How to find a healthy eating plan that actually works for you

The absolutely most sensible way to lose weight (honest)

by John Whyte, M.D., AARP The Magazine | Comments: 0

How to find a healthy eating plan that actually works for you

The AARP New American Diet plan emphasizes healthy, whole foods over unhealthy, processed ones.

En español | Anna is 55, a mother of three, and a new patient of mine who has struggled with her weight for the past 30 years. She’s tried just about every imaginable diet — high carb, low carb, high protein, low fat. She may lose a few pounds, but then she resumes her old eating patterns and the weight returns, often with an extra pound or two thrown in.

Sound familiar? About 70 percent of the over-50 population in America is overweight, with about a third classified as obese. Health complications from obesity cost the United States $190 billion in medical expenses each year. Obesity also shortens lives: An Oxford University study found that an obese person’s life span is three to 10 years shorter than that of someone of average weight, about the same loss of life associated with smoking.

So why don’t Anna and her fellow overweight Americans just resolve to lose weight? As we all know, it’s a little more complicated than that. And fair or not, it gets even more difficult after age 50, because of a slowing metabolism, a loss in muscle mass and a decline in hormones, all of which cause your body to store and retain fat more easily.

So what’s a midlife dieter to do? That’s where the AARP New American Diet comes in. Seventeen years ago, AARP teamed up with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the effects of dietary and lifestyle choices on the incidence of cancer and other diseases among half a million people ages 50 or older.

Over the past few years the study has provided a wealth of information about what we should and should not eat to live a long, healthy life. In short, we know how certain foods affect our bodies, so we can adjust our diet accordingly to stay healthy and lose weight.

Charlie is fairly typical of my patients: He doesn’t always make the connection between what he eats and his overall health. On a recent visit we reviewed his diabetes medications, and I said we could take him off the drugs if he lost some weight. His response: “Dr. Whyte, I’ve been overweight for 20 years, and I’ve only had diabetes for two years. You’re the first person to tell me my diabetes is related to my weight.”

Well, I’ve got news for you. More than 80 percent of all cases of type 2 diabetes are related to weight. One out of every three cancer deaths is linked to excess body weight, poor nutrition or physical inactivity. Moreover, your risk of dying prematurely increases even if you’re just 10 pounds overweight.

Anna and Charlie both needed to lose substantial amounts of weight, but rather than put them on a strict eating regimen, I invited them to try the AARP New American Diet. Instead of focusing on calorie counting or eliminating one food group or another, this plan emphasizes healthy, whole foods over unhealthy, processed ones.

How to find a healthy eating plan that actually works for you

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Margaret Mead had rightly said, “It is easier to change a man’s religion than to change his diet.” For most of us, changing unhealthy eating habits is a Herculean task. In fact, according to a 2012 study, more than 50% of Americans (that were polled) felt that doing their taxes is easier than figuring out how to eat healthy.

From misconceptions like equating healthy eating with bland food and unrealistic fitness goals (think v-cut abs and thigh gap) to contradictory food studies and unsustainable fad diets, there are numerous factors that make healthy eating seem like a complicated affair. But it doesn’t have to be so overwhelming. “Healthy eating should be varied and delicious,” says Fiorella DiCarlo, an NYC-based registered dietitian. “ The more stimulated your palate is, the more likely you are to adhere to eating nutritious food .”

Here are ten easy-peasy tips to start eating healthy this year (and actually stick to it):

    Choose whole foods instead of processed. Swap your frozen pizza and instant ramen with whole foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. They are packed with essential nutrients like protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals as opposed to processed foods which contain empty calories. “Commit to adding veggies to your lunch and dinner and fruit to your snack,” suggests DiCarlo.

