Which Diet Is Best for Heart Health?

The answer likely won't surprise you: The Mediterranean diet has been touted as one of the most healthful for years.

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Photo: Getty / Marko Geber

The dietary choices you make each and every day have a direct impact on your heart's health—something you likely already know. But deciding which standardized diet is best for your cardiovascular system? That might be a little less intuitive. To clarify, we asked cardiologist Dr. Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., C.N.S., of the Heart MD Institute and Vervana, for his go-to recommendation.

The Mediterranean diet is king.

While there are several diets that have heart benefits, Dr. Sinatra believes that the Mediterranean diet is best. "In essence, the Mediterranean diet utilizes primarily healthy fats like olive oil and multiple fresh fruits and vegetables; you flavor sauces with small amounts of meat," he says, adding that many medical journals have documented the connections between this eating method and improved heart health and fewer instances of Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and more.

There's proof that this diet works.

The healthiest diets should include approximately 40 percent of daily calorie consumption from carbohydrates, 35 to 40 percent from healthy fats, and 20 to 25 percent from non-contaminated proteins, says Dr. Sinatra—an equation the Mediterranean diet is predicated on. The key components? The healthy fats, he adds. "I strongly believe that perhaps the major reason why cultures around the Mediterranean basin have the best longevity in the world is because of their generous use of olive oil," he says. "Mediterraneans, whether in Spain, Italy, Greece, or northern Africa, use olive oil abundantly." And according to Dr. Sinatra, research has demonstrated that olive oil has a remarkable affinity to bring the pro-inflammatory genes that we all possess into a non-inflammatory state. "Since inflammation is the cause of all disease, lowering the inflammatory index of the body is crucial—and that is why I strongly believe that olive oil is the 'secret sauce' of the Mediterranean diet," he shares.

Stock up on heart-healthy foods in general.

Beyond a hard-and-fast diet, Dr. Sinatra says to fill up on heart-healthy foods, like onions, garlic, artichoke, avocado, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and berries, in general. "This small array of fruits and vegetables, for example, contains multiple antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, precious carotenoids, and polyphenols that support the body," he notes, adding that consuming organic produce only enhances their benefits.

You don't have to give up meat.

Dr. Sinatra maintains that you don't have to cut meat out of your diet in order to bolster your heart's health. "In my opinion as a cardiologist for almost five decades, the most healthy diet is a healthy mix," he advises. Take an 80-20 approach—your diet should consist of 80 percent vegetarian or vegan choices and 20 percent animal proteins, like pasture-raised meats, wild migratory salmon and sardines, and lamb.

You should try to curb your sugar intake.

When it comes to your heart, Dr. Sinatra says sugar is another enemy. This means cutting (or limiting) your consumption of white table sugar, as well as sugar-laden foods and drinks. "Sugar elicits an insulin response which is the basis of arterial inflammation and thus endothelial cell dysfunction," he says. "In this group, sugary carbohydrates like pies, pastries, bagels, donuts, and other high-carbohydrate-laden foods should also be avoided as much as possible." While fats typically get all the blame, sugar consumption can actually cause the type of chronic inflammation that is the root cause of heart disease: "This is one of the reasons why high carbohydrate diets contribute to coronary artery disease," concludes Dr. Sinatra.

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