It's never too late or too early to adopt a fiber-packed, heart-healthful diet. Here's how.

You've likely read about former president Bill Clinton's dramatic heart-health makeover and about superstar BeyoncĂ©'s substantial weight loss with a vegan diet – but did you know a plant-based prescription can be 20 times more powerful than today's leading drugs in treating and reversing heart disease? With 1 in 6 cases of heart disease that start in utero, and with a heart attack occurring every 45 seconds, it's never too late or too early to adopt a fiber-packed, heart-healthful diet. Here are five guidelines for optimal heart health, released by cardiovascular disease researchers at the 2015 International Conference on Nutrition and Medicine:

1. Build your diet around plant-based foods. All day, every day.
Plant-based diet
Make vegetables, beans, whole grains and fruit the center of your diet – all day, every day – to see positive changes in five metabolic risk factors: body weight, waist circumference, blood sugar, blood pressure and total cholesterol. Plant-based vegan diets boost post-meal calorie burn, explaining why those who adopt this approach experience the largest net weight loss, compared to those who chose pescatarian, vegetarian or omnivorous fare. This style of eating also reduces the risk of an early death and certain forms of cancer, and prolongs the early onset of Alzheimer's disease.

  2. Minimize refined grains, added salt and sweeteners; instead, opt for fresh fruit and vegetables.
Strawberries Instead of reaching for foods packed with sodium and refined sugar, which forces your heart to beat harder, simply reach for fresh fruit and vegetables. Foods rich in vitamin C reduce inflammation in the body, curbing the risk of cardiovascular disease and an early death by 15 and 20 percent, respectively. To reap the benefits, try a cup of oranges, strawberries, red pepper sticks, pineapple chunks, cooked broccoli or Brussels sprouts, which all provide close to 100 percent of daily vitamin C values for children and adults. Caldwell Esselstyn, director of the cardiovascular prevention and reversal program at the Cleveland Clinic, recommends consuming even more to reverse heart disease: six servings of steamed leafy greens each day. The restorative properties are vast, and studies show heart attack survivors who adopt a high-fiber diet increase their risk of survival by 40 percent.

3. Include some nuts and seeds; avoid oils.

Seeds Nuts and seeds offer heart-healthful benefits, thanks to their nutrient density: They provide fiber, vitamin E, plant sterols, L-arginine, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats and omega-3-fatty acids. This nutrition squad teams up to transport bad cholesterol away from the body, attack plaque buildup, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke, and provide nourishment for a strong arterial wall. Use just a small amount a few times each week, and go to the original source – flax seeds vs. flaxseed oil – since nuts are a high-calorie food. One to 1.5 ounces, the size of your palm, provides roughly 250 calories and is all you'll need to reap the heart-healthful benefits. Try crushing a handful of nuts or seeds in your palm and use to top salads, soups or breakfast bowls.

4. Avoid foods containing trans and saturated fats. 

Trans and saturated fat Avoiding trans fats shouldn't be too hard since the Food and Drug Administration is phasing out this type of artery-clogging fat, which remains solid at room temperature. Trace amounts will likely remain in margarine, coffee creamers, chicken wings, pastries, crackers, chips and most packaged and prepared food items, another reason to steer clear of highly processed foods. In addition to altering cholesterol ratios, trans fats promote inflammation, laying the groundwork for obesity, heart disease, cancer and stroke. The Nurse's Health Study finds women who consume the most trans fats, an average of 3.6 grams per day – what you'll find in a double quarter-pounder with cheese and a small vanilla milkshake – triple their risk for an immediate heart attack. Saturated fats, also solid at room temperature, are found in high amounts in animal products and certain vegetable oils. This type of fat poses significant heart-health risks: For every 1 percent increase in energy from saturated fat intake, LDL cholesterol concentration, the undesirable type of cholesterol, increases by about 2 percentage points. The leading sources in the American diet are cheese, pizza, dairy- and grain-based desserts and chicken, followed by processed meats – sausage, franks, bacon, ribs, burgers – and Mexican mixed dishes.

  5. Have a reliable source of vitamin B12. 

Vitamin B12 Adults and children over the age of 14 should consume 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12 each day, through fortified foods, including nondairy beverages, supplements or multivitamins. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should consume 2.6 and 2.8 mcg, respectively. Overall, you can't go wrong with colorful plant-based fare. It's precision medicine at its finest: a remedy that's proven time and time again, across all DNA profiles, to offer immediate health benefits and significantly reduce the risk of chronic disease. Let's make this the year we let our forks determine our genetic destiny, especially when it comes to securing our fate for the leading cause of death worldwide.

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