These comfort-food dinners make eating for heart health a delicious endeavor.
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Nearly 1 in 3 deaths worldwide is related to heart disease, the World Health Organization reports. While some of our overall risk is impacted by uncontrollable factors, such as age and genetics, many forms of heart disease are drastically impacted by our daily habits. (Psst ... the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about the action steps you can take to try to prevent heart disease.)

Sleep enough, stress less, move some; there are certain strategies nearly all health experts can agree upon related to supporting heart health. But there's an ongoing conversation around what eating style is best to help you take heart.

Shifting from the standard American diet to one that's richer in fruits and vegetables may lower relative heart disease risk by 9.9%, and following a DASH diet might reduce risk by 10.3%, according to a study set to be published January 15, 2023, in The American Journal of Cardiology.

Ahead, a closer look at how the researchers landed at this conclusion, a primer for how to follow the DASH diet, and a week's-worth of heart-healthy dinner ideas to add to your meal plan this week.

Mixed Vegetable Salad with Lime Dressing

What This Heart-Health Study Found

Scientists from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School recruited 437 participants, with an average age of 45, and asked them to follow what they deemed the "typical American diet" for three weeks to kick things off. This included little fresh produce and was fairly high in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol.

After that three-week foundation, they randomly assigned each person to one of three groups, which followed a specific eating style for the next eight weeks:

  1. Continued to follow that "American diet."
  2. Continued to follow that "American diet," with added fruits and vegetables.
  3. Followed the DASH diet, which stands for "Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension." This eating plan was created to help people lower their blood pressure, and involves eating more fruit, veggies, beans, nuts, fish, poultry, low-fat dairy and whole grains. DASH diet guidelines recommend limiting saturated fat (aka fats found in full-fat dairy, coconut, palm oil and fatty meats) as well as added sugars.

The three groups were fairly consistent in terms of body size, hypertension status and physical exercise levels.

After the two-month diet trial, the researchers estimated the participants' atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease risk using a predictive mathematical process called the Pooled Cohort Equation. This takes into account age, sex, race, blood pressure, cholesterol and other biometrics to calculate approximate heart disease risk over time.

Compared to the control "American" menu, those who ate a DASH-style menu appeared to have 10.3% lower relative risk for heart disease, while those who consumed the fruit- and vegetable-packed plan reduced risk by 9.9%. The absolute differences in risk—or the likelihood someone from this group would actually experience a cardiovascular event—were small, though, to the tune of 0.15%. That means that if 1,000 people shift from the higher-fat, lower-produce diet to a DASH plan, about two fewer people would be diagnosed with heart disease. The relative risk that the study measured compares the risk of heart disease for those following a standard American diet to the other dietary interventions.

7 DASH-Diet Dinner Recipes to Try This Week

Kick off the day with any of these 16 DASH diet breakfast recipes, follow that up with one of our 15 best DASH diet lunches, then keep the ticker-friendly treats going with our picks for your first week of DASH diet dinners. Designed with winter in mind, each of these is rich in vegetables, many showcase whole grains and plant-based protein (to help keep saturated fat levels in check), and all deliver a lot of cozy per calorie.

The Bottom Line

Following a DASH diet, or any meal plan that's rich in fruits and vegetables, may help lower risk for heart disease, one new preliminary study says. This study was fairly small and short-term—it's really tough for eight weeks of trial time to completely predict heart disease risk 10 years in the future—so longer, more diverse and more controlled research is needed to confirm these results.

That said, this is one of many pieces of evidence that suggests that following a DASH-diet-style strategy can be a boon for your cardiovascular system. In fact, the DASH diet is ranked near the top on the list of best diets for heart health, according to the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings. And these findings support a continued focus on increasing access to enough fruits and vegetables for all individuals of all income levels and hometowns, the scientists confirm.

As we continue to learn more about the connection between eating more plants and less animal fat and a healthier heart, stock up on these heart-healthy foods during your next supermarket run. It's important to remember that there are other lifestyle factors involved in your overall heart disease risk profile, too. Stress, sleep, alcohol consumption, activity levels and more can impact your chances of having a heart attack, stroke or other form of cardiovascular disease, so be sure to consult with your medical care team to keep tabs on all of the above.