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The Key to Your Heart: New Heart Health Guidelines Focus on Food, Not Nutrients

The International Food Information Council Foundation’s website Food Insight published an interesting interview recently with Dr. Rachel Johnson. Johnson is Dean and Professor of Nutrition at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Vermont, and member and chair-elect of the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. She discusses some new dietary metrics released by the The American Heart Association that have been designed to maintain ideal cardiovascular health.

Johnson’s message includes a focus on food intake, including types of foods and calories, rather than nutrients. That’s because nutrient-based messages are hard for people to translate into action, she said. The new directives also aim to address a messaging disconnection. In the past, recommendations have included terms such as “moderating” intake or “minimizing” certain foods, and such vague rules for healthy eating were not resonating with consumers the way hard numbers could, said Johnson.

The guidelines for good heart health include a recommendation of no less than 4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables per day. Other guidelines include eating fish and whole grains, and cutting sodium intake. Another important principle for heart health, according to Johnson, is cutting sugar, and the guidelines also include strict calorie allowances for sugar, particularly sweetened beverages.

A New Kind of Sugar High

In the spirit of concrete measurements, the article sites research by the American Cancer Institute that says Americans consume 22 teaspoons of sugar per day. That translates into 335 calories per day – a high number for a country struggling with issues of obesity and the diseases that accompany it. New guidelines from the AHA dictate a limit of 100 calories per day for women, and 150 for men – that’s a mere 6 teaspoon and 9 teaspoons respectively.

Sugars in foods can be seemingly ubiquitous in our diets, and such a ceiling on sugar intake can seem strict. But Johnson doesn’t vilify sugar; instead she suggests that those who want more sugar should simply move more. “We haven’t said eliminate added sugars from your diet. I feel that the wise approach is to use your added sugars allowance in a way that enhances the flavor and the palatability of otherwise nutritious foods (e.g., putting a little maple syrup on your oatmeal),” she said.

Other positive sugar intake can include its use as an incentive for kids to eat well. A little flavoring in milk, for example, can encourage children to incorporate milk into their diet. The hope is that such dietary trade-offs will be well worth the net nutritional gain, so kids can maintain their own heart health for years to come.

Find out more about nutrition and heart health by reading the interview.

Food Insight is a publication of The International Food Information Council Foundation, a foundation dedicated to the mission of effectively communicating science-based information on health, food safety and nutrition for the public good.

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