It’s well-known that a healthy diet and lifestyle can improve your heart health.
Certain foods — namely fruits, veggies, and whole grains — are thought to help manage blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and, ultimately, lower your risk of developing heart disease.
However, new evidence suggests that certain diets might not do as much for our heart health as we previously thought — and some eating plans may actually do more harm than good.
Researchers from West Virginia University studied 277 randomized controlled trials to determine the health effects of 16 different nutritional supplements and 8 dietary interventions in nearly 1 million people.
Most diets and nutritional supplements don’t seem to offer much protection against heart disease and death, according to the new studyTrusted Source, which published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine Monday.
That said, there are some habits — such as reducing your salt intake and eating more omega-3 fatty acids — that can lower your risk of heart disease and mortality, the research team found.
Below are five takeaways from the study, along with what you can do to keep your heart strong.
1. A low-salt diet can lower your risk of mortality
By now, we’re all well aware that eating too much salt will hurt our health.
Now, we have even more evidence that a low-salt diet can improve cardiovascular outcomes, at least in people who don’t have hypertension.
The mechanism behind the benefits of a low-salt diet is likely related to blood pressure, according to the study.
“It has been well shown in previous studies that a low-salt diet helps control blood pressure. Since blood pressure is a known significant risk factor for heart disease, lowering it by reducing salt intake also lowers cardiovascular risk,” Dr. Islam Abudayyeh, a cardiovascular disease specialist and interventional cardiologist at Loma Linda University Health, told Healthline.
2. Most supplements don’t offer much protection against heart disease or death
Supplements have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, with about 3 in 4 people in the United States currently taking some form of supplements.
Interestingly, there’s limited evidence on supplements, and their safety remains unclear, according to the report.
The study found that taking supplements — such as vitamin A, C, E, and D alone — really didn’t do much in terms of preventing heart disease or death.
In addition, taking calcium and vitamin D supplementation together may actually increase your risk for stroke, the study reported.
Most health experts say there just isn’t enough research to support supplement use.
“While for some individuals there may be a benefit in taking specific supplements, for the majority of the population we simply don’t have the evidence to justify people spending their own money on supplements,” said Dr. Erica Spatz, a Yale Medicine cardiologist and assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine.
3. Omega-3 long-chain fatty acids help prevent coronary heart disease
The researchers did identify a couple of supplements that may offer health benefits.
The analysis found that loading up on your omega-3 fatty acids can reduce your cardiovascular risk factors.
“Omega 3’s have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that improve the lining of heart arteries by preventing plaque buildup and making them more elastic,” Spatz said.
Additionally, these healthy fats can lower insulin resistance and, therefore, reduce your risk of diabetes.
They can also lower triglyceride levels, which can further decrease your cardiovascular risks, according to the study.
Omega-3 supplements are available, but health experts suspect it’s best to get your nutrients through foods.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish such as salmon, along with flax seeds, chia seeds, Brussels sprouts, and walnuts, according to Spatz.
4. Folic acid may help prevent strokes
Folate supplementation was also found to lower the risk of stroke.
“Folic acid is involved in cell repair and production of DNA components. It is believed that folic acid lowers blood levels of homocysteine, a chemical believed to increase the risk of stroke and heart disease,” Abudayyeh explained.
However, some health experts wouldn’t recommend taking folic acid just yet.
For years, folate was recommended for stroke prevention, especially in people with high homocysteine levels. However, research has consistently shown that folate supplementation doesn’t actually lower your risk for stroke, Spatz explained.
As a result, many health experts no longer recommend folate supplementation.
The reason for this discrepancy may boil down to the fact that the findings from this analysis included a large study based in China, where foods aren’t fortified with folate as they are in the United States or Canada, Spatz noted.
5. The Mediterranean diet doesn’t seem to have a significant impact on your heart health
One of the most surprising findings of this study was that the Mediterranean diet, in addition to a handful of other eating plans, didn’t seem to do much for people’s heart health.
“In our analysis, the Mediterranean diet, modified dietary fat, reduced dietary fat, reduced saturated fat intake, omega-6 PUFA, or omega-3 ALA PUFA did not reduce the risk for mortality or cardiovascular outcomes,” the study stated.
Previous evidence in a study on aging has indicated that the Mediterranean diet can reduce inflammation, reduce insulin resistance, and drop blood pressure.
These findings give more evidence about the potential effects of starting on the popular diet, even if it’s not all positive.
However, experts stress that studying dietary interventions is notoriously difficult for a variety of reasons — diets change day to day and frequently over the course of a lifetime.
Consequently, evidence backing up the benefits or drawbacks of diets like the Mediterranean diet is still too murky.
All in all, eating a well-balanced diet should provide you with all the vitamins and nutrients you need to stay healthy.
“The principles of nutrition are pretty consistent — eating more vegetables and fruits, along with whole grains in place of processed (or enriched) flours, less or no meat, low-fat dairy or no dairy, is healthy for the heart,” Spatz said.
The bottom line
New research from West Virginia University found that most nutritional supplements and diets don’t actually protect against cardiovascular disease or death.
However, a low-salt diet along with omega-3 fatty acid and folate supplementation may boost heart health.
The research team hopes that their findings encourage further evaluation and discussion regarding the use of these dietary interventions for those who are at risk for cardiovascular disease. Experts caution that eating a healthy balanced diet is key to overall health, even if one study doesn’t specifically find it helps your heart health.