  • Say no to sugary drinks. The average American drinks around 45 gallons of soda each year, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation. Other than the obvious risk of Type 2 diabetes and obesity, consuming sugary beverages can also cause liver damage, premature aging and anxiety. So, instead of sipping packaged juice or soda, go for unsweetened beverages or infused water.
  • Keep healthy food readily available. When you get hungry, you’re more likely to eat the first thing you see on the counter or in the cupboard. Keep healthy food in easily accessible and visible places in your home and workplace. Put some fruits in a basket and place it on the kitchen counter, store healthy snacks at eye level in your pantry and stock up your fridge with small batches of cooked whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. At work, store quick bites like almonds, pistachios and dried berries in a jar and place it on your desk or in its top drawer.
  • Try the “Outer Ring” technique while buying food. Author James Clear suggests using this smart strategy while grocery shopping. “Only shop on the outer perimeter of the store. This is usually where the healthy food lives: fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, eggs, and nuts. If you only shop on the outer ring, then you’re more likely to buy healthy foods,” he explains.
  • Go nuts for nuts (and seeds). From protein and healthy fats to vitamins and minerals, these superfoods pack a serious nutritional punch. Similarly, seeds like chia, flaxseed and pumpkin seeds are nutritional powerhouses too. They are an excellent source of vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals like calcium, zinc, and magnesium. You can add them to your favorite baking recipe, sprinkle them over your cereal or simply munch on them instead of a candy bar.
  • Eat more fish. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish (particularly fatty fish like salmon and mackerel) at least twice a week. Loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, this superfood improves brain and heart health and may reduce the risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s, dementia and diabetes.
  • Use whole grain flour in baking recipes. For some guilt-free indulgence, use whole grain flour in your baking recipes. Whole grain flour includes the bran and the germ which make it more nutritious than its refined counterpart. Start off by subbing half of the flour in the recipe with spelt flour (or any other whole grain flour of your choice) and see how it works. Here are some handy tips for baking with whole grain flours.
  • Eat in smaller plates.Science says that eating on a large plate tricks your brain into thinking that you haven’t eaten enough. Eat on a smaller plate to feel full quicker and avoid overeating. Moreover, the color of your plate could impact your food intake as well. According to a study conducted by Cornell University, people eat less when there is a higher color contrast between the plate and the food. If the color contrast between the two is lower, we tend to eat more. For instance, if you eat pasta with alfredo sauce on a white plate, you’ll probably eat more as compared to eating in, say, a blue plate.
  • Count nutrients, not calories. If you want to improve the quality of your diet, focus on the nutrients in your food instead of calories. “Our energy intake can only depend on our ability to extract that energy from food,” writes blogger and nutritionist Rhiannon Mack. “All calories are not created equal – it is the quality of the calorie that has the most impact on health, not necessarily the quantity,” she explains in a post that appeared in Move Nourish Believe.
  • Add more probiotic foods to your diet. Consume probiotic foods “like Kefir to improve healthy gut bacteria which is responsible for digestion, extraction of nutrients from food and building the immune system,” says the nutrition expert. Probiotic foods like yogurt, apple cider vinegar and soft cheeses are also gut-friendly.
  • Other than that, increase your water intake to “at least two liters a day,” DiCarlo suggests. Also, don’t shun fatty food. “Naturally occurring fats like fat in dairy products allow you to feel fuller longer and to better absorb fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamin-D,” she explains.

    Start making these simple dietary changes today and make 2018 your healthiest year yet!

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    Shifting to a Healthy Eating Style

    How to find a healthy eating plan that actually works for you

    What’s the eating style that’s best for health? Is it a Mediterranean eating plan? Vegetarian? Low carb? With all the eating styles out there, it’s hard to know which one to follow.

    Healthy eating is one of the best ways to prevent or delay health problems. Eating well, along with getting enough physical activity, can help you lower your risk of health problems like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and more. To reach your goals, experts advise making small, gradual changes.

    “The best diet to follow is one that is science based, that allows you to meet your nutritional requirements, and that you can stick to in the long run,” says Dr. Holly Nicastro, an NIH nutrition research expert. “It’s not going to do you any good to follow a diet that has you eating things that you don’t like.”

    The main source of science-based nutrition advice is the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines describe which nutrients you need and how much. They also point out which ones to limit or avoid.

    “Every five years, an expert panel reviews all available scientific evidence regarding nutrition and health and uses that to develop the dietary guidelines,” Nicastro explains.

