En español | In the fight against heart disease, the nation's number one killer, Americans already have three powerful weapons at their disposal:
The knife, the fork and the spoon.
As evidence mounts that cardiovascular disease can be prevented, managed and even reversed with changes in diet, the American Heart Association has made eating for heart health a central theme (especially during February, American Heart Month). Of the seven behaviors the AHA endorses to ward off heart disease, five are related to diet and nutrition.
For patients newly diagnosed with heart ailments, there is more proof than ever of food's role in treatment, says Rachel Johnson, who has a doctorate in nutrition. Johnson and her colleagues on the AHA's Nutrition Committee "went through a rigorous process of reviewing the scientific literature and narrowing down to those components of a heart-healthy diet that have been shown to be the most effective in terms of lowering cardiovascular risks," she said. The five diet components that the AHA experts consider most crucial:
- Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables — the equivalent of 4 1/2 cups a day, or more when possible. "That may sound like a lot," Johnson concedes, "but by eating a big salad with lots of dark green and orange vegetables, you can go a long way toward that goal."
- Eating fish. "We are saying at least two servings a week if not more, up to 3 1/2 servings a week," says Johnson. "And especially the oily fish, because that's where the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids are — fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna."
- Eating fiber-rich whole grains, at least three servings daily of about one ounce (roughly one slice of bread). Johnson says read labels "to make sure that the first ingredient listed is whole grain. What we mean is eating grain in the most unprocessed form: brown rice instead of white, whole grain pastas instead of white flour pastas."
- Reducing sodium to less than 1,500 milligrams a day. "We've got a long way to go," says Johnson, given that the average American's daily sodium intake is about 3,400 milligrams, more than 70 percent of which are so-called "hidden salts" in processed foods. Johnson says the AHA has been working closely with the food industry to lower the sodium content in processed foods.