You are what you eat. You’ve heard that phrase before, and Dr. Joseph Longhitano says it really is true. You can keep your heart healthy by making smart food choices.
While good nutrition should always be encouraged, February is American Heart Month, making it a great time to start eating better.
A cardiologist at Middlesex Hospital, Dr. Longhitano says there is irrefutable evidence that dietary choices can impact cardiovascular health, and he encourages the Mediterranean diet. “Eat like your ancestors did, and you will have to see me less and less,” he tells his patients.
Dr. Longhitano says indigenous people who live in parts of Sicily, Sardinia and Greece enjoy long lives and don’t suffer from heart disease nearly as much as Americans do. They live in the hills by the sea and walk a lot. They also farm, resulting in more exercise and healthy food options, and they don’t indulge in meats and pastries because they can’t afford them. Dr. Longhitano says the result is a high intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and olive oil; a moderate intake of fish and poultry; and a low intake of red and processed meats, dairy and sweets.
A recent study monitored the health of more than 7,400 people at high risk for cardiovascular disease, and the group that ate a Mediterranean diet with olive oil or nuts enjoyed, on average, a 30 percent reduction in stroke, heart attack or other cardiovascular-related death compared to those who ate a more standard Western diet.
For those who already have heart problems, the Mediterranean diet can still help. Another study observed people who had already suffered a heart attack and broke them into two groups: one fed a Western diet and one a Mediterranean-type diet supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids. The Mediterranean diet group was about 70 percent less likely to have another heart attack or die from heart disease.
While Dr. Longhitano endorses the Mediterranean diet, he understands that it is difficult to always make good choices.
“I am practical and realize that life here in the United States is quite different than somewhere like Sicily,” he says. “Every few miles there is a giant supermarket beckoning people to come in and buy anything and everything.”
To combat the desire to buy unhealthy foods, Dr. Longhitano suggests walking the perimeter of a supermarket to take charge of your food destiny. That’s where you will find the fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, beans, fish, and poultry – the foods you should be eating, he says. In the aisles, he says you will find processed foods, forcing you to rely on nutrition labels to determine what you are eating.
When it comes to dietary guidelines and nutrition labels, Dr. Longhitano says the U.S. government is starting to get it right. In the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent edition of its dietary guidelines, he says there is a lot of overlap with a Mediterranean-based diet. The guidelines suggest limiting saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium and salt, and it now recommends limiting sugar. Too much sugar can increase your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, Dr. Longhitano says.
Meanwhile, states are trying to combat childhood obesity, and food manufacturers are learning what new federal rules mean for nutrition labels. The FDA is laying out more specific descriptions of the food categories used to determine serving sizes. This will, for example, get rid of the category “calories from fat,” highlighting its calorie information instead. Nutrition labels would also be required to include both total sugar and added sugar.
Making smart choices when it comes to food is certainly one way of improving your heart health. For best results, if you receive permission from your doctor, you should also exercise.