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Experts Rank the 6 Best Diets for Heart Health

man holding red heart on his chest

We've all heard the term "heart-healthy," but what does it mean in practice? How do you shop, cook, and share heart-healthy meals with your loved ones? We've got some great strategies lined up.

Certain foods are better for your heart than others. Salmon and other fatty fish such as sardines are heart-healthy superstars. They contain omega-3 fatty acids shown in studies to lower the risk of arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in the arteries) as well as decreased triglycerides.

Oatmeal is another heart-healthy winner — it is high in soluble fiber which can lower cholesterol.

Avocados and olive oil are both rich in monounsaturated fats that may lower heart disease risk factors. Potatoes and tomatoes are high in heart-healthy potassium and are also a good source of the antioxidant lycopene. And according to a study in 2013, women aged 25 through 42 who ate more than three servings of blueberries and strawberries a week had a 32% lower risk of heart attack compared with those who ate fewer.

Then there’s green tea — a study found that people who drank four or more cups of green tea daily had a 20% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke compared with people who "seldom" drank it.

So how do you put it all together? Salmon with avocado, oatmeal, and blueberry sauce? Could be tasty, but there are folks who have devoted their lives to devising heart-healthy recipes that are audience-proven. All you need to do is pick a diet, grab a diet-specific cookbook, and start–one recipe at a time.

The experts at U.S. News & World Report offer a handy ranking of heart-healthy diets, starting with a three-way tie among the DASH Diet, the Mediterranean Diet, and the Ornish Diet.

Here’s our summary:

Top 3 Heart-Healthy Diets

DASH Diet
DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Since nutrients like potassium, calcium, protein, and fiber are crucial to fending off or fighting high blood pressure, the DASH diet promotes foods with these nutrients. It’s fairly simple in that it promotes eating what you have always known are healthy foods -- fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy -- while limiting foods that are high in saturated fat, such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sweets. If you can also cut back on salt it helps even more.

Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet continues to be heralded as one of the best heart-healthy eating plans. Based on research that indicates people living in countries on the Mediterranean Sea live longer than most Americans and suffer less from cancer and cardiovascular ailments. It is a diet low in red meat, sugar, and saturated fat and high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes, olive oil, and flavorful herbs and spices. Fish and seafood consumption is encouraged a couple of times a week, with poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt in moderation. Sweets and red meat should be saved for special occasions. Like many heart-healthy diets, this one also allows a splash of red wine. If you stay physically fit and maintain an active lifestyle, not only will this diet be good for your heart but may help with weight control.

Ornish Diet
Dean Ornish, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, introduced this diet decades ago, based on his landmark heart disease reversal trials. The study stipulates that only 10 percent of your daily calories can come from fat, and very little of it can be saturated. Foods with any cholesterol or refined carbohydrates, oils, excessive caffeine, and nearly all animal products are banned. Egg whites and one cup per day of nonfat milk or yogurt are an exception. Fiber and lots of complex carbohydrates are encouraged and up to 2 ounces of alcohol a day are permitted. This diet also involves a regimen with stress-management techniques, exercise, social support, and no smoking.

…And the Runners-Up

TLC Diet
Created by the National Institutes of Health's National Cholesterol Education Program, the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) diet is endorsed by the American Heart Association as a heart-healthy program that can reduce the risk of heart disease. The key is cutting back dramatically on fat, especially saturated fat (fatty meat, whole-milk dairy, and fried foods) that can increase levels of bad cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. This diet strictly limits daily dietary cholesterol intake and promotes meals high in fiber. On TLC, you'll be eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or nonfat dairy products, fish, and skinless poultry with a focus on broiled, baked, grilled, roasted, poached, and steamed preparation. There is a lot of calorie counting in this diet, but it’s well worth it, as it has been proven to lower cholesterol levels.

Flexitarian Diet
This diet incorporates two concepts: flexible and vegetarian. The term was coined more than a decade ago, by dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, who claims you don't have to eliminate meat completely to reap the health benefits associated with vegetarianism. You can be a vegetarian most of the time, but still indulge in the occasional burger or steak. Flexitarian meals do revolve around plant proteins rather than animal proteins, however, with an emphasis on "new meat" (tofu, beans, lentils, peas, nuts and seeds, and eggs); fruits and veggies; whole grains; dairy; with some sugar and spice such as dried herbs, salad dressings, and agave nectar sweeteners. Calorie counting is also suggested in this five-week meal plan: breakfast should be around 300 calories, lunches 400, and dinners 500. Snacks are about 150 calories each; so the daily calorie count is low: only 1,500 calories. Like all these diets, menu plans and recipes are readily available.

Living a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle

These heart-healthy diets place emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and beans, and non-tropical vegetable oils. They all encourage limiting saturated and trans fats, sodium, red meat, and sugar – sweets as well as sugar-sweetened beverages. It’s all about choices – do you choose whole-grain bread or white flour biscuits? Lean chicken-apple sausage or fatty pork sausage? Packaged cookies, donuts, and fried chicken or a fresh Caesar salad with grilled chicken?

In addition to eating well, these diet plans all encourage living well — less stress and at least some daily exercise.

Heart disease is still the number one cause of death among Americans and worldwide. So take note of what you eat and what you do. It makes for a good heart.

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