    The guidelines are regularly updated, because our scientific understanding of what’s healthy is continuously evolving. These changes can be confusing, but the key recommendations have been consistent over time. In general, healthy eating means getting a variety of foods, limiting certain kinds of carbs and fats, watching out for salt, and being aware of your portion sizes.

    Limit Added Sugars

    Added sugar is the extra sugar added to foods and drinks during preparation. Corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, and honey are examples of sweeteners added to foods and drinks, especially regular sodas.

    “The sugars present normally in milk and fruit are not considered added sugar,” explains Dr. Kimber Stanhope, a nutrition researcher at the University of California, Davis.

    Stanhope’s research focuses on the effects of added sugar on the development of disease. Her studies have shown that consuming too much high-fructose corn syrup may increase the risk of weight gain and heart disease.

    The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest a daily limit on added sugar of no more than 10% of calories. That’s about the amount in 16 ounces of regular soda (190 calories). You can find information about added sugars on most Nutrition Facts labels now.

    “Anybody can improve their diet by substituting fruits and vegetables for sugar as their snacks, as part of their dessert, and as part of their meals,” says Stanhope. “There are no advantages of consuming added sugar.”

    Consider Your Fats

    Fat is high in calories. Getting too many calories can contribute to obesity, which raises your risk for heart disease and other health problems. But there are different kinds of fats.

    Fats that are liquid at room temperature, or oils, are generally healthier than those that are solid. Solid fats are found in high amounts in beef, chicken, pork, cheese, butter, and whole milk. Solid fats have more saturated fats than liquid oils. Liquid oils—such as canola, corn, olive, or peanut oil—have mostly unsaturated or polyunsaturated fats.

    The dietary guidelines encourage consuming liquid oils rather than solid fats. Nicastro advises that you examine the fat content on the Nutrition Facts label. The label shows how much saturated fat a product contains. Experts suggest that you aim for getting less than 10% of your calories from saturated fats.

    “For the average person, that’s going to be less than 20 grams of saturated fat per day,” Nicastro says.

    For example, a small cheeseburger may have 5 grams of saturated fat, a typical cheeseburger may have 13, and a double cheeseburger with bacon may have 24!

    Check Labels for Salt

    The Nutrition Facts label also shows salt, or sodium. Experts advise you to limit salt, which tends to be very high in processed foods.

    If you eat salty, highly processed food, you can quickly go over the daily limit of one teaspoon of salt (2,300 milligrams, or mg, of sodium). Two hot dogs might have 900 mg of sodium. A can of ravioli might have 1400 mg. Other examples of salty, highly processed foods are bacon, frozen pizzas, and salad dressings.

    Along with a lot of added salt, processed foods might have preservatives, sweeteners, and other substances added during preparation.

    “Stuff that comes in a box or a bag that has a whole lot of different ingredients—many of which you can’t read and understand or pronounce—those things are highly processed and generally bad for your health,” explains Dr. David C. Goff, Jr., a public health expert at NIH.

    Make a Meal Plan

    “Figuring out what to eat is less than half the battle,” Nicastro says. “Sticking to your plan is a bigger challenge. So that’s why it helps to be really prepared and plan ahead.”

    You’re much more likely to stick to your meal plan if you have healthy food that is ready to go. Some people find it helpful to prepare meals for the week in advance so that healthy food is within reach.

    The DASH eating plan is a good start. DASH was developed by NIH-supported researchers to help people lower blood pressure without medicine, but it’s for anyone. Studies have shown that it reduces the risk of many diseases.

    “The DASH diet is very flexible because you can follow DASH without going to a specialty grocery store. You can follow it with items that are very familiar to most people in this country,” Nicastro says.

    The DASH eating plan is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds, nuts, and fish. Compared to the typical American diet, it’s lower in salt, added sugars, fats, and red meat. It’s also higher in fiber, potassium, magnesium, and calcium than the typical American diet.

    “Anybody can follow it, despite specific preferences or culture,” Nicastro says. It even works for people who are vegetarian or only eat Kosher foods.

