Heart-Healthy Food Choices with Dr. Steven Masley, MD, FAHA, FACN, FAAFP, CNS

By Sheila Collins

Steven Masley, M.D., is a physician, nutritionist, trained chef, author, and the creator of the #1 health program for Public Television, 30 Days to a Younger Heart. Dr. Masley is a fellow of the American Heart Association, American College of Nutrition, and American Academy of Family Physicians. His research focuses on the impact of lifestyle choices on heart health, brain function and aging. 

Let’s Be Well asked Dr. Masley for his advice on a heart-healthy diet.   

LBW: Dr. Masley, what does a “heart-healthy diet” mean to you? 

The heart-healthy diet that I recommend has been thoroughly researched and is the best and easiest way for you to protect your heart. There are five basic pillars to following this plan:

  • Eat enough fiber, especially from vegetables, fruits, beans and nuts. If you eat whole grains for fiber, keep their serving sizes small and avoid products that are grounded into flour.
  • Enjoy healthy fats. There are smart fats that are good for your heart, and there are bad fats. You need to know the difference. Good fats include extra-virgin olive oil, avocado nuts, dark chocolate and cold-water seafood. You should eat several servings of smart fats every day.
  • Clean protein sources. The best protein sources are clean — they are not loaded with pesticides and hormones that come from animals fed in feed lots. Beans are a good source for protein. Seafood is another excellent choice, but focus on wild sources. When eating meat, dairy or poultry, look for organically raised, free-range options.
  • Enjoy beneficial beverages, but avoid those with sugar and sweeteners. Good options are water, herbal infusions, tea, coffee, and red wine in moderation (not more than 2-3 servings per day).
  • Enjoy fabulous flavors. Use more herbs, spices and garlic in your food. They add more flavor, and they lower inflammation.

LBW: In your famous cookbook, you suggest the Mediterranean diet. What is it, and why is it good for reducing or preventing heart disease? 

The world-famous Mediterranean diet is based upon the eating habits of people living around the Mediterranean Sea and reflects the culinary traditions of varied countries on at least three continents — not just Italy, France and Spain, but also Greece, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon and northern Africa. What these cuisines have in common is the consumption of a variety of fresh, seasonal whole foods that feature an abundance of vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, herbs and spices; moderate amounts of seafood and poultry; the use of extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter and other unhealthy fats; and with meals, moderate consumption of red wine. When Mediterranean people eat grains, they traditionally reach for whole grains such as barley, millet, farro, wheat berries or bulgur. What the Mediterranean diet has avoided is processed foods, sugar, artificial flavors, refined flour and unhealthy fats. Meats are rarely on the menu or are used sparingly to flavor a dish. 

Studies comparing a low-fat or a low-carb diet with a Mediterranean diet have shown that the Mediterranean diet provides the best outcomes, and it is the easiest diet to follow long term.

LBW: What are your tips for maintaining balance in a heart-healthy diet? Are any foods completely off limits?

There are no forbidden foods in a Mediterranean diet, and it is OK to eat natural food products, such as honey and maple syrup on special occasions, but not daily. In contrast, processed foods, artificial sweeteners and chemical additives are basically banned from a Mediterranean diet and a heart-healthy eating program. The key is eating real food, and focusing on enjoying more vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and clean protein, with added extra-virgin olive oil and herbs for flavor.

Holidays and special occasions are a part of life. The goal is to be healthy enough to enjoy treat foods on special occasions. Just remember that processed and chemical additives are not real food, and should not be included at all.

LBW: For those on a budget, what are some inexpensive heart-healthy food items to always have on hand? 

Beans, frozen vegetables and fruits, and nuts are inexpensive staples. Wild canned salmon, oysters, mussels and other seafood sources are also inexpensive. Local vegetables and fruit in season are less expensive than those that are imported out of season.

Growing your own herbs in your garden or in pots on your windowsill is a very inexpensive way to flavor your food.

LBW: You’re a highly acclaimed chef, trained at the Four Seasons. But for people who don’t know how to cook, it can be difficult to try new foods and recipes. What advice do you have for kitchen rookies trying to start a heart-healthy diet? 

Most people use some variation of 10 recipes. If you can select 10 recipes that you like, that are easy to prepare, and that your family and friends will love, you will transform how you eat. It is not that hard to find 10 easy-to-make dishes.

The key is switching from processed food to real food, which means buying unprocessed food at a grocery store or a market. In terms of what we eat and skills needed to succeed, shopping is as important as cooking. 

LBW: What is one of the biggest misconceptions about heart health that you hear far too often? What have you found through your research to combat this misconception?

The #1 cause of heart disease is not cholesterol or fat. The primary cause of heart disease is eating too much sugar and flour. My focus is on avoiding sugar and flour, and adding the five key food ingredients that prevent and reverse heart disease: fiber, healthy fat, clean or lean protein, beneficial beverages, and more flavor from spices and herbs.

LBW: How does age affect diet? Some of our readers may be in their 40s, while others are in their 70s. Should we adjust our diet to our age? And can healthy eating in our senior years help undo any of the damage we might have done earlier in our lives?

You are never too old or too young to start protecting your health! Heart disease is the #1 killer for women and men. Decreased circulation impacts not just your risk for death, but also your energy, drive and romantic function. Following a healthy eating plan can help prevent heart attacks and strokes, and can improve your quality of life for decades to come. I have helped thousands of my own patients not only improve their cholesterol, blood pressure, weight and blood sugar levels, but for those with advanced heart disease, I have published studies showing that following these recommendations can help shrink arterial plaque. I have helped hundreds of patients shrink their arterial plaque by more than 10%, making their hearts a decade younger.


This content is provided for your information only, and should not be relied on as medical advice; you should always consult your own physician before making changes to your own health or treatment plans.