How Our Idea of Heart-Healthy Nutrition Has Changed Over Time

Food and nutrition trends change over time. They change little by little, often influenced by the most popular nutritional knowledge of the day. The trends we see in food today are markedly different than those you’d have found a few decades ago, for instance.

Many of the biggest changes to nutrition trends over time are those that promote cardiovascular health, and they’ve been met with mixed opinions. Here’s a look at some of the primary trends of the last few decades and how these have impacted heart health.

Cutting Carbs

In the 1980s, the primary food trend was to avoid fat. Food manufacturers rushed to eliminate fats from their foods, replacing them with refined carbs like sugar and flour. People looking for a low-fat diet started eating more pasta, potatoes and sugary foods.

This trend may not have had the intended result, however. Refined carbohydrates in large quantities can lead to weight gain and type 2 diabetes, which are risks of heart disease. Like with different types of fats, some carbs (unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains) are better for you than others.

Reducing Salt Intake

Too much sodium in the diet can lead to higher risk of heart attack and stroke, along with higher blood pressure. Between 2000 and 2014, progress was made in reducing average sodium intake. In fact, a recent study suggests that the average household acquired about 400 milligrams less sodium per capita from packaged foods and beverages. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)  attempted to curb the amount of sodium in food with proposed voluntary guidelines in 2016, but it’s yet to be seen if a big difference has been made.

Trans Fat Elimination

In 2003, the FDA instituted a new rule requiring food manufacturers to list trans fats on their nutrition labels. This change pushed many companies to simply remove trans fats from their products altogether, and this has had an enormously positive effect on heart health.

Partially Hydrogenated Oils (PHOs)—the main dietary source of trans fats—can raise “bad” cholesterol levels, increase bodily inflammation and make blood more likely to clot in harmful ways. Each of which increases your risk for heart disease. By June 2018, an FDA ruling will ban PHOs from all food products that have not been otherwise authorized by the FDA.

Limiting Sugar

Sugar is one of the carbohydrates that threatens the heart in the worst way. People who eat lots of sugars, even those who are not overweight, are at higher risk of heart disease. This includes sugary drinks like sodas and sports drinks. While rates of consumption of these kinds of drinks has lessened over the last 10 years, other initiatives to reduce sugar intake has been lacking—the FDA’s revamped nutrition label ruling that would require the listing of added sugars was put on hold during 2017.

Grains and Gluten

Gluten-free diets are all the rage these days, and while many Americans believe it can make them healthier, this is often the opposite of the truth: A Harvard study found that people who avoid gluten also tend to avoid whole-grain foods, and may eat higher quantities of sugar, fat and salt through gluten-free packaged foods. A gluten-free diet itself may not be bad, but if it makes you avoid whole-grain foods that are good for your heart health, it may be detrimental.

Your doctor can offer more advice on a heart-healthy diet.  


“Food trends through the years: A mixed bag for heart health?” Harvard Health Publishing.

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