Feeding the Heart

Diets and our cardiovascular health

The human body is a complex machine comprised of separate, but interdependent parts. The heart, for example, wouldn’t be the powerful organ it is without other organs functioning properly and being well-maintained. To function properly, the heart – and all of our organs needs nourishment.  

We associate the food we consume with our guts. But while foods physically stay within the stomach and intestines, they affect every other organ. Consider a time when you’ve felt bloated or broken out after a particularly greasy meal. A heavily-salted meal might contribute to kidney stones. And eating a lot of trans-fats can lead to heart disease.

In fact, partially hydrogenated fats/oils are among the worst things you can consume, according to Ara M. Maranian, MD, physician leader for Novant Health UVA Health System’s heart and vascular service line and cardiologist at Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Cardiology.

“They are used to flavor foods, but don’t have any basic nutritional value and actually carry risks.”

But what about all these popular diets that encourage high-fat, low-carbohydrate eating habits? Diets like the ketogenic diet and Atkins follow this structure, but might be doing more harm than good in the long run.


Let’s look at the three major macronutrients – proteins, carbohydrates and fats – and the roles they play in our health.

“Proteins are the primary building blocks of our cells, carbohydrates fuel and energize our cells and fats provide a structural component and lubrication,” explains Teri Travi, RD, a registered dietician and Novant Health UVA Health System diabetes educator. “It’s important to get the recommended amounts of each nutrient and avoid going overboard on one or restricting one to follow a certain diet – everything in moderation.”

Many popular diets restrict certain food groups to accomplish quick weight loss. But these diets are difficult to maintain long-term and can lead to negative effects on cardiovascular health as well as other organ systems.

“Diets like the ketogenic diet, Atkins and South Beach are examples of this,” explains Travi. “When you avoid carbohydrates, your body breaks down fats to get the energy it needs, but also may break down muscle and often provides an excess amount of unhealthy fats and excessive amounts of protein. A healthful diet will provide energy and nutrients for physical and metabolic processes including cardiovascular function, structure and conduction.”

Diets and Heart Health

“The decision to start a diet is usually sparked by a desire to lose weight and/or control risk of cardiovascular events,” says Dr. Maranian. “Nationwide, we’re seeing an increase in risk factors, including hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol), hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes, often caused by obesity. We’re facing a nationwide obesity epidemic, with people consuming too many calories and expending too few. One way to offset this is to be more mindful of what we eat and make adjustments, even small ones, to achieve better eating habits long-term.”

Determining exactly what diet will yield the best results varies by individual, but there are two that Dr. Maranian and Travi agree have positive effects on heart health: DASH and the Mediterranean diet.


DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) was designed to help control high blood pressure by limiting sodium, saturated fats, fatty meats, dairy fats and sugars and encouraging an increase in fruits, vegetables, grains and lean proteins. The key to its success? It doesn’t outright restrict any food groups, nor does it provide rigid calorie guidelines.

The DASH diet is a traditional diet that complies well with the American Heart Association’s recommended low-fat and low-sodium diet.


The Mediterranean diet is based on studies that show low rates of cardiovascular events and disease in the Mediterranean region. Olive oil, legumes, nuts, lean proteins, moderate amounts of cheese and red wine – yes, you read that correctly – have been dietary staples in this part of the world for centuries.

“The Mediterranean diet allows up to 40 percent of calories to come from healthy monounsaturated fats, including healthy cheeses, yogurts and olive oil” says Dr. Maranian.

The renowned Prevención con Dieta Mediterránea (PREDIMED) study in Spain followed people on the Mediterranean diet from 2003-2011 and saw a 30 percent reduction in cardiovascular events compared to individuals on a standard diet.

The Mediterranean diet encourages increased consumption of healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids, but also follows the moderate and non-structured approach that Dr. Maranian and Travi recommend for long-term adherence.

“I encourage anyone to approach trendy diets with caution, especially when they aren’t backed by scientific studies,” says Dr. Maranian. “The more traditional diets may not offer an easy fix, but they have been proven to work long-term.”  

For more information about Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Medical Center cardiology services, please visit https://www.novanthealthuva.org/clinic-locations/novant-health-uva-health-system-prince-william-cardiology—manassas.aspx

1 Comment

  1. Good afternoon, thank you, good article. Many people, unfortunately, do not pay attention to their heart. Do not get carried away salty food. Salt (sodium chloride) is harmful to vessels. Limit the use of flour and sweet. Avoid cholesterol-rich foods of animal origin (egg yolks, sour cream, liver, kidneys, caviar, brains). Eat fish. Fish oil improves heart function. Reduce meat intake, choose only lean varieties. Replace animal fats with vegetable oil. Read food labels and try to choose foods that are low in sodium, fat, and cholesterol. And remember: heart disease is a result not only of genetic factors, but also of a person’s own actions, which means it’s in your power to prevent their development.

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