While you may be tempted to eat unhealthy foods when you feel stressed, anxious, or depressed, it’s important to think about your heart health even when you’re feeling down. If you are concerned about your cardiovascular health or have already been diagnosed with high cholesterol or heart disease, the food you eat can be just as critical for your heart as controlling your weight and exercising. In fact, a heart-healthy diet can reduce your risk of heart disease or stroke by 80%. By understanding which foods are healthiest for your heart, 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.
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 take an emotional toll as well, affecting your mood, outlook, and quality of life. But that doesn’t mean you can’t protect yourself. In addition to exercise, being careful about what you eat can help you lower cholesterol, control blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and maintain a healthy weight—while simultaneously improving your mood. If you’ve already been diagnosed with heart disease or have high cholesterol or blood pressure, a heart-smart diet can help you better manage these conditions, improve your outlook, and lower your risk for heart attack.
Improving your diet is an important step toward preventing heart disease, but you may feel unsure where to begin. Take a look at the big picture: your overall eating patterns are more important than obsessing over individual foods. No single food can make you magically healthy, so your goal can be to incorporate a variety of healthy foods prepared in healthy ways into your diet, and make these habits your new lifestyle.
Healthy fats: raw nuts, olive oil, fish oils, flax seeds, or avocados
Trans fats from partially hydrogenated or deep-fried foods; saturated fats from fried food, fast food, and snack foods
Nutrients: colorful fruits and vegetables—fresh or frozen, prepared without butter
Packaged foods, especially those high in sodium and sugar
Fiber: cereals, breads, and pasta made from whole grains or legumes
White or egg breads, sugary cereals, refined pastas or rice
Omega 3 and protein: fish and shellfish, poultry
Processed meat such as bacon, sausage, and salami, and fried chicken
Calcium and protein: Eggs, skim or whole milk, cheeses or unsweetened yogurt
Yogurt with added sugar, processed cheese
If you are concerned about your heart health, rather than avoiding fat in your diet, try replacingunhealthy 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.”
Saturated fats are mainly found in tropical oils, dairy, and animal products such as red meat. While prominent organizations such as the American Heart Association maintain that eating saturated fat from any source increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, other 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. In fact, recent evidence shows that eating whole-milk dairy products is linked to less body fat and lower levels of obesity. This may be because full-fat dairy makes you feel fuller, faster, and keeps you feeling satisfied for longer, thus helping you to eat less overall.
Whatever your take on saturated fat, if you're in good health, there’s no need to try to eliminate it from your diet. If you are not in good health, have diabetes or are at risk for cardiovascular disease, you should consult your doctor before making dietary changes. The USDA recommends limiting saturated fat to 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 on specific numbers: A glass of whole milk rather than a hot dog, for example, grilled chicken or fish instead of fried chicken, or a 4 oz. portion of grass-fed beef rather than a processed burger and French fries. To be smart about saturated fat:
- Avoid saturated fat from processed meats, packaged meals, and takeout food.
- Don’t replace healthy sources of saturated fat with refined carbs or sugary snacks.
- Don’t eat just red meat (beef, pork, or lamb) but vary your diet with free range chicken, eggs, fish, and vegetarian sources of protein.
- When you choose to eat red meat, look for "organic" and “grass-fed”.
- Roast, grill, or slow cook meat and poultry instead of frying.
- Enjoy full-fat dairy in moderation 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.
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. Instead, make friends with olive oil and use it for stovetop cooking and to dress salads, cooked vegetables, or pasta dishes. For baking, most chefs prefer butter or ghee (clarified butter).
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. So when sugar is hidden in foods such as bread, cereals, canned soups and vegetables, pasta sauce, margarine, instant mashed potatoes, frozen dinners, soy sauce, ketchup, and many “low-fat” or “no-fat” food options, it adds up to a lot of empty calories that are as bad for your heart as they are for your waistline.
