Sue Cummings, MS, RD, a registered dietitian at the MGH Weight Center, offers her advice for developing heart-healthy eating habits.

“Diet alone won’t prevent heart disease in individuals who have a strong genetic predisposition,” says Sue Cummings, MS, RD, a licensed dietitian at the MGH Weight Center. “But there is a lot of research showing the link between diet and heart health.”

Last year, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute released new guidelines for weight management. One key recommendation was for patients to make dietary changes to lose weight and improve heart health.

Sue Cummings, MS, RD
Sue Cummings, MS, RD

According to Ms. Cummings, the society we live in is a major contributor to heart disease and obesity. “As people become busier, taking the time to eat three meals a day, preparing healthy foods and grocery shopping becomes a challenge,” she says. “Many people skip meals or choose foods that are fast, easy and convenient.” But that comes at a price, because those foods often lack essential nutrients.

“I like to use the analogy of a car,” she explains. “No matter how much of a hurry we are in, we can’t ignore an empty gas tank. Our bodies are the most important machines we have, and heart-healthy food is the gas and oil our bodies need to run at their best.”

Foods to Eat and Avoid

She tells her patients that there are two keys to heart-healthy eating:

“I like to use the analogy of a car. No matter how much of a hurry we are in, we can’t ignore an empty gas tank.” – Sue Cummings, MS, RD

Eat nutrient-dense food. Heart-healthy eating means choosing foods that are closest to their natural form as possible. This way, they have more vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Ms. Cummings advises her patients to make the base of their diet rich in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes. When choosing protein foods, she advises fish and skinless poultry and recommends limiting red meat. If eating dairy, choose non-fat products.

Avoid processed foods. Convenience foods are high in salt, sugar and fat, and are stripped of essential fiber and nutrients. “Any food that is packaged or has ingredients you cannot pronounce is probably processed,” Ms. Cummings warns.

A good example is eating an apple, which is a whole food, instead of drinking apple juice, which is a processed food. Here are more tips that she gives her patients about heart-healthy eating:

Do what works for you. Ms. Cummings advises her patients to think about their schedule, work, family and taste preferences. “Food should be healthy but also taste good,” she says.

Change gradually. Instead of changing everything at once, make small changes. “Starting to eat healthily is a behavior change,” Ms. Cummings says. “It takes a lot of work.” She explains that taste buds may take a few weeks or more to adjust. “At first, if you stop eating processed food, your diet might taste incredibly bland,” she says.  “But over time, you will start to notice the natural flavor of your food.”

Ms. Cummings recommends the My Plate guidelines, put forth by the U.S. government. The guidelines call for half of one's plate to be filled by fruit and vegetables.
Ms. Cummings recommends the My Plate guidelines, put forth by the U.S. government. The guidelines call for half of one’s plate to be filled by fruit and vegetables.

Ask: “What’s in it for me?” Ms. Cummings asks all of her patients to figure out what motivates them. Is it weight loss? Disease prevention? Whatever is it, that motivation factor needs to be strong enough to guide you through the process.

Prepare. “It’s 2014. There are a lot of heart-healthy eating options in restaurants and grocery stores now,” Ms. Cummings says. “But you have to put in the time to find them. And always plan ahead.”

“My recommendation is eating a plant-based diet, and cutting out processed foods.” – Sue Cummings, MS, RD

What about fat? “There are different types of fats,” explains Ms. Cummings. “Some are heart-healthy and some are ‘heart-unhealthy.'” But regardless of the type of fat, reducing one’s overall fat intake is important, especially when cutting calories. Trans fat and saturated fats, including fat in meat and dairy products as well as tropical oils like palm oil and cocoa butter, are detrimental to heart health and should be avoided.  “The heart-healthiest fats are monounsaturated fats. These come from plants and are in foods like olive oil, peanuts and avocados,” says Ms. Cummings.

Research about Heart-healthy Eating

Finally, Ms. Cummings encourages patients to do research and read about heart-healthy eating. She recommends the DASH diet to many of her patients because it was designed to reduce blood pressure, a main contributor to heart disease. “Keeping in mind that the same diet will not work for everyone, the DASH diet is a good one to try for heart health,” she says.

Ms. Cummings also recommends reading the book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David Aaron Kessler, MD, the former Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In the end, Ms. Cummings credits her patients with working hard to achieve their heart-healthy eating goals. “When my patients are able to overcome their old habits and eat healthy, it improves their whole life,” Ms. Cummings shares. “Seeing them succeed is wonderful.”