When it comes to improving cardiovascular health, our hearts are in the right place.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
More than half of Americans have tried a diet in the past year to potentially improve the overall health of their heart, according to a new survey conducted by Cleveland Clinic. Yet only 5 percent have adopted the Mediterranean diet – the single diet proven through extensive research to improve cardiovascular risk factors.
Why? Unhealthy diet choices are likely due to two things: confusion and convenience, says Steven Nissen, MD, Chairman of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Cleveland Clinic.
Widespread levels of confusion
Heart disease remains the No. 1 cause of death in America and other developed countries, and diet plays a critical role in both the obesity and heart disease epidemics, Dr. Nissen says.
The survey, which was conducted as part of Cleveland Clinic’s “Love your Heart” consumer education campaign in celebration of American Heart Month, aimed to explore “what Americans know” about eating healthy for your heart and waistline.
“The results were concerning – troubling – but not necessarily surprising,” Dr. Nissen says.
Twenty-eight percent of respondents view a low-fat diet as best for their heart, when just 17 percent see the Mediterranean diet as the better option.
One would think that mounting scientific evidence would sway consumers towards the seaside dietary lifestyle, which emphasizes a diet packed with fruits and vegetables, legumes and nuts, whole grains, fish and poultry, and most importantly, olive oil.
But decades worth of effort to educate consumers on the downside of fat have prohibited the new healthy fats message from resonating with most.
“We told people for years that fat is bad, and it stuck,” Dr. Nissen says. “At some point, everyone gets confused.”
Since the 1960s, all consumer food products have been required to include honest labels. In 1990, food label terms like “low fat” were standardized. And in 2003, the FDA announced labels were required to include trans-fat content, strengthening our obsession with fat.
Not all fat is bad
It turns out that not all fat is bad. In fact, some fats are really good. Olive oil, which is high in monounsaturated fat, is a staple in the Mediterranean diet.
The PREDIMED study found that for people at high cardiovascular risk, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts reduced the incidence of major cardiovascular events by 30 percent.
Not only did the control group maintain a low-fat, American Heart Association-approved diet, the study group was asked to use and cook with 1 liter of olive oil per week. This is what makes this study important for patients, Dr. Nissen says.
That’s a lot of fat! But deciphering good fat from bad is the key.
“Evidence is accumulating that ultra low-fat or low-fat diets are not particularly heart healthy, and they don’t combat obesity either,” Dr. Nissen says.
In a digital information age, it’s difficult to transmit a new message. Sifting through mass amounts of misinformed and outdated reports is puzzling for the public.
“What’s most important to understand at this point is that eliminating all fat from your diet is not a healthy choice,” Dr. Nissen explains.
Benefits of convenience
Sorting through the immense amount of diet information is tiresome, so many of us resort to what’s convenient.
“The choices that Americans make are driven by societal factors,” Dr. Nissen says.
Survey responses unveiled that one-third of Americans’ diets are negatively impacted by the convenience of unhealthy food options – like vending machines or fast food restaurants.
While men were slightly more likely to choose ‘junk’ food over women (38 percent vs. 30 percent), 25 percent of all respondents blame both time and social influence for their poor diet habits.
Despite the confusion and convenience, though, there is a silver lining – Americans are open to lifestyle change, especially if their family members and health history is a factor. Sixty-eight percent of individuals noted they would likely change their diet because of their family health history.
“It’s encouraging that Americans are aware of their history of heart disease and want to take steps to prevent and manage their risk factors,” Dr. Nissen says. “However, there’s still a tremendous need for education around understanding what the right diet choices are to improve cardiovascular health.”