Lifestyle habits, balance key to a heart-healthy diet, American Heart Association says

In a bit of an about-face, the group now is stressing the ‘importance of looking at the total dietary pattern’ rather than what are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods and drinks.

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Americans can “absolutely” adopt a heart-healthy diet due to different lifestyles. Even though it might take a little planning, it can become a routine habit, one expert says.

Americans can “absolutely” adopt a heart-healthy diet due to different lifestyles. Even though it might take a little planning, it can become a routine habit, one expert says.

So is it still all about “You are what you eat?”

Well, it depends whether you’re practicing heart-healthy eating habits, according to the American Heart Association’s ”2021 Dietary Guidance to Improve Cardiovascular Health.” The new 10-point guide suggests that the benefits of eating healthy reduce the risk of heart disease and even death.

But, in a bit of an about-face, the organization also stresses the “importance of looking at the total dietary pattern” to maintain a healthy heart, rather than what are considered “good” or “bad” foods and drinks.

“The emphasis is on dietary patterns, not specific foods or nutrients,” said Alice Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston, who chairs the AHA’s scientific statement writing group. “And it’s not just about what people shouldn’t be eating.

“The focus is really on what people should be eating, so they can customize it to their personal preferences and lifestyles,” Lichtenstein said.

The guide, published in the AHA journal Circulation, comes 15 years after the last time the AHA offered dietary guidance.

The key features of the guidance include obvious things, like balancing eating along with proper exercise, eating grains, lowering your sodium, sugar and alcohol intake.

But the AHA also takes into consideration cultural differences and societal challenges that might make it harder to maintain heart-healthy eating habits, such as the fact that an estimated 37 million Americans had limited or unstable access to safe and nutritious foods in 2020. The organization said it also is taking into account the targeted marketing of unhealthy foods in underserved communities.

The AHA suggests policy changes and public health measures to help address the challenges, including recommending an early introduction of healthy food and nutrition education at all school levels.

And the AHA recognizes that there are healthier options other than cooking and eating meals at home as Americans frequently eat at restaurants, grab takeout, dine via online meal delivery kits and buy prepared foods at supermarkets.

“The goal is to make sure all of those calories count and that you’re consuming nutrient-dense foods,” said Maya Vadiveloo, an assistant professor in nutrition and food sciences at the University of Rhode Island, who’s also a part of the writing group.

Lichtenstein said Americans can “absolutely” adopt a heart-healthy diet, no matter their differing lifestyles, and that, though it might take a little planning, it can become a routine habit.

“We can all benefit from a heart-healthy dietary pattern regardless of stage of life, and it is possible to design one that is consistent with personal preferences, lifestyles and cultural customs,” Lichtenstein said. “It does not need to be complicated, time-consuming, expensive, or unappealing.

“What’s really important is the balance of everything together that has the biggest impact on cardiovascular health.”


  1. Balance food and calorie intake with physical activity to maintain a healthy weight.
  2. Choose a wide variety and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to get a full range of nutrients from food rather than supplements.
  3. Choose whole grains and other foods made up mostly of whole grains.
  4. Include healthy sources of lean and high-fiber protein, such as plant proteins (nuts and legumes), fish or seafood, low fat or non-fat dairy and lean cuts of meat. Also: Limit red meat and processed meats.
  5. Use liquid ,non-tropical plant oils such as olive or sunflower oils.
  6. Choose minimally processed foods rather than ultraprocessed foods as much as possible.
  7. Minimize intake of beverages and foods with added sugars.
  8. Choose or prepare foods with little or no salt.
  9. Limit alcohol consumption. If you don’t drink, do not start.
  10. Apply this guidance no matter where food is prepared or consumed.


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