According to a new study published in the International Journal of Cardiology, adhering to any type of healthy diet—as long as it includes carbs, protein, and unsaturated fat—can boost your heart health in as little as six weeks.
Including these macronutrients in every meal reduces your risk of factors that are known to increase your risk for cardiovascular disease, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity.
As you’ve probably come to realize, nutritional advice is always changing and evolving—especially as it pertains to keeping your heart healthy. Should you take it easy on fats? Should you adhere to a plant-based diet? It seems like every day, there’s new information on how to structure your meals.
But as it turns out, you might not need to worry about the specifics so much. Recent research out of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) in Boston found that as long as you eat an overall healthy diet that includes carbs, protein, and unsaturated fats, you can prevent damage to your heart.
The study, published in the International Journal of Cardiology in January 2020, included 164 participants (with an average age of 53) who had high blood pressure but weren’t on any medications to manage it.
Everyone adhered to the following three diets for six weeks each before moving onto the next one (there was a two to four week washout period in between each diet):
A carb-rich diet similar to the DASH diet, where 58 percent of calories came from carbs.
A protein-rich diet, where 10 percent of calories from carbs were replaced with protein.
An unsaturated fat-rich diet, where 10 percent of calories from carbs were replaced with unsaturated fats.
All three diets were low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and everyone’s daily caloric intake was based on their own body size, sex, and physical activity level.
Here’s what the researchers found: Each diet, regardless of its macronutrient (protein, carbs, or fat) balance, reduced cardiac injury and inflammation within each of their six-week periods.
“Cardiac injury refers to damage to the heart muscle cells,” Lara Kovell, M.D., lead study author and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Division of Cardiology, told Bicycling. “Cardiac damage can be caused by heart attacks, excess stress on the heart, direct trauma from injuries or medications, or diseases that impact the structure of the heart—such as high blood pressure.”
According to Kovell, an overall healthy diet that includes protein, carbs, and unsaturated fat lowers your chances of being diagnosed with diseases that are known to increase your risk for cardiovascular disease—such as hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity. Consuming a diet high in processed foods, even for as little as two weeks, has been shown to lead to weight gain, she said.
“Unprocessed foods like whole fruits and vegetables are relatively low in calories, but good sources of fiber and potassium—making them more filling and helpful in reducing blood pressure,” Kovell said. “Unhealthy foods can rapidly cause worsening health, but it is reassuring to know that healthy diet can improve health within similar time frames.”
While pinning down an “optimal” diet for everyone is not possible, most experts do agree that an overall healthy diet should include a mix of proteins, carbohydrates, and healthy fats, plus essential vitamins and minerals, even if they don’t agree on the exact composition, according to Kovell. This means limiting added sugars, refined carbs, and processed, high-fat meats. Ultimately, the best diet for you is the healthiest diet you can maintain over the long term.
Below, we highlight four heart-healthy meals that are delicious and easy to make:
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