ST. HELENA, Calif. — The American Heart Association is relying on consumers eating more produce to meet its goal of improving cardiovascular health and reducing deaths from cardiovascular diseases by 20% in the next decade.

The Dallas-based association is recommending at least 4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables per day to consumers, the first of five dietary guidelines it established. It also recommends two servings of fish per week, three servings of whole grain per day, less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium intake per day and minimal sugary beverages, based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

It also recommends decreasing trans fat and saturated fat, processed meats and highly processed foods and increasing unsalted nuts, seeds, legumes, vegetable sources of protein and unsaturated fats.

“The increased intake of sugary food and decreased intake of vegetables and fruits leads to metabolic disease, then leads to diabetes,” said Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and chairman of the departments of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone’s Worlds of Health Flavors Conference Jan. 21.

“High red meat consumption has been correlated with cardiovascular disease and cancer,” he said. “That’s why we need to incorporate vegetables and vegetable protein into our diets more.”

The committee that put the plan together, the association’s Goals and Metrics Committee of the Strategic Planning Task Force, also developed its first definition and measurement system for cardiovascular health.

The new definition includes ideal health behaviors — nonsmoking, body mass index below 25, physical activity at goal level and pursuit of a diet consistent with the recommendations — and health factors relating to optimal cholesterol, blood pressure and fasting blood glucose levels.

The association’s site allows people to input their own health information and track their progress toward optimal levels, a new feature at www.heart.org/MyLifeCheck. According to an association news release, 54% of Americans say they’ve been told by a health professional that they were at risk for heart disease and needed to make a lifestyle change.

The association reported achieving its 2010 goal of reducing death by heart disease and stroke by 25%.

“However, too many people continue to have unrelenting exposure to known important risk factors for heart disease and stroke to the point that we are likely to begin seeing an increase in these diseases, and at an earlier age,” said Clyde Yancy, president of the association, in a news release. “That is a cause for alarm and a trend we need to stop now.”

American Heart Association sets new goals