This Is the Best Diet for Your Heart, Says New Report

For once, the Mediterranean diet didn't take the top spot. Nutrition wellness experts say this diet's guidelines can help you manage blood pressure and reduce your heart disease risk.

The Mediterranean diet consistently wins heart-health experts’ recommendations for being nutritionally sound, easy to follow, and not restrictive. However, in a new national report, another diet took the top spot as the best diet to improve heart health and reduce cardiovascular risk…

What’s the best diet for your heart?

The DASH Diet stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension”—an eating plan specifically dedicated to achieving healthy blood pressure. At the beginning of every year, U.S. News & World Report releases a ranked list of the best diets to follow during the months ahead. This year, they ranked the DASH diet at a 4.8 out of five as the best diet for heart health.

The Mediterranean diet came in second, with 4.5 out of five. The scores are based on reviews from a panel of nutritionists and doctors who specialize in heart health, diabetes, weight loss, and more.

So what makes the DASH Diet an advantage for cardiovascular health? To learn more about what the DASH diet does to optimize, cholesterol, and more, The Healthy @Reader’s Digest spoke with Charleston, SC-based registered dietitian nutritionist Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LDN, CLEC, as well as Rajesh Reddy, MD, a family medicine doctor and digital health transformation officer in Austin, TX.

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What is the DASH diet?

Originally an eating plan promoted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the DASH Diet is purported to help stop or prevent hypertension, commonly known as high blood pressure. Experts say the diet achieves this by emphasizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy.

As Manaker explains it: “The DASH Diet emphasizes foods that contain certain nutrients, and it even encourages people to focus on getting enough calcium, magnesium, and potassium—three nutrients that positively impact heart health and may help the body maintain healthy blood pressure.”

The DASH Diet also limits the number of saturated fats in the diet coming from fatty meats, full-fat dairy foods, tropical oils, and sweetened beverages. Saturated fats cause that LDL “bad” cholesterol to rise, causing high blood pressure and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

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This closely follows the recommendations from the American Heart Association, which says to limit saturated fat intake to only 5% to 6% of your daily caloric intake (for a 2,000-calorie diet, this would mean around 120 calories or 13 grams). The DASH diet recommends limiting these foods, or just avoiding them altogether to help lower high blood pressure and heart disease risk.

“Certain foods won’t cause or prevent hypertension, but consuming diets that are rich in certain nutrients or ingredients, and lower in others, may impact how the body functions,” says Manaker. “For example, limiting foods that are high in saturated fat and sugar may help support healthy blood pressure. And eating low-fat dairy, vegetables, and nuts can fuel the body with key nutrients that may help attain healthy blood pressure.”

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The DASH diet also helps to limit sodium intake

Along with limiting saturated fat intake, the DASH diet also encourages a relatively lower sodium intake for blood pressure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that high sodium intake has been linked to increased blood pressure, which is why the DASH diet caps sodium at 2,300 milligrams per day, or even as low as 1,500 milligrams per day.

“While sodium is an essential mineral to maintain healthy cell function and conduct nerve signals, too much or too little can cause serious health problems,” says Reddy. “Most processed foods, pre-packaged meals, and restaurant meals contain high amounts of salt, a crystal composed of sodium and chloride. Excess sodium intake causes the body to retain excess fluid, which increases your blood volume, and the more blood volume you have, the higher your blood pressure will be. While blood vessels are elastic and do stretch when they need to, they are limited in how much they can stretch before the pressure within the vessels increases.”

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And while drinking enough water each day does benefit sodium levels in the blood, Reddy points out that dietary intake is still vital in trying to keep those levels low to decrease one’s risk. “Every system in your body is dependent on a balance—in this case, it is a balance between sodium and water in your blood. While you can always drink enough water to maintain proper hydration and balance the concentration of sodium, when your blood sodium level is too high, an excess volume of water will be pulled into your blood (through a process called osmosis), resulting in an increased blood volume and pressure. For this reason, it is important to lower your sodium intake, while maintaining a healthy level of water intake.”

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How to start following the DASH diet

“If someone wants to start following the DASH diet, a good starting point is to swap your refined grains with whole grain options,” Manaker says. “Whole grain bread should be eaten instead of white, for example.”

“Another good practice is to include vegetables or fruits with every meal, since this diet encourages these food groups,” she continues. “Focusing on which fats you are including in your diet is a simple change, as well. Opt for olive oil and avocado oil instead of saturated fats.”

For a specific breakdown of your food servings each day, here’s how to follow the DASH diet for healthier blood pressure.

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Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a journalist and content strategist with a main focus on nutrition, health, and wellness coverage. She holds an MA in Journalism from DePaul University and a Nutrition Science certificate from Stanford Medicine. Her work has been featured in publications including Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Bustle, Buzzfeed, INSIDER, MSN, Eat This, Not That!, and more.