    Get Expert Advice

    The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are designed to help people avoid developing obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. But everyone is different. You may have needs and risks that aren’t like the average American. Talk to your health care provider about your unique nutritional needs.

    “A great resource for someone to help you with your diet is a registered dietitian nutritionist, or DN,” Nicastro says.

    You can find this type of expert in your area by visiting the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

    How to find a healthy eating plan that actually works for youThe Oxford Dictionary definition of diet is ‘a special course of food to which a person restricts themselves, either to lose weight or for medical reasons.’ It’s a catch-all description that sounds generic but changes wildly and sometimes weirdly, depending on the type of weight loss needed.

    For example, many people want to lose fat and keep their muscle shape the same, while others want to bulk up into a more ripped appearance. However the simple ‘less calories, less weight’ ethos is not actually as simplistic as first thought.

    The debate about whether eating fat actually leads to fat accumulation has been skewed on its head by the results of some longitudinal studies, which push the emphasis towards high-fat, low carb diets as better mechanisms for weight loss.
    A report in the Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology journal, recently described in the Independent, revealed that 53 long-term studies dating back to 1960 found low-carb diets far out-performed low-fat versions.

    These are long-term studies surveying around 68,000 people, meaning that they hold a little more water than the faddish crazes that hit the media every so often. More recently still, the structure of several of these diets, such as paleo, Atkins and others has been shaken by the assertion from the World Health Organisation that eating processed meats such as bacon and ham could cause bowel cancer, and red meats are probably the same.

    Whether or not the claims should be taken as gospel – and there are many internet naysayers – the fact remains that many people will believe them. So for optimal weight loss, what do we eat: a high-fat meaty diet that could have fatal consequences in years to come, or a diet that excludes meat and is boring and frustrating, and perhaps substitutes our carnivore cravings for sugary short-termism? What’s the balance between desperately trying to lose weight, and putting our health in jeopardy?

    Diets are generally problematic for multiple reasons. They can be expensive or boring, or difficult to follow. Some are verging on dangerous, again depending on who you believe. Those diets are often unsustainable and their positive effects, if any, are soon negated once the diet has finished. Changing one’s lifestyle permanently to enjoy the odd treat while maintaining discipline and cutting out excesses of sugary foods, with regular exercise and perhaps some supplements, is a safer bet for long-term happiness.

    A crash diet of losing a stone in a month sounds fantastic, but is unsustainable in the long term. Dropping a pound or two a week is both healthier but more likely to endure.

    Not only does anecdotal evidence tell you this is the case, but an historical look back at athletes who ballooned in weight and were forced to starve themselves in desperation shows their careers were usually stunted or disappointing. Former light-welterweight boxing champ Ricky Hatton regularly packed on between three and four stone between bouts, and his reign was perhaps shorter than first hoped. Multi-weight world champion Bernard Hopkins, who strictly maintained his fighting shape even when no bouts were on the horizon, is still boxing at world-class level at the age of 50.

    The more diets arrive on the world nutrition stage, the more doubts arise as to their validity. One thing is certain – a lifestyle change trumps a diet every tim

    A healthful diet typically includes nutrient-dense foods from all major food groups, including lean proteins, whole grains, healthful fats, and fruits and vegetables of many colors.

    Healthful eating also means replacing foods that contain trans fats, added salt, and sugar with more nutritious options.

    Following a healthful diet has many health benefits, including building strong bones, protecting the heart, preventing disease, and boosting mood.

    This article looks at the top 10 benefits of a healthful diet, and the evidence behind them.

    How to find a healthy eating plan that actually works for you

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    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , heart disease is the leading cause of death for adults in the United States.

    The American Heart Association (AHA) state that almost half of U.S. adults live with some form of cardiovascular disease.

    High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a growing concern in the U.S. The condition can lead to heart attack, heart failure, and stroke.

    Some sources report that it is possible to prevent up to 80% of premature heart disease and stroke diagnoses with lifestyle changes, such as increasing physical activity and healthful eating.

    The foods people eat can reduce their blood pressure and help keep their heart healthy.

