NOV 03, 2021 12:00 PM PDT

New American Heart Association Guidelines: Diet Recommendations, Environmental Sustainability

WRITTEN BY: Ryan Vingum

The foods we eat have a significant impact on our health—that much is without question. Whether you choose to eat a largely plant-based diet, avoid certain animal products, or eat all of the above, what you choose to eat greatly affects various aspects of our physical and mental health. Numerous groups have offered suggestions over the years on the best ways to maintain a balanced diet and eat foods that provide the most benefit nutritionally. Some publish guidelines regularly, such as the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.

The American Heart Association (AHA) has recently published a new set of guidelines in their flagship journal, Circulation. These guidelines outline specific things people can do to promote a healthy heart, many of which focus on the types of foods we eat. The guidelines are as follows:

  1. Maintain a healthy weight by balancing physical activity and calorie consumption.
  2. Focus on getting nutrients from fruits and vegetables, not dietary supplements.
  3. Whole grains, whole grains, whole grains.
  4. Incorporate lean and high-fiber protein sources into your diet (plant proteins, seafood, dairy, lean meat, minimal red and processed meat).
  5. Use olive and sunflower plant-based oils versus tropical oils (e.g., coconut oil).
  6. Minimize processed foods.
  7. Minimize food and drink with added sugar.
  8. Avoid foods with excessive amounts of salt.
  9. Minimize alcohol consumption.
  10. Follow these guidelines, no matter where you are.

These guidelines reflect the most recent research that suggests a poor diet (e.g., diets high in added sugars and fats) can increase an individual's risk of developing cardiovascular disease, such as atherosclerosis and stroke.

However, the guidelines are a bit more unique this year because they incorporate additional guidance on how heart-healthy diets contribute environmental sustainability and the societal challenges that make adopting heart-healthy diets difficult.  

Environmental Sustainability

Food production raises a number of environmental issues. Red meat production, in particular, has one of the highest environmental impacts, producing 60 kilograms of emissions per kilogram of meat. The AHA guidelines note that diets like DASH, Mediterranean, Healthy US-Style are all heart-healthy dietary habits that are also environmentally sustainable. 

Social Challenges

The guidelines also highlight barriers that make it difficult for people to access heart-healthy foods. These barriers include socioeconomic factors, racism, and neighborhood descriminiation (i.e., certain communities have access to less grocery store foods), and efforts made to market unhealthy, processed foods over healthier options. 

Overall, the statement highlights guidance similar to the 2020 version at an individual level (e.g., doctors following up with patients to help monitor dietary intake) but also underscore the need for broader policy action to ensure sustainable, equitable access to nutritious food options in the future. 

Sources: Eureka Alert!; USDA; Circulation; Forbes 

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Science writer and editor, with a focus on simplifying complex information about health, medicine, technology, and clinical drug development for a general audience.
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