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Heart-Healthy Diet Tips

Eating to Prevent Heart Disease and Improve Cardiovascular Health

Salmon and asparagus

Heart disease is the leading killer of men and women—and claims more lives than all forms of cancer combined. Being diagnosed with cardiovascular disease can also take an emotional toll, affecting your mood, outlook, and quality of life. While weight control and regular exercise are critical for keeping your heart in shape—the food you eat can matter just as much. In fact, along with other healthy lifestyle choices, a heart-healthy diet may reduce your risk of heart disease or stroke by 80%. By adopting better eating habits, you may be able to lower cholesterol, prevent or manage heart disease and high blood pressure, and take greater control over the quality and length of your life.

What you can do

  1. Focus on real, natural foods rather than processed or packaged meals
  2. Understand the difference between good and bad fats
  3. Start to slowly reduce added sugar and salt in your diet
  4. Find out how fiber can help both your heart and your waistline
  5. Get the family involved in cooking more at home
  6. Learn how to measure healthy portion sizes

What is a heart-healthy diet?

Coupled with regular exercise, a heart-healthy diet can help you lower cholesterol, control your blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and maintain a healthy weight—while simultaneously improving your mood and outlook. No single food can make you magically healthy, so your overall dietary pattern is more important than specific foods. Instead of fried, processed food, packaged meals, and sugary snacks, a heart-healthy diet is built around “real,” natural food—fresh from the ground, ocean, or farm.

Whether you’re looking to improve your cardiovascular health, have already been diagnosed with heart disease, or have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, these heart-healthy diet tips can help you better manage these conditions and lower your risk of a heart attack.

The keys to a heart-healthy diet
Eat more: Eat less:

Healthy fats, such as raw nuts, olive oil, fish oils, flaxseeds, and avocados

Trans fats from partially hydrogenated or deep-fried foods; saturated fats from fried food, fast food, and snack foods.

Colorful fruits and vegetables—fresh or frozen

Packaged foods, especially those high in sodium and sugar

High-fiber cereals, breads, and pasta made from whole grains or legumes

White or egg breads, sugary cereals, refined pastas or rice

High-quality protein, such as fish and poultry

Processed meat such as bacon, sausage, and salami, and fried chicken

Organic dairy such as eggs, skiim milk, or unsweetened yogurt

Yogurt with added sugar; processed cheese

Heart-healthy diet tip 1: Reduce unhealthy fats

If you are concerned about your heart health, rather than avoiding fat in your diet, try replacing unhealthy fats with good fats. Some of the most important improvements you can make to your diet are to cut out trans fats, be smart about saturated fats, and add more healthy fats.

Eliminate trans fat

As well as raising your LDL, or “bad” cholesterol level, which can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke, trans fat also lowers your levels of HDL or "good" cholesterol, which can put you at increased cardiovascular risk. Trans fats are found in foods such as:

  • Commercially-baked goods (cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, breads like hamburger buns)
  • Packaged snack foods (crackers, microwave popcorn, chips, candy)
  • Solid fats (stick margarine, vegetable shortening)
  • Fried foods (French fries, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, breaded fish, hard taco shells)
  • Pre-mixed products (cake mix, pancake, chocolate milk)
  • Anything with “partially hydrogenated” oil listed in the ingredients, even if it claims to be “trans fat-free.”