The latest research suggests that added sugars may contribute to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease as much as, or even more than, added salt. To reduce your risk of heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends that the daily intake of sugar should be no more than:
- 6 teaspoons or 100 calories for women.
- 9 teaspoons or 150 calories a day for men.
Currently, most adults in the U.S. consume about 22 teaspoons of added sugars a day.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 often 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.
Reducing the salt in your food is a big part of any heart-healthy diet. 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 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.
A diet high in fiber can lower “bad” cholesterol and provide nutrients that can help protect against heart disease.Go for whole grains
|How Much Fiber Do You Need?|
|Minimum Recommended Daily Intake |
Source: Food and Nutrition Information Center, USDA
Refined or processed foods are lower in fiber content, so make whole grains an integral part of your diet. There are many simple ways to add whole grains to your meals.
- Breakfast better. For 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. These alternatives are higher in fiber than their more mainstream counterparts—and you may find you love their tastes.
- Bulk up your baking. Substitute whole-grain flour for half or all of the white flour, since whole-grain flour is heavier than white flour. In yeast breads, use a bit more yeast or let the dough rise longer. Try adding crushed bran cereal or unprocessed wheat bran to muffins, cakes, and cookies.
- Add flaxseed that is high in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower your total blood cholesterol. Add ground flaxseed to yogurt, applesauce, or cereal.
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.
To learn more, read High-Fiber Foods.
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. Choose recipes that feature these high-fiber ingredients, like veggie stir-fries or fruit salad.
- Incorporate veggies into your cooking. Add pre-cut fresh or frozen vegetables to soups and sauces. For example, mix chopped frozen broccoli into prepared spaghetti sauce or toss fresh baby carrots into stews.
- Don’t leave out the legumes. Add kidney beans, peas, or lentils to soups or black beans to a green salad.
- Make snacks count. Fresh and dried fruit, raw vegetables, and nuts are all good ways to add fiber at snack time.
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.
Fiber's role in preventing heart disease is thought to stem from its ability to lower both blood pressure and cholesterol. It also fills you up, which helps you eat less and perhaps lose weight.
A label can claim a food is a "good source" of fiber if it delivers 10% of your daily dose of fiber—about 2.5 grams per serving. The terms "rich in," "high in," or "an excellent source of" fiber are allowed if the product contains 5 or more grams of fiber per serving. Spooning up a bowl of high-fiber cereal is one of simplest ways to reach your fiber target. Look for brands with at least 6 grams of fiber per serving. Your best bet for bread? Look for the words "100% whole wheat" or "100% whole grain" on the label and at least 3 grams of fiber per slice.
Good Sources of Fiber
Baked beans (canned)*
Wheat bran, dry
Spaghetti, whole wheat
Pear (with skin)
Apple (with skin)
NUTS AND SEEDS
Peanuts, dry roasted*
* Choose no-salt or low-salt version of these foods
Adapted with permission from Harvard Heart Letter, published byHarvard Health Publications.
It’s very difficult to eat right 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 quick, 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 a book on tape.
- 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 ready-to-eat snack.
- Create a library of heart-healthy recipes. Stock up on healthy cookbooks, bookmark recipes online, use healthy eating apps on your smartphone, or find cookbooks and cooking magazines at your local library.
- 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 store leftovers in reusable containers—or directly on plates—for easy reheating during the rest of the week. Or you can freeze meals in individual portions to eat on those days when you don’t have time to cook.
While scanning the aisles of a grocery store in the U.S., look for foods displaying the American Heart Association's heart-check mark to spot heart-healthy foods. This logo means that the food has been certified to meet the American Heart Association's criteria for saturated fat and cholesterol.
Carrying excess weight means that your heart must work harder, and this often leads to high blood pressure—a major cause of heart disease. Achieving a healthy body weight is key to reducing your risk 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. Try the following tactics to control your portion sizes:
- 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 and thickness 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. Portions served in many restaurants are 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.