‘Heart Healthy’: Is It Hype or Helpful?

Many products have big labels proclaiming they are ‘heart healthy’ — but are they?

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Brown
Brown

Heart Healthy: You’ve seen it on products from breakfast cereal to snack foods.

Many products proclaim this status with a bright, red heart on the package to drive the message home.

But is that claim accurate or just clever marketing to push consumers to buy certain brands?

“Consumers should not assume that all products labeled ‘heart healthy’ are truly helpful in improving heart health,” said Simone Bailey-Brown, a cardiologist with Sands-Constellation Heart Institute in Rochester. “It is important to read the list of ingredients on these products carefully and to review the nutritional facts which companies are legally required to disclose on their labels.”

Bailey-Brown advised sticking with whole, plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes to support heart health and avoiding processed carbohydrates and items high in saturated fat, sodium and added sugars.

To find these good foods — and skip the less healthful options — UR Medicine cardiologist Jeffrey Bruckel tells patients to shop the store’s perimeter. Generally, that’s the area lacking pre-packaged foods and providing more healthful items like produce.

Bruckel
Bruckel

“There’s no regulation about what gets the ‘heart healthy’ label or not,” Bruckel said. “Food should look like it came off the plant or animal. The least processed, the better it is for your health.”

The “magic food” that’s supposed to be heart healthy sporadically comes into vogue, such as red wine; however, Bruckel isn’t convinced that’s conclusive.

“A moderate level of alcohol is probably fine, but a high level isn’t fine,” he added.

Heather Carrera, doctor of clinical nutrition at the office of Lesley James, MD in Pittsford, tells her patients to skip the claims on the front of the package and go straight to the nutrition facts.

“It’s even better to avoid foods that have labels, packages and boxes at all,” she said.

But for those in a container, she limits grams of added sugar at 25 per day, since these can cause inflammation and contribute to weight gain.

“I also help educate people about all the different names sugar can go by: barley malt, corn syrup, dextrose, honey, maltodextrin and sucrose, just to name a few,” Carrera said.

Avoiding trans fats and hydrogenated fats also promotes heart health. These are found in many processed foods and snacks. Choosing white meat or leaner cuts of red meat and sources that are naturally less fatty such as grass-fed meat and venison and bison can help reduce fat intake.

But a moderate amount of naturally occurring fat found in nuts, seeds, olive oil and fatty fishes can promote heart health.

Carrera
Carrera

In addition to eating these healthful fats, Carrera recommends drinking two cups of hawthorn tea, including celery, garlic and pomegranate in the diets, adding cinnamon for improved blood sugar control, increasing intake of antioxidant and phytonutrient rich produce, like berries, and eating beets for improved circulation. She added that depending upon the person’s health status, some supplements may also prove helpful.

Along with diet, other lifestyle factors contribute to heart health. Anyone concerned about heart health should discuss the topic with a healthcare provider.

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