    The dietary approaches to stop hypertension diet, known as the DASH diet , includes plenty of healthful foods for the heart. The program recommends the following:

    • eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains
    • choosing fat-free or low fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and vegetable oils
    • limiting saturated and trans fat intake, such as fatty meats and full-fat dairy products
    • limiting drinks and foods that contain added sugars
    • restricting sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams per day — ideally 1,500 mg daily— and increasing consumption of potassium, magnesium, and calcium

    High fiber foods are also crucial for keeping the heart healthy.

    The AHA state that dietary fiber helps improve blood cholesterol and lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

    The medical community has long recognized the link between trans fats and heart-related illnesses, such as coronary heart disease.

    Limiting certain types of fats can also improve heart health. For instance, eliminating trans fats reduces the levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. This type of cholesterol causes plaque to collect within the arteries, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.

    Reducing blood pressure can also promote heart health. A person can achieve this by limiting their salt intake to no more than 1,500 milligrams per day.

    Food manufacturers add salt to many processed and fast foods, and a person who wishes to lower their blood pressure should avoid these products.

    Eating foods that contain antioxidants can reduce a person’s risk of developing cancer by protecting cells from damage.

    The presence of free radicals in the body increases the risk of cancer, but antioxidants help remove them to lower the likelihood of this disease.

    Many phytochemicals found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes act as antioxidants, including beta-carotene, lycopene, and vitamins A, C, and E.

    According to the National Cancer Institute , though humans trials are inconclusive, there are laboratory and animal studies that link certain antioxidants to a reduced incidence of free radical damage due to cancer.

    • berries such as blueberries and raspberries
    • dark leafy greens
    • pumpkin and carrots
    • nuts and seeds

    Having obesity may increase a person’s risk of developing cancer and result in poorer outcomes. Maintaining a moderate weight may reduce these risks.

    In a 2014 study , researchers found that a diet rich in fruits reduced the risk of upper gastrointestinal tract cancers.

    They also found that a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and fiber lowered the risk of colorectal cancer, while a diet rich in fiber reduces the risk of liver cancer.

    How to find a healthy eating plan that actually works for you

    An eating plan that helps manage your weight includes a variety of healthy foods. Add an array of colors to your plate and think of it as eating the rainbow. Dark, leafy greens, oranges, and tomatoes—even fresh herbs—are loaded with vitamins, fiber, and minerals. Adding frozen peppers, broccoli, or onions to stews and omelets gives them a quick and convenient boost of color and nutrients.

    • Emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products
    • Includes a variety of protein foods such as seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), soy products, nuts, and seeds.
    • Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars
    • Stays within your daily calorie needs

    USDA’s MyPlate Plan external icon can help you identify what and how much to eat to from the different food groups while staying within your recommended calorie allowance. You can also download My Food Diary pdf icon [PDF-106KB] to help track your meals.


    Fresh, frozen, or canned fruits are great choices. Try fruits beyond apples and bananas such as mango, pineapple or kiwi fruit. When fresh fruit is not in season, try a frozen, canned, or dried variety. Be aware that dried and canned fruit may contain added sugars or syrups. Choose canned varieties of fruit packed in water or in its own juice.

    How to find a healthy eating plan that actually works for you


    Add variety to grilled or steamed vegetables with an herb such as rosemary. You can also sauté (panfry) vegetables in a non-stick pan with a small amount of cooking spray. Or try frozen or canned vegetables for a quick side dish—just microwave and serve. Look for canned vegetables without added salt, butter, or cream sauces. For variety, try a new vegetable each week.

    Calcium-rich foods

    In addition to fat-free and low-fat milk, consider low-fat and fat-free yogurts without added sugars. These come in a variety of flavors and can be a great dessert substitute.


    If your favorite recipe calls for frying fish or breaded chicken, try healthier variations by baking or grilling. Maybe even try dry beans in place of meats. Ask friends and search the internet and magazines for recipes with fewer calories ― you might be surprised to find you have a new favorite dish!

