The human heart is the engine in our machine of a body, and doctors are stressing the importance of feeding nutritious fuel to run a country of well-oiled machines. In America, more than one-third of Americans are overweight or obese, increasing life-threatening high rates of heart disease with every bite of fast food and frozen dinner. A team of cardiologists at the Cleveland Clinic surveyed Americans on their heart health and created a wellness plan based on their results to improve the nation’s heart beat.

“It turns out a diet that is not a low-fat diet was associated with a 30 percent reduction in the risk of developing heart disease,” Dr. Steven Nissen, a cardiologist and the cardiovascular medicine department chair at Cleveland Clinic, told Medical Daily. They found in the last year, more than half of Americans have tried a diet in order to improve their heart health and they chose wrong. It’s from years of convoluted information circulating throughout the Internet, advancements and ammendments in how humans understand nutrition and human biology, and evolving our relationship with food and a fast-paced lifestyle.

“We got it wrong. There’s no question about it,” Nissen said. “The public advice given for decades that was largely from the American Heart Association to eat a low-fat, low-saturated diet turned out not to be good advice. We’re now trying to undo the decades of miseducation of people. Part of the reason we did the survey is we wanted people to understand what Americans knew and what they didn’t know. It turned out they mostly didn’t know what they needed to know about healthy diet choices.”

Nissen and the cardiologists at Cleveland Clinic are on a mission to unravel the misinformation that has plagued Americans since the 1950s, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) told us to stop eating so much fat. Restriction should not be the only focus, but instead a balance of give and take. As much as it’s important to remove man-made processed foods, such as trans fats from the diet, it’s just as critical to the long-term improvement of your health to incorporate healthy foods into your daily meals.

“In the meantime, something terrible has happened in this country,” Nissen said. “We’ve become a country of fast food addicts. Some people are eating their lunches and breakfasts out of vending machines with very unhealthy choices. The traditional cooking that our grandparents did where we made our own food seems to have gone away in favor of fast food because we’re so busy. But those are not good choices and they’re leading to an epidemic of obesity and heart disease.”

Heart Health Infographic
Heart health month has doctors stressing the importance of lifestyle changes. Photo courtesy of the National Institutes of Health

Going The Distance For A Healthier Heart

“It’s not a quick fix, it’s about changing your lifestyle and making good choices and sticking with them,” Nissen said. “Not going on a diet but living a healthy lifestyle. It’s very different than the dieting Americans do where they’re often yo-yo-ing. They gain 20 pounds, they lose 20 pounds. That’s not healthy either.”

The Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, unrefined grains, legumes, olive oil, and fish, which not only lower the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, but also prove to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. The diet also calls for lowering intake of saturated fats, dairy products, meat, and poultry, while keeping a moderate intake of alcohol, preferably wine with meals.

“We really want to get out there and counteract these fad diets, the latest craze, with good simple choices, heart healthy choices, eating better, exercising more, and knowing your numbers — knowing your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. If people will do that, we can fight back against this epidemic of obesity and diabetes and heart disease that’s really hurting a lot of people in our country.”

Forget the fads because they’re not sustainable or meant to last. Your heart is worth the diligent effort and perseverance. Plan meals ahead and avoid the bright enticing lights of the fast food restaurants you pass by on your way home from work or the vending machines at work and school. Individuals who have heart disease or have family members with a history of heart disease much be especially aware. According to Cleveland Clinic’s survey, 74 percent of women are more likely to change their diets for their heart than only 62 percent of men. The cardiologists hope the wellness plan they’ve designed can increase compliance rates and succeed in lowering the No. 1 killer in America: heart disease.

“These fad diets — what we joke about is we tell people we want them to eat the ‘no fad diet,’” Nissen said. “They’re quirky diets that somebody’s made up and not based in solid science. We want people to know the science, and what science tells us is that this very healthy very tasty Mediterranean diet is the way to go, and that’s what we recommend.”