Heart-Healthy Eating

A heart-healthy diet can provide important nutrients to support your heart and blood vessels and limit substances that can be harmful to them. The diet can also help manage heart disease risk factors. This type of diet is especially important for people who have:

The word "diet" may make you groan, but a well balanced diet includes a wide variety of foods that you can choose to suit your tastes. Some simple guidelines can help you get started.

Focus on Nutrient-Rich Food

Nutrient-rich foods have higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other substances important for your body. These foods also tend to have lower amounts of substances like salt and trans fats which can damage blood vessels and worsen blood pressure or cholesterol. Whole foods, foods that are as close to their natural state as possible, tend to be nutrient-rich foods. Examples of nutrient-rich foods include:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Lean meats and poultry
  • Fish
  • Beans
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Low- or fat-free milk and milk products

The majority of a heart-healthy diet is made of these nutrient-rich foods. Processed foods, those not found in nature and often packaged in boxes, cans or bags, tend to have fewer nutrients. While not completely banned in heart-healthy diet, these foods should be limited since they provide little nutritional value and tend to be high in harmful substances like saturated fats, trans fats, and sodium. Carefully read nutrition labels of processed food to understand how much sodium saturated fat, or trans fat may be present. When possible, choose whole foods over processed options.

Heart-Healthy Food Choices

Some simple switches can help increase your nutrient-rich foods and decrease processed foods.

Food CategoryNutrient-rich options...Limit or avoid....
  • Breads and rolls without salted tops
  • Most dry and cooked cereals
  • Unsalted crackers and breadsticks
  • Low-sodium or homemade breadcrumbs or stuffing
  • All rice and pastas
  • Make 1/2 of your daily grains whole grains
  • Breads, rolls, and crackers with salted tops
  • High-fat baked goods like muffins, donuts, and pastries
  • Quick breads, self-rising flour, and biscuit mixes
  • Regular bread crumbs
  • Instant hot cereals
  • Commercially prepared rice, pasta, or stuffing mixes
Fruits and vegetables
  • Most fresh, frozen, and low-sodium canned fruits and vegetables
  • Low-sodium and salt-free vegetable juices
  • All fruit juices
  • Canned vegetables if unsalted or rinsed
  • Regular canned vegetables and juices, including sauerkraut and pickled vegetables
  • Fruits processed with salt or sodium
  • Frozen vegetables with sauces
  • Commercially prepared potato and vegetable mixes
  • Nonfat or low-fat (1%) milk
  • Nonfat or low-fat yogurt
  • Cottage cheese, low-fat ricotta, cheeses labeled as low-fat and low-sodium
  • Whole milk
  • Reduced-fat (2%) milk
  • Malted and chocolate milk
  • Full fat yogurt
  • Most cheeses, unless low-fat and low salt
  • Buttermilk (no more than 1 cup per week)
Meats and Beans
  • Lean cuts of fresh or frozen beef, veal, lamb, or pork (look for the word loin)
  • Fresh or frozen poultry without the skin
  • Fresh or frozen fish and some shellfish
  • Egg whites and egg substitutes (Limit whole eggs to 3 per week)
  • Tofu
  • Nuts or seeds (unsalted, dry-roasted), low-sodium peanut butter
  • Dried peas, beans, and lentils
  • Any smoked, cured, salted, or canned meat, fish, or poultry, including bacon, chipped beef, cold cuts, hot dogs, sausages, sardines, and anchovies
  • Poultry skins
  • Breaded and/or fried fish or meats
  • Canned peas, beans, and lentils
  • Salted nuts
Fats and Oils
  • Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in olive oil and canola oil
  • Low-sodium, low-fat salad dressings and mayonnaise
  • Saturated an trans fats common in some butter, margarine, coconut and palm oils, bacon fat
Snacks, Sweets, and Condiments
  • Low-sodium or unsalted versions of broths, soups, soy sauce, and condiments
  • Pepper, herbs, and spices; vinegar, lemon, or lime juice
  • Low-fat frozen desserts (yogurt, sherbet, fruit bars)
  • Sugar, cocoa powder, honey, syrup, jam, and preserves
  • Low-fat, trans-fat free cookies, cakes, and pies
  • Graham and animal crackers, fig bars, ginger snaps
  • High-fat desserts
  • Broth, soups, gravies, and sauces, made from instant mixes or other high-sodium ingredients
  • Salted snack foods
  • Canned olives
  • Meat tenderizers, seasoning salt, and most flavored vinegars
  • Low-sodium carbonated beverages
  • Tea and coffee in moderation
  • Soy milk
  • Commercially softened water—having a commercial water softener in your home may increase the amount of sodium in your home's water supply

Balance Calories and Activity

The foods we eat contain a unit of energy called calories, no matter if they are carbohydrates, fats, sugars, or proteins. In order to maintain a healthy weight, we must balance the amount of calories we take in with the amount of energy we burn through our normal body functions, daily activities, and exercise. Weight gain occurs if you eat more calories that your body uses, and excess weight increases the risk of heart disease.

If you need to manage your weight, begin by tracking the calories in the food you eat every day. Compare those calories to the amount of calories burned by activity. Make adjustments to your calorie intake or your activity level in order to balance calories and activity and reach your weight loss goals.

Follow Healthy Habits

Here are some healthy habits to follow when meal planning:

  • Eat fish at least twice per week. Fish have a fat called omega-3 fatty acid that may have some heart benefits. The fish highest in omega-3 fatty acids and lowest in mercury include salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, and canned chunk light tuna. If you eat fish less than twice per week or have high triglycerides, talk to your doctor about taking fish oil supplements.
  • Avoid fast food and convenience food. They tend to be high in saturated and trans fat and have a lot of added salt.
  • Limit alcohol to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.

Be aware of:

  • Sugary foods or drinks—Sugar can quickly add calories with little to no nutritional value and are usually not very filling.
  • Partially hydrogenated oils and trans fats—These types of fats can increase your cholesterol levels. Review nutrition labels and avoid or limit foods with these fats.
  • Saturated fats—most common in animal products. If your cholesterol is high, your doctor may recommend lowering your saturated fat intake to 5-6% of your total intake.
  • Salt intake—Reducing your salt intake can reduce your blood pressure and stress on your heart. Most salt comes from processed foods. Carefully read food labels and aim for 2,400 milligrams (mg) for day or less. If you have high blood pressure your doctor may recommend limiting salt intake to 1,500 mg per day.

How you prepare the foods you choose can also make a big difference in your overall health. In general:

  • Skip the salt when cooking or at the table; if food needs more flavor, get creative and try out different herbs and spices. Garlic and onion also add substantial flavor to foods.
  • Trim any visible fat off meat and poultry before cooking, and drain the fat off after browning.
  • Use cooking methods that require little or no added fat, such as grilling, boiling, baking, poaching, broiling, roasting, steaming, stir-frying, and sautéing.
  • Monitor your portion sizes. A food scale may help you become more familiar with appropriate serving sizes.

If you need help following a heart-healthy lifestyle, talk to your doctor. You may be referred to a registered dietitian who can help you with meal planning.