    Comfort Foods

    How to find a healthy eating plan that actually works for you

    Healthy eating is all about balance. You can enjoy your favorite foods, even if they are high in calories, fat or added sugars. The key is eating them only once in a while and balancing them with healthier foods and more physical activity.

    Some general tips for comfort foods:

    • Eat them less often. If you normally eat these foods every day, cut back to once a week or once a month.
    • Eat smaller amounts. If your favorite higher-calorie food is a chocolate bar, have a smaller size or only half a bar.
    • Try a lower-calorie version. Use lower-calorie ingredients or prepare food differently. For example, if your macaroni and cheese recipe includes whole milk, butter, and full-fat cheese, try remaking it with non-fat milk, less butter, low-fat cheese, fresh spinach and tomatoes. Just remember to not increase your portion size.

    How to find a healthy eating plan that actually works for you

    How to find a healthy eating plan that actually works for you

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    Researching diet plans is a lot like surfing Netflix: You’re bombarded with thousands upon thousands of choices, none of which seem to be exactly what you want. So you spend way too much time sorting through the options until you pick something that seems okay—until you get bored and wander into the kitchen for a snack halfway through.

    There are a lot of reasons why diet plans fail, but the number one reason you can’t stick with your plan—or your plan isn’t working—is that it’s simply not the right plan for you. After all, you wouldn’t expect the Olsen twins and the Williams sisters to eat the same meal plan; why should you try to squeeze into a program just because it worked for someone whose life is completely different from yours? (If you do like take a cue from the Hollywood crowd, though, check out these quick weight loss tips celebs swear by!)

    Of course, you could always hire someone to tailor a nutrition plan just for you, but that costs big bucks. We’ve got a better solution: We’ve picked some of our favorite diet plans, tested and proven by hundreds of people on our test panels. But rather than dictate which plan you should pursue, we’ve developed a fun little interactive quiz that help you decide. Got a sweet tooth? We’ve got a plan for that. Too busy for breakfast in the morning? We’ve got you covered. Simply plug your answers into our mini decoder, and let the weight loss begin!

    How to find a healthy eating plan that actually works for you

    Want to make smart food choices but confused by all the health claims, messages and logos on foods? Use these tips to avoid the brain strain while shopping online or in-person at the store.

      Read food nutrition labels, even for so-called “healthier” foods. Ingredients and nutrient content can vary a lot by brand and preparation. When there’s more than one choice, compare labels. Choose the item with the lowest amounts of sodium, saturated fat, trans fat and added sugars.

    Beware of sneaky ingredients. For example, sodium and added sugars go by many different names, making it harder to tell just how much is in there.

    Choose frozen, canned or dried produce when fresh isn’t available or practical. It can be just as nutritious as fresh, and will last longer. Choose canned fruit packed in water, light syrup or its own juice. With canned and frozen vegetables, choose the product with the lowest amount of sodium. Heavy syrups and sauces can add unwanted ingredients to your healthy fruits and veggies.

    Choose whole-grain foods. Lots of products claim to be, but there’s a simple way to know for sure. Look for the word “whole-grain” (or “whole” followed by the grain name) as the first item in the ingredients list. And we’re talking more than just bread. Include crackers, cereals, tortillas, pasta and other grain foods in your whole-grain quest.

  • Look for the Heart-Check mark to quickly and easily identify foods that can be part of an overall healthy eating plan. When it’s on the label, you know the product has been certified by the American Heart Association to meet specific science-based nutrition requirements. The Heart-Check is easy to spot and takes some of the guesswork out of comparing Nutrition Facts label information.
  • Keep in mind, not all red hearts or check marks on food packages are the trusted Heart-Check mark! Look for the American Heart Association name if you’re unsure. And, the Heart-Check program is voluntary. That means not every heart-healthy food, such as fruits and vegetables, will apply for a Heart-Check mark. But you won’t find the Heart-Check on desserts, candy, chips and other foods that do not meet our nutrition requirements.

    Find out more about how the Heart-Check mark works.

    Written by American Heart Association editorial staff and reviewed by science and medicine advisers. See our editorial policies and staff.