Eat your heart out, baby.
Or at least eat for your heart. While being overweight puts people at risk for heart disease and stroke, a heart-healthy diet can help you lose weight or lower cholesterol, blood pressure or triglycerides, a type of fat in blood. According to experts who rated 39 diets for U.S. News, these are the best diets for your heart:
No. 1 (tie) DASH Diet
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension program, or DASH, was created to help control high blood pressure — and it works. One expert called it “by far the best with data to back up lowering hypertension.” Indeed, extensive research suggests it’s an optimal choice if you want to lower your blood pressure, as well as improve other markers of cardiovascular health.
If you adopt the diet, you’ll emphasize the foods you’ve always been told to eat (fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy), while shunning those we’ve grown to love (calorie- and fat-laden sweets and red meat).
No. 1 (tie) Mediterranean Diet
What can’t this eating style do? The Mediterranean diet, which is ranked No. 1 in U.S. News’ Best Overall Diets, “is one of the best-studied diets for the prevention of heart disease, and the results show that it works,” one U.S. News expert said.
A 2017 study of 18,991 Italians, for instance, found that the more closely people adhered to the Mediterranean diet, the lower their risk of heart disease over 4.3 years — especially if they were well-educated. The approach largely shuns saturated fat (which contributes to high cholesterol — an increased risk for heart disease) and includes healthier mono- and polyunsaturated fats in moderation (which can reduce cholesterol). You’ll do your heart a favor by following it.
No. 1 (tie) Ornish Diet
This rules-heavy plan is ranked highly for heart health again this year due to its holistic and evidence-based approach shown to help prevent and even reverse heart disease. One expert asked: “Shouldn’t this be the default diet recommended by the American Heart Association” and other medical organizations?
The downside of the Ornish diet, which includes prescriptions for stress-management techniques, exercise, social support and smoking cessation, is its restrictiveness: Only 10% of calories can come from fat, very little of it saturated, and most foods with any cholesterol or refined carbohydrates, oils, excessive caffeine and nearly all animal products are banned.
No. 4 (tie) Flexitarian Diet
Flexitarian is a marriage of two words: flexible and vegetarian. The plan revolves around the idea that you don’t have to eliminate meat completely to reap the health benefits associated with vegetarianism; an occasional burger is OK.
One large 2015 study of more than 450,000 Europeans found that those who ate a diet of at least 70% plant-based foods had a 20% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who were least “pro-vegetarian.” Earlier research suggests a semi-vegetarian diet also helps promote healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
No. 4 (tie) TLC Diet
The Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes diet, created by the National Institutes of Health’s National Cholesterol Education Program, claims to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol by 8% to 10% in six weeks. (Overly high LDL cholesterol is a major cardiovascular risk. It can form deposits within the walls of coronary arteries, bulging the artery and interfering with blood flow.)
Research concurs: In a Journal of Lipid Research study, participants who shifted from a typical American diet to the TLC diet reduced their LDL cholesterol by 11% after 32 days. The TLC diet is nutritionally sound and proven by extensive research, one expert said. “It is aimed at reducing cholesterol, but would be a great diet for any average American.”
No. 4 (tie) Vegan Diet
Veganism earned high marks for its potential to boost cardiovascular health. It emphasizes the right foods — fruit, veggies and whole grains — while steering dieters away from salty, processed choices and all animal products, including meat, eggs and dairy.
In a 12-year study that compared 6,000 vegetarians (including vegans) with 5,000 meat-eaters, for example, researchers found that the vegans in the group had a 57% lower risk of ischemic heart disease than the meat eaters. (The condition involves reduced heart pumping due to coronary artery disease and often leads to heart failure.) Just keep in mind that vegans may need to take supplements to get some heart-protective nutrients like the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish.
No. 7 (tie) MIND Diet
This plan is a mashup of two other expert-endorsed diets — DASH and Mediterranean — and zeroes in on the foods in each that specifically affect brain health (think green leafy vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine). Turns out, the heart likes the same foods, studies show. A downfall of the MIND diet: Physical activity, proven important for heart health, is not addressed in the plan, some experts point out.
No. 7 (tie) Vegetarian Diet
A vegetarian diet has the potential to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to experts, as long as vegetarians don’t load up on starches, full-fat dairy and processed foods. “A plant-based diet is likely one of the healthiest types of eating plans with evidence to support its effectiveness in chronic disease prevention,” one expert panelist says.
