While some of the latest diet trends have claimed to whittle down our waistlines, how successful have these diets been for our hearts?
A recent report by Harvard Medical School looked at 5 popular diet trends to determine which one is best for heart health, if any…
A low-fat diet
The problem with this diet trend is that many people started to eat more sugary foods and processed carbohydrates including pasta and white bread and, because these foods are, low fat.
But, perhaps one of the most positive steps for heart health in recent years has been the stripping of trans fats from processed foods. The main source of these harmful fats is partially hydrogenated oil. For decades, deep-fried fast foods, baked goods, crackers, chips, and margarine were made with partially hydrogenated oils.
According to Dr Walter Willett, professor in nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, trans fats raise undesirable LDL cholesterol, which make blood more likely to clot, and ramp up inflammation in the body — all of which raise heart disease risk. The good news is, the South African Department of Health has limited the amount of trans fats allowed in foods to 2%.
The verdict: While it’s certainly advisable to cut trans fats from your diet, Julie Corliss, Executive Editor at Harvard Heart Letter, says that eating less fat doesn’t necessarily help you lose weight.
This is because low-fat diets tend to be higher in refined carbohydrates which may contribute to weight gain and promote type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
The bottom line is that if you choose to follow a low-fat diet, stick to low-GI carbohydrates and whole-grains such as wholewheat breads and pasta, quinoa, sweet potatoes, oats and rye.
A gluten-free diet
“Gluten-free diets have been a big trend lately, but there’s no good evidence to support these diets for most people,” says Dr Willett. Exceptions include people with celiac disease, which affects about 1% of the population.
The verdict: The problem with many gluten-free products on shelves today is that they’re loaded with more sugar, fat and salt than their gluten-free counterparts, and this is bad for heart health.
If you choose to stick to a gluten-free diet, avoid packaged foods as far as possible and stick whole grains such as brown rice, oats, buckwheat, and quinoa, which are naturally gluten free.
A sugar-free diet
There’s no doubt that a high sugar diet is bad for your overall health and waistline. “High-sugar diets have been linked to a higher risk of heart disease, even in people who aren’t overweight,” says Julie.
Studies have shown that the biggest sugar culprits in the average diet include sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas, energy drinks, and sports drinks as well as processed carbohydrates and baked goods.
The verdict: Sugar is a no-no when it comes to heart health because it’s been linked to obesity and a host of chronic diseases. While foods with natural sugars such as fruit are fine in moderation, it’s important to avoid added sugars commonly found in canned and bottled foods, breakfast cereals and sauces.
According to the American Heart Association, women should have no more than six teaspoons of sugar a day and men should limit their intake to nine teaspoons. This may sound like a lot, but it really isn’t if you consider there’s around 10 teaspoons of sugar in one can of soda.
A low salt diet
“In 2016, the FDA proposed voluntary guidelines for the food industry to slash the amount of sodium in our food supply. Excess sodium (which pairs with chloride to form salt) is linked to high blood pressure, heart attacks, and stroke,” says Julie. Current research suggests that South African’s consume as much as 40% of the recommended salt intake of 5g or a teaspoon a day.
The verdict: If you want to take care of your heart, consume salt sparingly and watch for hidden salt (high sodium levels) in foods. The good news is that since last year, food manufacturers have started to reduce salt considerably in certain food items, such as breads, breakfast cereals, and processed meats.
What’s the best option for a healthy heart?
Specialists agree on these guidelines:
If you smoke, quit
Just one or two cigarettes a day raises your risk of getting heart disease by 5%.
Eat like a Mediterranean
Following a Mediterranean diet – fish, a little meat, a little cheese, wholegrain cereals, plus loads of pulses, veg and fruit, with a little red wine at mealtimes – is linked with a lower risk not just of heart disease, but of stroke and dementia, too.
Foods rich in polyunsaturated fats, such as olives, avocado and nuts are also healthier options.
Moderate or vigorous physical activity was linked to a lower heart-disease risk, especially in women.
Watch your midriff
Excess fat around your middle increases your risk of heart disease (and of breast cancer, too, according to UK study conducted in 2014).