Being Heart Healthy is About ‘Eating Patterns’ and Active Lifestyles

As the first “shelter-in-place” orders went into effect in March of this year, the American Heart Association (AHA) intensified its campaign to educate U.S. adults about their ability to control risk factors for heart disease, heart attacks and stroke.

Several months into the pandemic, the AHA still urges everyone to follow the so-called Life’s Simple 7 plan. It covers the seven key areas of prevention: Managing blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, reducing blood sugar, exercising regularly, healthy eating, weight management and not smoking.

Heart healthy eating is a big focus of heart disease management and prevention, according to Theodore Feldman, M.D., medical director of prevention and community health at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, and Lucette Talamas, a registered dietitian with Community Health at Baptist Health South Florida. Dr. Feldman and Ms. Talamas were recently featured in a Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute webcast, “Ask the Heart Doctor: Heart Healthy Eating.”

“There’s a ton of good science when it comes to heart healthy eating and nutrition as it relates to overall health,” said Dr. Feldman. “But it’s really much more … it’s more about eating patterns. And it’s about incorporating healthy eating in terms of an overall lifestyle and a general approach to health — with regular exercise and weight management, not smoking, moderating alcohol and caffeine, and finding that right mix while managing your stress.”

The U.S. government’s dietary guidelines, also known as My Plate, focus on plant-based options, says Lucette Talamas, a registered dietitian with Community Heath at Baptist Health South Florida. About half of the government’s My Plate is fruits and vegetables, while the other half is grains and protein. Overall, 75 percent of the plate has always been plant-based.

The Mediterranean Diet — highly rated by dietitians — focuses on fruits and vegetables, but make allowances for lean proteins from fish and poultry. Both plans strongly restrict red meat, overly processed meats and sugary drinks.

The Mediterranean Diet highlights vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts, beans and whole grains. Its foundation is made of plant-based foods. Moderate amounts of dairy, poultry and eggs are also central to the Mediterranean diet, as is seafood. In contrast, red meat is eaten only occasionally.

“The Mediterranean diet is actually not a set diet,” explains Lucette Talamas. “I know it sounds confusing because it’s called the Mediterranean Diet. It’s actually a dietary pattern … which just means what are the foods that are that you’re eating more often and what are foods that you are eating less often.”

Ms. Talamas says she likes the flexibility of the “true Mediterranean Diet pattern.”

“It’s a collection of eating patterns from all the different countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea, so there’s a lot of different countries and different cultures and lifestyles,” she says.

The base of the recommended Mediterranean Diet pyramid covers health living, which include regular exercise and physical activity, weight management and controlling stress.

“The base of the pyramid starts with lifestyle,” explains Ms. Talamas. “You know that nutrition is a really important part of heart health and prevention and management of any chronic disease. But so is overall lifestyle — being physically active, enjoying your meals, like actually stopping and eating your meals versus eating in a rush and things like that.

The largest part of the pyramid describes the foods “most abundant” in the Mediterranean eating pattern. “It’s basically all of your plant-based foods —  so your fruits your vegetables your grains, mostly whole grain, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, herbs, spices and vegetable oils, specifically olive oil,” says Ms. Talamas.

Dr. Feldman adds that it’s important to focus on healthy eating overall, instead of tyring different diets.

“I would pay much less attention to this being good for this week, and this being bad for next week, because you’ll drive yourself crazy,” said Dr. Feldman. “Over time, we have developed certain principles: trans fats are bad; high fructose corn syrups are bad; processed foods have a ton of salt.. “I would focus much more on the principles of healthy eating whole non-processed foods.”

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