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A healthy diet can protect the heart, but many are confused about what's best, survey shows

fast food verus mediterranean diet
Oleksandra Naumenko
The Cleveland Clinic said a Mediterranean diet has the most evidence of improving heart health, but few Americans are aware of its benefits, according to a recent survey.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans. One in five people dies from heart conditions in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Doctors say following a healthy diet and getting regular exercise can protect the heart, but a new national survey by the Cleveland Clinic suggests many Americans may have misconceptions about what's best.

The survey, conducted online with a representative sample of 1,000 Americans, revealed many Americans have misconceptions about which diets are the healthiest.

Most Americans reported they believed low-fat and low-carb diets were the most heart-healthy. Only 15% selected the Mediterranean diet, which the Clinic recommends, as the healthiest. One in ten people surveyed said a fast-food diet is best for your heart.

Too, respondents reported barriers to eating healthy foods. Nearly half said they struggle to eat healthy food because of the cost of groceries and about one in five cited a lack of time needed to prepare healthy food or that unfamiliarity with ways of cooking stopped them from eating more healthy foods.

Many people just don't feel like they can cook a low salt, low sugar meal that tastes good," said Cleveland Clinic cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Lee Kirksey.

The survey also found that some people may be discounting following specific diets as a way to achieve weight loss. Many people put more thought into exercise than into what they eat, Kirksey said.

People should try to make time for daily moderate exercise and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, olive oil and nuts with some fish and poultry, he said. Additionally, people should look to minimize or cut out dairy, red meat and processed sweets for the sake of heart health.

Going on a diet for immediate weight loss isn't the idea, he said. Rather it's changing the fundamentals of how you eat.

"I try to avoid the use of the idea of 'diet' and really emphasize the idea of cooking as a lifestyle approach to changing one's eating lifestyle," said Kirksey. "That seems to me to imply a more permanent change in eating habits."

Black and Hispanic Americans face more barriers to eating healthy because their neighborhoods are often food deserts, said Kirskey.

“Many members of these communities have difficulty accessing healthful foods because of the lack of full-service grocery stores that have inexpensive fruits and vegetables," he said.

Kirksey said the Clinic is building a Meijer grocery store in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood and holds exercise classes at its Langston Hughes Center and Stephanie Tubbs Jones Health Center locations.

He recommends older adults seek out Silver Sneakers classes or just commit to going on a daily walk near work or at home, though he admits that can be hard for many.

"Some people would like to be more active, however, they live in a community that may not necessarily have those open spaces for walking or safe spaces or parks," said Kirksey. "All of those things would sometimes facilitate a greater level of community physical activity, and so there are some structural issues that exist within communities across America."

Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.