Be smart about saturated fat

Saturated fats are mainly found in tropical oils, dairy, and animal products such as red meat. While some nutrition experts point to studies that suggest people, in good health, who eat moderate amounts of saturated fat do not experience more cardiovascular disease than those who restrict their intake, prominent organizations such as the American Heart Association maintain that eating saturated fat from any source increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Whatever your take on saturated fat, if you're in good health, there’s no need to try to eliminate it from your diet entirely. If you are not in good health, have diabetes or are at risk for cardiovascular disease, it’s wise to limit your consumption of saturated fats. The USDA recommends eating no more than 20 grams a day for someone on a 2,000-calorie diet. Other experts prefer to focus on the source of saturated fats consumed rather than specific numbers: A glass of milk rather than a hot dog, for example, or grilled chicken or fish instead of fried chicken. To be smart about saturated fat:

  • Avoid saturated fat from processed meats, packaged meals, takeout food.
  • Don’t replace healthy sources of saturated fat with refined carbs or sugary snacks.
  • Don’t eat too much red meat (beef, pork, or lamb) but vary your diet with fish, free range chicken, eggs, and vegetarian sources of protein.
  • When you do eat red meat, look for "organic" and “grass-fed”.
  • Roast, grill, or slow cook poultry, fish, and meat instead of frying.
  • If you opt for full-fat dairy, enjoy it in moderation only, and choose organic or raw milk, cheese, butter, and yoghurt when possible.
  • Avoid breaded meats and vegetables and deep-fried foods.
  • Avoid snack foods such as corn or potato chips. Snack on nuts and raw vegetables instead.

Add more healthy fats to your diet

Unsaturated fats are essential for both heart health and overall physical and mental health. Eating foods rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat can improve blood cholesterol levels and lower your risk of heart disease. To get more "good" fats in your diet:

Eat omega 3 fatty acids every day. Fatty fish like salmon, trout, or herring and flaxseed, kale, spinach, and walnuts all contain polyunsaturated fats that are vital for the body.

Enjoy monounsaturated fats such as almonds, cashews, peanuts, pecans, and butters made from these nuts, as well as avocados—all great sources of “good” fat.

Choose your oils carefully. Cold-pressed, organic oils retain all the nutrients that are burned away in industrially manufactured oils, such as most vegetable, corn or canola oil, many of which can become toxic when heated. Use olive oil for stovetop cooking and to dress salads, cooked vegetables, or pasta dishes.

Tip 2: Don't replace fat with sugar

Despite all the low-fat meal options on offer in every grocery aisle, obesity and heart disease are still on the rise. That may be because many of these low-fat foods have removed the saturated fat but replaced it with added sugar to improve the taste. But the truth is your body doesn’t need any added sugar—it gets all it needs from the sugar that naturally occurs in food. When sugar is hidden in foods such as bread, cereals, canned soups, frozen dinners, and many “low-fat” or “no-fat” options, it adds up to a lot of empty calories that are as bad for your heart as they are for your waistline.

Tips for cutting down on sugar

Make the right changes. When cutting back on heart-risky foods, such unhealthy fats, it’s important to replace them with healthy alternatives. Replacing processed meats with fish or chicken, for example, can make a positive difference to your health. But switching animal fats for refined carbohydrates, though—such as replacing your breakfast bacon with a donut—won’t do anything to lower your risk for cardiovascular disease.

Slowly reduce the sugar in your diet a little at a time to give your taste buds time to adjust and wean yourself off the craving for sweetness.

Check labels and choose low-sugar products. Remember low-fat doesn’t mean low-sugar.

Avoid processed or packaged foods like canned soups, frozen dinners, or low-fat meals that contain hidden sugar. Prepare more meals at home using fresh ingredients.

Be careful when eating out. Most gravy, dressings, and sauces are packed with salt and sugar, so ask for them to be served on the side.

Cut down on sweet snacks such as candy, chocolate, and cakes. Instead, eat naturally sweet food such as fruit, peppers, or natural peanut butter to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Avoid sugary drinks. Even drinking diet sodas containing artificial sweeteners can make it harder to kick your craving for sugary foods. Try drinking sparkling water with a splash of fruit juice instead.

Tip 3: Steer clear of salt and processed foods

Eating a lot of salt can contribute to high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association recommends no more than a teaspoon of salt a day for an adult. That may sound alarmingly small, but there are actually many painless—even delicious—ways to reduce your sodium intake.

