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The Best Diet for Heart Health
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Evidence suggests that both the Mediterranean and DASH diets benefit your heart and overall health, but differ in many ways. Find out which one is the best choice for you.

The Mediterranean Diet

Despite the name, there’s no single Mediterranean diet (MD). It’s an umbrella term for an eating plan based on simply prepared foods that are common to countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including Italy, Crete, and Greece. Research has linked the MD to better heart health, including a study of about 26,000 women that found following the diet for 12 years reduced the likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease by 25%. 

A Mediterranean way of eating is based on grain foods, fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans and lentils), nuts and seeds, and very few, if any, highly processed products. The MD is not a low-fat diet -- olive is the main source of added fat. A Mediterranean-style plan minimizes animal foods, but includes moderate amounts of eggs, poultry, fish, and dairy products. There’s very little red meat, such as beef and lamb, or processed meats. Red wine figures into the MD, but with meals and in small amounts. There’s no need to drink wine to follow the MD, however.

The MD is heart healthy because it’s low in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar, and rich in fiber. And, while there’s no calorie-counting involved, this eating style may help with weight control, and reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes, elevated cholesterol, and high blood pressure, all of which contribute to heart disease.

The DASH Diet

“DASH” stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (high blood pressure). The DASH diet was designed to help treat or prevent high blood pressure, and following it to the letter may reduce blood pressure in as little as 1 week. Research shows that the DASH eating plan also lowers low-density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad") cholesterol, the type that can clog your arteries and lead to a heart attack or stroke.

The DASH diet is based on foods rich in potassium, calcium, and magnesium, such as grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and dairy products. It limits those with extra sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars. Like the MD, the DASH diet is rich in plant foods, but allows more fat-free or low-fat dairy products, lean meat, fish, and poultry.

Fats such as mayonnaise, salad dressing, and vegetable oil are on the plan, rather than just olive oil. The standard DASH diet allows no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily, about the amount found in a teaspoon of salt. Another version restricts sodium to 1,500 milligrams per day. That’s less than the 3,300 to 4,300 milligrams of sodium Americans typically get each day. 

The DASH diet is structured. Followers choose a calorie level that determines what and how much they eat every day. The DASH diet isn’t a weight-loss plan, but some people lose weight on it because it requires portion control. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight contributes to a normal blood pressure, reduces the stress on your heart, and lowers the risk of high glucose levels, which harm blood vessels.

Which Diet Is Best for Heart Health?

 The DASH eating plan and the MD both promote heart health, so choosing one over the other may come down to your health history and lifestyle.

The DASH plan may require big changes in the way you eat because food choices are defined. You have to weigh and measure foods, at least until you get used to proper serving sizes. The MD is less rigid, but you may need to keep tabs on how much you eat so you don’t gain weight and miss out on some -- or all -- the benefits of this plant-based plan.

No matter which one you choose, it’s always a good idea to replace highly-processed foods with fresher alternatives, and to choose whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and seafood more often. Your heart will thank you. 



Photo Credit: gruizza / iStock via Getty Images

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Elizabeth Ward, MS, RDN

Elizabeth Ward, MS, RDN

Registered dietitian nutritionist

Elizabeth Ward, MS, RDN, is an award-winning nutrition communicator and dietitian based in Boston. She is the author of several books, including The Menopause Diet Plan, A Natural Guide to Hormones, Health, and Happiness (co-author), and Expect the Best, Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, and After Pregnancy.

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