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Tips for a Heart-Healthy Diet and Lifestyle

By Arthur C. Martin, MD, FACC

Click here for a PDF version of Dr. Martin’s Heart-Healthy Tips Flier.

Arthur C. Martin, MDWhat is a heart-healthy diet?

The easier answer is what it is not. It is not “low fat, low cholesterol.” We have been misled for many years. Cholesterol in our food has little to do with cholesterol plaque blocking the arteries. (Eggs are fine.) A high fat diet benefits the body in many ways, including better absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K; a better immune system; and improved weight loss. The key is understanding the difference between unhealthy fats and healthy fats.

Healthy Fats

Healthy fats usually refer to monounsaturated and, to an extent, polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are among the healthiest of fats, lowering inflammation and reducing heart risk. They are found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and trout, and in nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil and avocados. The benefit of polyunsaturated fats depends on the ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, both of which are essential fats.

Omega-3’s should dominate the omega-6’s, which promote inflammation. Vegetable oils (corn, soy, safflower, palm kernel) are high in omega-6 and are not healthy. Also, the olive oil in grocery stores is rarely extra virgin, despite the labeling. I recommend visiting an olive oil specialty store and discovering the difference. A local specialty store of this type is J.Olive in the Newpointe Shopping Center in Hattiesburg.

Unhealthy Fats

Saturated fat has been labeled the bad guy for decades, but it is highly controversial. There are now 50-year-old studies that have come to light showing that sugar and refined carbohydrates are more disease-causing than fat. Red meat has been associated with heart disease because, over the last 50 years, livestock have been fed a highly processed corn product rather than grasses, which are a cow’s natural food choice. The ratio of omega-3 fats to omega-6 fats in grass-fed beef is about 1 to 1, like fish, while in corn (grain)-fed beef the ratio is about 1 to 20. Grass-fed beef is a healthy fat. A local source is Stonnington Farm, available at Corner Market.

On the other hand, farm-raised fish fed with commercial feed results in unhealthy fish compared to wild caught fish. This includes farm-raised salmon, tilapia and catfish. Corn product is also unhealthy for humans, as in high fructose corn syrup. The most dangerous fats are trans fats. If the label says, “partially hydrogenated,” do not buy it. Most importantly – cut out sugar and white flour.

So, what is a true heart-healthy diet?

Sorry, but there is no one easy answer. There are many approaches to putting this information into a healthy diet, depending on your preference and lifestyle. These include a plant-based diet (vegetarian, vegan), Mediterranean diet, DASH diet, and even a paleo diet. The principle of a paleo diet is that grains, in general, are inflammatory, and wheat is probably the worst. Processing it into white flour makes it worse yet. Many athletes follow a gluten-free diet to prevent excessive muscle and joint soreness, and it works. Eat real food from farm to table and stay away from processed junk. For example, a vegan diet can be healthy or unhealthy depending on food choices. If it is filled with sugar, cereals and refined carbs, it will not be good for you. A healthy diet suppresses chronic systemic inflammation.

Chronic Systemic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is a leading cause of many health problems, including heart and vascular disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and many cancers. Inflamed blood vessels promote plaque formation. Lowering chronic inflammation is far more important than lowering fat and cholesterol intake.

Anti-Inflammatory Foods

In addition to omega-3 fats, these include fresh fruits, berries and vegetables, particularly alliums (garlic, scallions, onions, leeks) and crucifers (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, mustard greens and Brussels sprouts). Ground flax seeds and chia seeds have high anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. I personally add about a tablespoon of each to either my oatmeal or my full fat yogurt from grass-fed cows every day. This has eliminated all arthritis symptoms for me. Many spices are anti-inflammatory and are worth adding regularly to cooking, including cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, rosemary, ginger, sage and thyme.


Even though exercise causes acute inflammation as a normal healing of muscles and tissues, regular exercise reduces chronic inflammation. Exercise helps everything. If you are not doing something now, understand that it takes a few months of discipline to strengthen your body before exercise becomes a habit that is enjoyable. Find something you can do and stick with it. It can be walking briskly, running, biking, swimming, group classes or all of the above. This also includes exercising your brain. Read something more than texts every day.


Tobacco has hundreds of chemicals that cause severe inflammation, which is why it greatly increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes, many different cancers and death. This is also true for oral tobacco and secondhand smoke.

My personal goal is not necessarily to stretch my life into as many years as possible but rather to preserve my quality of life for years to come. By following this lifestyle (a modified paleo diet and exercise on a regular basis), and especially since I cut out most sugar and wheat from my diet, I can say I have felt dramatically better in every way. I do not have aches, pains and stiffness. I have more energy and a more positive state of mind. My friends and patients who also follow this report the same results. If you are interested in living a more heart-healthy lifestyle, there are many sources of more detailed information on this topic in local bookstores, libraries and online.


Disclaimer: Information on this page should be utilized as a guide only. Please consult your health care provider before making any major lifestyle changes regarding your health.