Reduce canned or processed foods. Much of the salt you eat comes from canned or processed foods like soups or frozen dinners—even poultry or other meats often have salt added during processing. Eating fresh foods, looking for unsalted meats, and making your own soups or stews can dramatically reduce your sodium intake.

Cook at home, using spices for flavor. Cooking for yourself enables you to have more control over your salt intake. Make use of the many delicious alternatives to salt. Try fresh herbs like basil, thyme, or chives. In the dried spices aisle, you can find alternatives such as allspice, bay leaves, or cumin to flavor your meal without sodium.

Substitute reduced sodium versions, or salt substitutes. Choose your condiments and packaged foods carefully, looking for foods labeled sodium free, low sodium, or unsalted. Better yet, use fresh ingredients and cook without salt.

The DASH diet for lowering blood pressure

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH diet, is a specially designed eating plan to help you lower your blood pressure, which is a major cause of hypertension and stroke. When combined with a reduction in salt, the DASH diet can be more effective at lowering blood pressure than medication. To learn more, download the booklet from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Tip 4: Focus on high-fiber foods

A diet high in fiber can lower “bad” cholesterol and provide nutrients that can help protect against heart disease. As an added bonus, it may also help you to lose weight. Since fiber stays in the stomach longer than other foods, the feeling of fullness will stay with you much longer, helping you eat less. Fiber also moves fat through your digestive system quicker so less of it is absorbed. And when you fill up on fiber, you'll also have more energy for exercising.

How Much Fiber Do You Need?
Minimum Recommended Daily Intake (grams)

Age

Male

Female

9-13

31

26

14-18

38

26

19-30

38

25

31-50

38

25

51-70

30

21

Over 70

30

21

Source: Food and Nutrition Information Center, USDA

Go for whole grains

Refined or processed foods are lower in fiber content, so add whole grains to your meals.

Breakfast. Choose a high-fiber breakfast cereal—one with five or more grams of fiber per serving. Or add a few tablespoons of unprocessed wheat bran to your favorite low-sugar cereal.

Try a new grain. Experiment with brown rice, wild rice, barley, whole-wheat pasta, and bulgur which are higher in fiber than their mainstream counterparts—and very tasty.

Bulk up your baking. Since it’s heavier, substitute whole-grain flour for half of white flour. Try adding crushed bran cereal or unprocessed wheat bran to muffins, cakes, and cookies.

Add flaxseed to yogurt, applesauce, or cereal. It’s high in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower your total blood cholesterol.

Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables

Most fruits and vegetables are low in calories and high in fiber, making them heart healthy.

Keep fruit and vegetables at your fingertips. Wash and cut fruit and veggies and put them in your refrigerator for quick and healthy snacks.

Incorporate veggies into your cooking. Add pre-cut fresh or frozen vegetables to soups and sauces. Choose recipes like veggie stir-fries or fruit salad.

Don’t leave out the legumes. Add kidney beans, peas, or lentils to soups or black beans to a green salad.

Eat more fiber-rich foods to foster heart health

Fiber is a carbohydrate that your body can't break down, so it passes through the body undigested. It comes in two varieties: insoluble and soluble. Insoluble fiber is found in whole grains, wheat cereals, and vegetables such as carrots, celery, and tomatoes. Soluble fiber sources include barley, oatmeal, beans, nuts, and fruits such as apples, berries, citrus fruits, and pears. Both types have been linked to heart health.

Tip 5: Rekindle home cooking

It’s very difficult to eat a heart-healthy diet when you’re eating out a lot, ordering in, or eating microwave dinners and other processed foods. The portions are usually too large and the meals contain too much salt, sugar, and fat. Cooking at home will give you better control over the nutritional content of your meals and can also help you to save money and lose weight. Making heart-healthy meals is easier and less time-consuming than you may think—and you don’t have to be an experienced cook to master some quick and wholesome meals.

