As people age, your heart health becomes a common concern, whether a doctor raises a red flag for you or not. The great news is, if you’re worried about how your food choices affect your heart, there are lots of great options!
What is a heart healthy diet?
There’s no one answer. Everyone is different, and even a healthy person at 20 may find that changes are needed in their life to maintain a healthy heart. But all heart-healthy diets consistently balance reasonable portions from several different food groups.
Why is a heart healthy diet important?
The food we eat can have all sorts of impacts on our bodies. The interactions are complex, but we know that certain kinds of foods — especially in excess — have been linked to heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure, increased levels of “bad” cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity. Diets rich in other foods contribute to healthy cardiovascular systems.
How to have a heart healthy diet
Control portion sizes
Understanding portion sizes can open up new ways to eat healthy. Read the nutrition labeling on food packaging, and measure out servings to get used to the recommended amounts. A helpful trick is to use smaller plates, to discourage giant portions. Certain habits — like going back for seconds, or eating until you feel stuffed — are likely to contribute to poor heart health.
Eat more fruits and veggies
They’re nutrient-dense and low on calories. Swap in some fresh fruit or vegetables for high-calorie snacks, or pick recipes and dishes that feature them as main ingredients.
Choose whole grains
Whole grains are high in fiber and can easily be substituted for refined grain products. Swapping in whole grains in breads and breakfast starches are a good place to start!
Skip unhealthy fats
This typically means saturated and trans fats, which contribute to high cholesterol. Try leaner meats, cooking with less butter, and lower-fat options.
Pick healthy fats, especially for protein
Seek out healthier fats, like monounsaturated fatty acids found in olive oil. Especially when it comes to your proteins, fish high in omega-3 fatty acids and nuts are filling alternatives — and your heart will thank you.
Eat less salt
Too much sodium is a fast track to high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease. The ideal for most adults is keeping underneath 2,300 mgs per day.
Devise a meal schedule
Planning ahead means less chance of veering off course, and also gives you a chance to build a healthy variety into your diet.
Treat yourself occasionally
Being too strict is unsustainable. Allow yourself infrequent exceptions to help stay on track.
Heart healthy diet plan
There are a number of heart-friendly diet options. All recommend balance across the food groups, but each has some unique features.
The Mediterranean diet
People often think of fish, but a healthy Mediterranean diet can include 2 ounces a day of lean meats or poultry instead. Another hallmark is up to 6 ounces a day of fat-free or low-fat dairy.
The DASH Diet
DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, so it’s been designed for heart health. It’s similar to the Mediterranean diet, but allows up to 6-8 servings of grains and 2-3 servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy. It also recommends limiting sweets and servings to 5 servings a week-max, sodium under 2.3 g a day, and limits on alcohol intake.
Vegan and vegetarian diets
Avoiding meat? Plant-based proteins from legumes, lentils, and soy foods can be good replacements.
The Flexitarian Diet.
As the name implies, this plan is less rigid than a vegetarian or vegan diet, but similarly recommends reduced meat portions. The Ornish approach is similar.
The TLC diet.
The Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) diet is built with people who have heart disease in mind. It focuses on fat intake, with recommendations to keep saturated fats below 7% of your calories each day, avoiding trans fats (like from fatty meats) altogether, and keeping total fat to no more than 25-35% of your daily intake. It also sets limits on sodium, cholesterol, and overall calories.
Low carb diets.
There are a number of diet plans with guidelines for low carbohydrate intake, which often means making up the calories from other food groups. These are a mixed bag, with some evidence of cardiovascular benefits but also some risks. Speak to a Forward doctor before pursuing.
Heart healthy foods
Lots of tasty foods are also great for your heart! Here are some options to get you started. Look for foods that are good sources of lean protein, soluble fiber, and unsaturated fats — especially polyunsaturated fats like omega-3 fatty acids. Heart healthy foods also often have antioxidants, phytonutrients, isoflavones, and vitamins like potassium, folate, magnesium, and vitamin B6. Adding all these elements to a diet can help reduce cholesterol, prevent clots, and improve blood pressure.
- Ground Flaxseed
- Black or Kidney Beans
- Red Wine
- Brown Rice
- Soy Milk
- Sweet Potato
- Red Bell Peppers
- Acorn Squash
- Dark Chocolate
- Low-Fat Dairy
Unhealthy Heart Food
You knew we’d get here too. It may not be realistic to avoid these always and forever, but food on this list has been linked to higher risks of heart disease. Reduce portions of these where possible and skip them altogether when you can.
- Red and processed meat
- Sugar sweetened foods and beverages
- Refined carbohydrates
- Processed foods
Heart Healthy Diet Tips
Use at least as many calories as you eat
A good starting point is knowing yourself: for example, how active are you? Food labels give helpful nutrition information but the guidance is based on a 2,000-calorie diet — and that’s not a perfect fit for everyone. Age, biological sex, exercise frequency, and other factors can all impact how many calories you need each day. If you need help determining your target intake, speak to your Forward doctor.
Eat a variety of nutritious foods from all the food groups
Variety is more than the spice of life, it’s the recipe for heart health! Choose from fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, skinless poultry and fish (especially those containing omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, trout, and herring ), nuts and legumes, and non-tropical vegetable oils. We’ve got some suggestions above — mix it up.
Eat less of the nutrient-poor foods
Everything is a balance — if foods are high in calories but low in nutrients, they’re not doing your heart any favors. Check the Nutrition Facts panel for details. Try to avoid high levels of saturated or trans fats — replace them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats where you can — and beverages with added sugars. Reducing daily sodium intake by as little as 1,000 mg in a day can improve your blood pressure.
Drink alcohol in moderation
Heavy and binge drinking has been linked to heart diseases like cardiomyopathy and heart arrhythmia. They’re also associated with weight gain, which itself raises the risks for heart attack, stroke, and sudden cardiac death.
Drink plenty of water! Good hydration reduces the strain on your heart and improves how well it keeps your blood pumping.
Don’t consume tobacco and stay physically active
OK, these aren’t related to diet, but they’re still great tips for a healthy heart. Tobacco smoke can damage blood vessels, blood cells, and your heart. And quitting reduces your risk of heart attacks. On the flip side, physical activity is great for your heart, especially aerobic exercise — it really earns the name “cardio.” The heart is just another muscle that physical activity can strengthen!
Need some more guidance on keeping your heart healthy? Check out our doctor-led heart health program.