Key points to remember
- The American Heart Association has released major updates to its dietary recommendations for the first time since 2006.
- The 2021 guidelines focused on heart-healthy eating habits rather than individual nutrients.
- The American Heart Association has recognized barriers to following these guidelines, including structural racism and neighborhood segregation.
According to new guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA), dietary habits are more important for heart health than any specific food or nutrient.
Heart-healthy diets include a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, according to the AHA. The association also recommends using vegetable oils rather than tropical oils like coconut or animal fats like butter and lard.
Instead of listing specific foods, the AHA kept broad recommendations to be more inclusive in its latest guidelines, leaving room for personal preference. The guideline was last updated in 2006.
“Advice is regularly re-evaluated to ensure it is consistent with new information,” said Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, co-author of the AHA guidelines and director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the Research Center. in Human Nutrition on Aging from Tufts University. Very well.
Another big change in the new guidelines was intended to “highlight the structural challenges that impede the adoption of heart-healthy diets,” according to Lichtenstein.
The 2021 guidelines acknowledged that factors such as “targeted marketing of unhealthy foods, neighborhood segregation, food and nutrition insecurity and structural racism” have made it difficult for some people to adhere to a diet healthy for the heart.
Barriers to Heart-Healthy Diets
People living in food deserts or places that don’t have access to fresh food often don’t have a choice in their eating habits.
“The environment is stacked against healthy choices,” Lawrence J. Appel, MD, MPH, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the new guidelines, told Verywell.
Neighborhood segregation has created environments that do not promote healthy options. A 2019 study showed that 5.6% of the US population lives in neighborhoods far from grocery stores or supermarkets.
Appel added that food offerings, especially the healthier options, are limited in marginalized neighborhoods.
Some policy changes have been made to address environmental disparities. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a federal program that provides food assistance to low-income families, launched a pilot program in May to allow recipients to use their online grocery benefits.
While this may remove some obstacles, it’s not a perfect solution.
The AHA guidelines explained that online grocery shopping “could backfire by using artificial intelligence to promote unhealthy foods and beverages.”
“There is no easy answer.” Call said. “This is a societal problem that requires a societal solution.”
Prevention is key
A focus on prevention is another important part of the updated AHA guidelines. Starting a heart-healthy diet early can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.
“The prevention of pediatric obesity is essential for preserving and prolonging ideal cardiovascular health,” the guidelines state.
However, it is also difficult to promote nutritious diets among children. Similar to the tobacco industry, the food industry has also used targeted marketing to sell high-fat, sugary snacks to people of color, according to the AHA. Research shows that black and Hispanic children are more likely than white children to be exposed to processed food ads.
Lichtenstein suggested that teaching children how to differentiate credible sources of information from less reliable ones can help in the long run. Schools could enrich their existing classrooms by incorporating nutrition topics and making those discussions more accessible to children, she added.
“Start by introducing different types of foods and where they come from on a basic level,” Lichtenstein says. “At the next level, introduce simple cooking skills in science class. Then move on to basic budgeting skills as economics lessons.”
What this means for you
Following the AHA dietary guidelines may help reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Getting enough sleep, reducing stress, being physically active and avoiding tobacco products can also support heart health.
A dietitian’s perspective on the new guidelines
Grace Derocha, MBA, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Verywell she’s glad to see the new AHA guidelines leave room for individual differences and choices.
Derocha said there are many factors that influence what goes on someone’s plate. Cultural traditions, access to grocery stores, and lack of understanding of healthy eating practices can all come into play.
The new AHA guidelines are a step in the right direction, Derocha suggested, but some phrases may still confuse people.
For example, the recommendation said to choose minimally processed foods instead of ultra-processed foods. Understanding the difference between “minimal” and “ultra” can be tricky. This type of wording could trick people into thinking that they can only eat fresh food, which might be inaccessible for some people. Foods like frozen broccoli are processed but aren’t necessarily unhealthy, Derocha explained.
Since embracing the new guidelines can be overwhelming, she encouraged people to follow the nutrition advice at their own pace. It can start with small changes like drinking more water or adding a few more fruits and vegetables each day.
“Take the information and find ways to apply it,” Derocha said. “But allow yourself the grace and the patience to figure it out slowly and surely.”