AHA Guidance Provides 10 Evidence-Based Diet Recommendations

Walter Alexander

November 05, 2021

In a new scientific statement on diet and lifestyle recommendations, the American Heart Association is highlighting, for the first time, structural challenges that impede the adoption of heart-healthy dietary patterns.

This is in addition to stressing aspects of diet that improve cardiovascular health and reduce cardiovascular risk, with an emphasis on dietary patterns and food-based guidance beyond naming individual foods or nutrients.

The 2021 Dietary Guidance to Improve Cardiovascular Health scientific statement, developed under Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, chair of the AHA writing group, provides 10 evidence-based guidance recommendations to promote cardiometabolic health.

"The way to make heart-healthy choices every day," said Lichtenstein, of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, in a statement, "is to step back, look at the environment in which you eat, whether it be at home, at work, during social interaction, and then identify what the best choices are. And if there are no good choices, then think about how you can modify your environment so that there are good choices."

The statement, published in Circulation, underscores growing evidence that nutrition-related chronic diseases have maternal-nutritional origins, and that prevention of pediatric obesity is a key to preserving and prolonging ideal cardiovascular health.

The features are as follows:

  • Adjust energy intake and expenditure to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. To counter the shift toward higher energy intake and more sedentary lifestyles over the past 3 decades, the statement recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, adjusted for individual's age, activity level, sex, and size.

  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables; choose a wide variety. Observational and intervention studies document that dietary patterns rich in varied fruits and vegetables, with the exception of white potatoes, are linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Also, whole fruits and vegetables, which more readily provide fiber and satiety, are preferred over juices.

  • Choose whole grain foods and products made mostly with whole grains rather than refined grains. Evidence from observational, interventional, and clinical studies confirm the benefits of frequent consumption of whole grains over infrequent consumption or over refined grains in terms of CVD risk, coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke, metabolic syndrome, cardiometabolic risk factors, laxation, and gut microbiota.

  • Choose healthy sources of protein, mostly from plants (legumes and nuts).

  • Higher intake of legumes, which are rich in protein and fiber, is associated with lower CVD risk, while higher nut intake is associated with lower risks of CVD, CHD, and stroke mortality/incidence. Replacing animal-source foods with plant-source whole foods, beyond health benefits, lowers the diet's carbon footprint. Meat alternatives are often ultraprocessed and evidence on their short- and long-term health effects is limited. Unsaturated fats are preferred, as are lean, nonprocessed meats.

  • Use liquid plant oils rather than tropical oils (coconut, palm, and palm kernel), animal fats (butter and lard), and partially hydrogenated fats. Saturated and trans fats (animal and dairy fats, and partially hydrogenated fat) should be replaced with nontropical liquid plant oils. Evidence supports cardiovascular benefits of dietary unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats primarily from plant oils (e.g. soybean, corn, safflower and sunflower oils, walnuts, and flax seeds).

  • Choose minimally processed foods instead of ultraprocessed foods. Because of their proven association with adverse health outcomes, including overweight and obesity, cardiometabolic disorders (type 2 diabetes, CVD), and all-cause mortality, the consumption of many ultraprocessed foods is of concern. Ultraprocessed foods include artificial colors and flavors and preservatives that promote shelf stability, preserve texture, and increase palatability. A general principle is to emphasize unprocessed or minimally processed foods.

  • Minimize intake of beverages and foods with added sugars. Added sugars (commonly glucose, dextrose, sucrose, corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, and concentrated fruit juice) are tied to elevated risk for type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and excess body weight. Findings from meta-analyses on body weight and metabolic outcomes for replacing added sugars with low-energy sweeteners are mixed, and the possibility of reverse causality has been raised.

  • Choose and prepare foods with little or no salt. In general, the effects of sodium reduction on blood pressure tend to be higher in Black people, middle-aged and older people, and those with hypertension. In the United States, the main combined sources of sodium intake are processed foods, those prepared outside the home, packaged foods, and restaurant foods. Potassium-enriched salts are a promising alternative.

  • If you don't drink alcohol, don't start; if you choose to drink, limit intake.

  • While relationships between alcohol intake and cardiovascular outcomes are complex, the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recently concluded that those who do drink should consume no more than one drink per day and should not drink alcohol in binges; the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans con­tinues to recommend no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

  • Adhere to the guidance regardless in all settings. Food-based dietary guidance applies to all foods and beverages, regardless of where prepared, procured, and consumed. Policies should be enacted that encourage healthier default options (for example, whole grains, minimized sodium and sugar content).

Recognizing Impediments

The AHA/ASA scientific statement closes with the declaration: "Creating an environment that facilitates, rather than impedes, adherence to heart-healthy dietary patterns among all individuals is a public health imperative." It points to the National Institutes of Health's 2020-2030 Strategic Plan for National Institutes of Health Nutrition Research, which focuses on precision nutrition as a means "to determine the impact on health of not only what individuals eat, but also of why, when, and how they eat throughout the life course."

Ultimately, precision nutrition may provide personalized diets for CVD prevention. But the "food environment," often conditioned by "rampant nutrition misinformation" through local, state, and federal practices and policies, may impede the adoption of heart-healthy dietary patterns. Factors such as targeted food marketing (for example, of processed food and beverages in minority neighborhoods), structural racism, neighborhood segregation, unhealthy built environments, and food insecurity create environments in which unhealthy foods are the default option."

These factors compound adverse dietary and health effects, and underscore a need to "directly combat nutrition misinformation among the public and health care professionals." They also explain why, despite widespread knowledge of heart-healthy dietary pattern components, little progress has been made in achieving dietary goals in the United States.

Lichtenstein's office, in response to a request regarding AHA advocacy and consumer programs, provided the following links: Voices for Healthy Kids initiative site and choosing healthier processed foods and one on fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables.

Lichtenstein had no disclosures. Disclosures for the writing group members are included in the statement.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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