Get the whole family involved. Trade off shopping and cleanup duties with your spouse or get the kids to help shop for groceries and prepare dinner. Kids find it fun to eat what they've helped to make and cooking together is a great way to expand the pallets of picky eaters.

Make cooking fun. If you hate the idea of spending time in the kitchen, you need to embrace your fun side. Try singing along to your favorite music as you cook, sip a glass of wine, or listen to the radio or an audiobook. 

Make foods ready-to-eat. You’re more likely to stay heart-healthy during your busy week if you make healthy foods easily accessible. When you come home from grocery shopping, cut up vegetables and fruit and store them in the fridge, ready for the next meal or when you are looking for a quick snack.

Use heart healthy cooking methods. Just as important as choosing healthy ingredients is preparing them in healthy ways. You can bake, broil, roast, steam, poach, lightly stir fry, or sauté ingredients—using a small amount of olive oil, reduced sodium broth, and spices instead of salt.

Cook just once or twice a week and make meals for the whole week. Cook a large batch of heart healthy food and reheat leftovers the rest of the week. Or freeze meals in individual portions for those days when you don’t have time to cook.

Look at labels

American Heart Association

In the U.S., look for foods displaying the American Heart Association's heart-check mark to spot heart-healthy foods that meet the American Heart Association's criteria for fat and cholesterol.

Tip 6: Control portion size—and your weight

Carrying excess weight means that your heart must work harder, and this often leads to high blood pressure—a major cause of heart disease. As well as eating less sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats, reducing portion sizes is a crucial step toward losing or maintaining a healthy weight.

Understand serving sizes. A serving size is a specific amount of food, defined by common measurements such as cups, ounces, or pieces—and a healthy serving size may be a lot smaller than you’re used to. The recommended serving size for pasta is ½ cup, while a serving of meat, fish, or chicken is 2 to 3 ounces (57-85 grams). Judging serving size is a learned skill, so you may need to use measuring cups, spoons, and a food scale to help.

Eyeball it. Once you have a better idea of what a serving should be, you can estimate your portion. You can use common objects for reference; for example, a serving of pasta should be about the size of a baseball (slightly smaller than a cricket ball), while a serving of meat, fish, or chicken is about the size of a deck of cards.

If you’re still hungry at the end of a meal fill up on extra servings of vegetables or fruit.

Beware of restaurant portions. They’re often more than anyone needs. Order an appetizer instead of an entrée, split an entrée with your dining companion, or take half your meal home for tomorrow’s lunch.

Related HelpGuide articles

Resources and references

Your Guide to Lowering Your Cholesterol – Eating guidelines to lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease. (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute)

Heart-healthy diet – 8 steps to prevent heart disease. (Mayo Clinic)

Healthy Heart Recipe Search – Search engine for heart-healthy recipes from around the world. (British Heart Foundation)

Fats 101 – Real-life advice for incorporating good fats and reducing bad fats to help reduce heart disease risk. (American Heart Association)

Phytochemicals and Cardiovascular Disease – Background and explanation of plant sterols and other phytochemicals and the role they play in heart health. (American Heart Association)

In Brief: Your Guide to Lowering High Blood Pressure – Extensive explanation of the mineral potassium: what it does in the body, where it is found, and its benefits and risks. (University of Maryland Medical Center)

DASH Eating Plan (PDF) – A detailed user's manual for reducing high blood pressure through diet. (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute)

Added Sugars Add to Your Risk of Dying from Heart Disease – How added sugar in food can increase your risk of obesity, high cholesterol and heart disease. (American Heart Association)

Preventing CVD – How to prevent cardiovascular disease with healthy lifestyle changes, including eating a heart-healthy diet. (Harvard School of Public Health)

What can I do to avoid a heart attack or a stroke? How diet and other lifestyle choices are crucial to a healthy heart. (World Health Organization)

Authors: Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Melinda Smith, M.A.  Last updated: March 2017.