If you take a well-informed approach (choosing, say, lentil salad and almond milk over grilled cheese and soda), a vegetarian plan is a good bet for heart-conscious dieters, especially those who don’t have the heart to eat animals anyway.
No. 9 Engine 2 Diet
This low-fat, “plant strong” diet was created by Rip Esselstyn, a firefighter, former professional athlete and medical scion. It’s thought to prevent and often reverse diseases, like heart disease, caused by the so-called standard American diet. The diet should also help keep cholesterol and blood pressure in check.
If you adopt the Engine 2 diet, you’ll load up on fruit, vegetables and whole grains and slash all animal products, processed foods and vegetable oils from your diet. “The Engine 2 diet is actually a great diet for prevention of heart disease,” one expert concluded. “However, if you aren’t very knowledgeable on how to create a balanced, nutritionally sound diet, you could follow this diet while severely missing the mark on major nutrients.”
No. 10 (tie) Anti-Inflammatory Diet
The Anti-Inflammatory diet, which is based on the heart-healthy principles of the Mediterranean diet, reflects creator Andrew Weil’s belief that certain foods cause or combat systemic inflammation. According to the American Heart Association, inflammation is not a proven cause of cardiovascular disease, but it is common among heart disease patients.
Plus, the program emphasizes a steady supply of omega-3 fatty acids, which research suggests protect against heart disease. Keep in mind, though, that you “can easily obtain a healthy ‘anti-inflammatory diet’ without all these rules by eating fruits, vegetables and healthy fats,” one expert points out.
No. 10 (tie) Mayo Clinic Diet
Experts agree the Mayo Clinic diet is a sound option for preventing or controlling heart problems. It focuses on coaching dieters to develop healthy, lasting habits around which foods they choose to eat and which to avoid. “The flexibility makes long-term adherence realistic,” one expert adds. Plus, it reflects the medical community’s widely accepted definition of a heart-healthy diet: heavy on fruit, veggies and whole grains, but light on saturated fat and salt.
No. 12 (tie) Nutritarian Diet
The Nutritarian diet emphasizes plant-based foods that are rich in nutrients, high in satiation and low in calories. So it makes sense the plan, developed by Nutritional Research Foundation president Dr. Joel Fuhrman, also ranks high in heart health among experts.
Another heart-healthy feature of the diet is its opposition to animal proteins, which robust research has linked to an increased risk of heart disease-related deaths when it constitutes a relatively large portion of the diet. While some experts caution that the plan may be too restrictive to keep up long term, another says “it’s really just trying to pack in as many of the healthiest foods as possible and minimize those that have been associated with disease.”
No. 12 (tie) Volumetrics Diet
With its focus on foods with low calorie density and high water content — like nonstarchy fruits and veggies and broth-based soup — Volumetrics can be good for your heart. A study of participants following a low-density diet found that all had significant drops in their blood pressure, reducing their risk of heart disease.
Volumetrics “helps people identify more-filling food,” a U.S. News reviewer says. “The emphasis on salads, soups and vegetables is excellent for weight control, diabetes control and prevention and heart disease prevention.”
“This is one of the few diets that has significant support in the form of clinical research trials,” another expert praises. “Given the scientific basis and the research support, it is a diet that truly deserves more recognition.”
No. 12 (tie) WW (Weight Watchers) Diet
If you want to promote your heart health, WW (Weight Watchers) might help. Several studies have found positive effects among participants following WW, particularly in lowering (bad) LDL cholesterol and triglycerides levels in their blood.
Exercise has proven benefits for your heart, and WW addresses that. “The FitPoints are great, too, for encouraging physical activity,” a U.S. News reviewer enthuses. “Also, having access to a personal counselor (for a fee) is a big plus.”
“This is a more holistic approach incorporating healthy food, exercise and movement, behavior-change techniques, mindfulness and lots of support,” another expert notes. “For that reason, it can be a very successful path to weight loss and improved health.”
Best Diets for Your Heart
U.S. News’ Best Diets for Heart Health are:
— Mediterranean Diet.
— Ornish Diet.
— Flexitarian Diet.
— TLC Diet.
— Vegan Diet.
— MIND Diet.
— Vegetarian Diet.
— Engine 2 Diet.
— Anti-Inflammatory Diet.
— Mayo Clinic Diet.
— Nutritarian Diet.
— Volumetrics Diet.
— WW (Weight Watchers) Diet.
More from U.S. News
Update 01/04/21: This is an updated version of a previously published slideshow.