Many popular commercial diets claim that their method is the best and most effective. "I always ask, ‘Well, best at what?’” says Sharonne N. Hayes, M.D., founder of the Women’s Heart Clinic at Mayo Clinic. "Best for weight loss? For lifelong health? Living longer? Heart health?” All foods aren’t created equal — particularly when it comes to heart health. Hayes outlined different eating plans, their benefits and drawbacks.
Low-fat, high carb: What went wrong?
"Twenty years ago, we thought that fat was the bad actor in the food equation,” says Hayes. Food manufacturers reacted by taking fat out of everything. But to maintain taste, they often had to add simple sugars and carbs back in, resulting in little or no calorie difference from the fatty versions. What’s worse, foods stripped of fats are less filling, often resulting in greater calorie consumption because you have to eat more to feel full. The result? A rising obesity rate in American despite an explosion of low-fat foods.
Two extremes: Ornish vs. Atkins.
These diets represent two extremes of the diet spectrum: The Dean Ornish diet is strict vegetarian and very low-fat; the Atkins diet allows up to 40% fat. Both diets have tight restrictions — the Ornish diet severely limits fats, and the Atkins diet severely limits carbs, including grains and beans. Both have fairly rapid weight loss results, but as you can imagine (or have experienced), both are difficult to adhere to in the long-term. Any diet with severe limitations will be difficult to maintain, says Hayes. However, it is important to note that the Ornish diet is one of the only lifestyle plans that has been proven by research to reduce cardiovascular events. In other words, it’s good for your heart. While most people will not be able to maintain the strict plan forever, Hayes recommends looking at the plan and deciding what you might be able to incorporate into your personal eating plan.
While not a specific diet, these eating habits (and a Mediterranean diet pyramid) are based on studies done in Greece on the island of Crete. "It was basically this group of people who smoked and had other risk factors, but ate this diet basically dripping in olive oil — and they had the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease of any place in the world,” says Hayes. Mediterranean food is described as "peasant food,” because much of it comes straight from the ocean or straight from the ground. Basic components include:
Whole grains and complex carbs
Fish and shellfish
Fruits and vegetables
Daily physical activity
Alcohol in moderation
Little dairy or processed foods
Very little meat
Researchers know a few reasons that explain why the Mediterranean-style diet is so heart-healthy. Olive oil has been shown to lower cholesterol and LDL. Whole grains also lower cholesterol. Alcohol raises HDL, and it’s a mild blood thinner (it inhibits platelet stickiness). Omega-3 fatty acids, plentiful in fish and shellfish, have anti-arrhythmic effects on the heart, and larger amounts (eating fish 3-4 times a week) have mild blood-thinning effects, lower triglycerides and blood pressure, and have some anti-inflammatory effects.
Along with the Ornish diet, the Mediterranean-style is the only other diet proven to decrease cardiovascular events and disease. If you’re looking for more specific recommendations for this type of diet, the "maintenance” plan of the South Beach diet most closely approximates Mediterranean eating habits.