and is only available in certain states.

DASH Diet

Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension (DASH) focuses on restriction of sodium, foods high in saturated fats and sugary drinks to help with blood pressure management.  Two versions exist within DASH regarding sodium recommendations, options are 1500 or 2300 mg of sodium daily.  The plan encourages fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean meats.  Research demonstrates improvements in blood pressure after only 2 weeks on the diet.  Although this is not a program specifically for weight loss, it may be an added benefit for some followers.

  • Pros: Balanced and flexible plan backed by major health organizations.
  • Cons: May require more food prep time as convenience foods tend to be high in sodium.

Looking at the top 3 diets for heart health, the commonality is plant foods.  But food isn’t the full story, incorporating exercise and finding way to move more is so important for heart health.  If you don’t feel ready to adopt a whole lifestyle plan, try increasing your vegetable intake to 3 cups daily or plan one meat-free meal weekly as a way to get more plant foods.

Originally Published: February 2019. Updated: January 2023.

Ellen Thomsen, MS, RD, LMNT, CDE, IFNCP™
Ellen Thomsen, MS, RD, LMNT, CDE, IFNCP™

Ellen Thomsen, MS, RD, LMNT, CDE is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist and Integrative and Functional Nutrition Certified Practitioner. She is the diabetes education program coordinator at CHI Health and sees patients at the Millard Clinic. She works with patients to identify root causes to health conditions and make changes to improve overall health. Ellen’s passion is to help others develop lifestyle habits that allow them to feel their best.

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