Laura Davisson, M.D., M.P.H.
Laura Davisson, M.D., M.P.H.

WVU Medicine obesity specialist discusses updated AHA dietary guidelines

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As the holiday feasts came to a close at the end of December, many folks began looking at healthier options for the new year. Thanks to the American Heart Association, a new set of dietary guidelines is now available. 

“An important message from the 2021 AHA Dietary Guidance is that there is not just one best ‘diet.’ The term ‘dietary pattern’ is used much more frequently in this guidance, which is a shift from a philosophy of diets being temporary,” Laura Davisson, M.D., M.P.H., chief of Obesity Medicine at WVU Medicine, said. “To avoid ‘diet mentality,’ I would argue that the term ‘eating pattern’ may be preferable and is the term we use in WVU Medicine’s Medical Weight Management Program. To improve health, people should find a satisfying way of eating for life.”

Oftentimes, when people make drastic changes to their diet because they want to get healthier, they usually do not stick with those changes for a long period of time. If you make changes within your current eating patterns that account for affordability, availability, convenience and what you like to eat, it is more likely to become more of a way of life. 

The new guidelines emphasize patterns as opposed to individual foods or nutrients. If you are eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, you are probably eating less of foods that are not heart-healthy. Specifically, the AHA outlines the following 10 evidence-based guidelines: 

  1. Adjust energy intake and expenditure to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. 
  2. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, choose a wide variety. 
  3. Choose foods made mostly with whole grains rather than refined grains.
  4. Choose healthy sources of protein: Mostly protein from plants (nuts and legumes), fish and seafood, low-fat or fat-free dairy products instead of full-fat dairy products and if meat or poultry are desired, choose lean cuts and avoid processed forms.
  5. Use liquid plant oils rather than tropical oils (coconut, palm and palm kernel), animal fats (butter and lard) and partially hydrogenated fats. 
  6. Choose minimally processed foods instead or ultra-processed foods. 
  7. Minimize intake of beverages and foods with added sugars.
  8. Choose and prepare foods with little or no salt. 
  9. If you do not drink alcohol, do not start; if you choose to drink alcohol, limit intake. 
  10. Adhere to this guidance regardless of where food is prepared or consumed. 

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States, causing as estimated 659,000 death each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“In addition to the suffering related to mortality and morbidity, cardiovascular disease is a huge burden on society in terms of direct healthcare costs as well as indirect costs resulting from lost productivity,” Davisson said. “There are several known risk factors for development of cardiovascular disease — one of the most significant is an unhealthy diet, which is associated with other known risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as obesity, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia.”

Because cardiovascular disease starts during fetal development and early childhood, it is crucial to adopt heart-healthy dietary patterns early in life and maintain it throughout one’s life. 

“Obesity is extremely unlikely to reverse if a child with obesity becomes an adult with obesity so it is important to prevent and treat childhood obesity,” Davisson said. “We are thrilled that WVU Medicine has launched a family-based pediatric medical weight management clinic under the direction of Dr. Treah Haggerty.”

The AHA notes there are challenges to adhering to heart-healthy dietary patterns, such as socioeconomic factors and food and nutrition insecurity; structural racism and neighborhood segregation; and targeted marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages. However, Davisson adds that there are many ways to improve health in addition to dietary factors. 

“People can improve their overall health by stopping or continuing to avoid smoking, getting adequate sleep, and incorporating physical activity into their lives. Physical activity is beneficial for mental health and stress management as well as physical health and can include increased daily life activity such as finding ways to take more steps in a day and/or taking stairs rather than elevators,” she said. “Increased physical activity of any amount is beneficial. A formal exercise program is not necessary, but it is great to do if it is enjoyable and can be sustained as a habitual part of life.”

Anyone interested in learning more about WVU Medicine’s Medical Weight Management program can call 304-598-4890, email, or visit

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