Is dairy good or bad for your heart? And what about coffee? Are foods rich in omega-3 really as good as people say? These are legitimate questions that riddle the average consumer. A new review sifts through the nutritional studies available in order to give us the bottom line on which foods are best for heart health.
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The scientific evidence doesn't support the claim that fish supplements protect against heart disease, the review concluded, even though millions of people in the United States take them.
Similarly, a new meta-analysis of existing studies — conducted by the American College of Cardiology Nutrition & Lifestyle Workgroup of the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease Council — reviews the pros and cons of popular foods for heart health.
Dr. Andrew Freeman, a Fellow of the American College of Cardiologists and the director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, CO, led the research.
The findings were published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Controversy over heart-healthy foods
Dr. Freeman explains the rationale for the review, saying, "The current nutritional recommendations show a heart-healthy diet is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts in moderation."
"However," he adds, "there are many food groups which can result in confusion for patients, including dairy, added sugar, coffee, and alcohol."
Indeed, while the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend fat-free or low-fat dairy for optimal heart health, several recent studies have suggested that full-fat dairy is not harmful to the heart and may even have cardiovascular benefits.
Similarly, moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with heart health benefits in many studies, but other researchers point out the methodological flaws and biases that may be responsible for these results.
So, Dr. Freeman and his team reviewed several meta-analyses of only the highest-quality papers to elucidate the link between heart health and alcohol, dairy, and other controversial foods.
Foods you should avoid
So, in light of this controversial evidence — and given that dairy is rich in saturated fats and salt — the researchers concluded that ideally, dairy products should be avoided or at least consumed with caution.
As a result, they strongly advise that people avoid processed foods that have added sugar, as well as sweetened drinks such as soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, and energy drinks.
Finally, although a low to moderate intake of alcohol reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, the researchers warn that people should not drink alcohol for its alleged cardiovascular benefits. This is due to the high risks of liver disease and cancer, which outweigh its potential benefits.
Foods you should add to your diet
Conversely, legumes such as beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas, soybeans, and peanuts lower the risk of coronary heart disease, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure. The consumption of legumes also helps reduce weight.
"Legumes are affordable and a rich source of protein," Dr. Freeman says. "We should be incorporating more beans and bean-dishes like hummus into our diets to promote heart health."
Coffee was associated with a reduced risk of death from any cause, as well as death from heart disease. No links were found between coffee consumption and the risk of high blood pressure.
Some studies suggested that black and green tea, when consumed without added dairy, sugar, or sweeteners, can contribute to a healthy heart and safe levels of blood lipids — which include cholesterol and triglycerides.
Overall, evidence supports the cardiovascular benefits of plant-based proteins such as the ones from legumes, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, mushrooms, coffee, and tea.
However, "There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all dietary pattern for preventing heart disease," Dr. Freeman says.
"But, most of the evidence continues to reinforce that a predominantly plant-based diet lower in fat, added sugars, added salt, processed foods, and with limited if any animal products [benefits heart health]."
Dr. Andrew Freeman