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What Foods to Eat for a Healthy Heart

Published in Heart & Vascular, For the Health of It, Healthy Eating Tips Author: Danielle Armbrust,RDN,LD

To keep your heart healthy and to live a longer, more vibrant life, consider heart-healthy eating habits. Although appropriate for anyone, those with a family history of heart disease will find this type of eating plan especially beneficial in the long term.

As a clinical dietitian, it’s important in my role to practice what I preach. Almost every day a patient will ask me, “Do you eat this way at home?”

I do.

I truly enjoy eating a variety of healthy foods. I like how they make me feel and how they keep me healthy. By eating these foods myself, I can share benefits and educate others on how to stick to new eating habits.

How can you stick to a healthy diet?

I empathize with my patients, as making a substantial change in diet can be exhausting and challenging. Here are some tips to incorporate heart-healthy eating into your life.

  • Prep Meals: Prepare a weekly meal plan to ensure you get the nutrients you need without the temptation of unhealthy choices. These temptations are easier to ignore if you already have your meal planned and prepped. It will also save you time and keep you organized.
  • Read Labels: Read the labels on the food you buy to know exactly what you’re putting in your body. While time consuming at first, as time goes on, you will become more familiar with nutrient labels and what's good and bad for you. Know that it is nearly impossible to find a 100% heart healthy option when looking at packaged foods.
  • Cook at Home: Cooking your meals at home gives you more control over ingredients and portion sizes.
  • Stay Hydrated: Nearly all systems in our body depend on water to function. Water is one of the best liquids to keep you refreshed and healthy.
  • Stay Active: Complement your heart-healthy eating with regular physical activity as it plays a significant role in strengthening your heart.

Why are some foods good for your heart?

Let’s explore a variety of foods that can contribute to a healthier heart and why they are a better choice.

Whole Grains

When it comes to starchy foods, whole grains are the best choice. Whole grains have nutritional benefits such as fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, all of which can help lower cholesterol. High cholesterol can lead to plaque buildup in your arteries. Examples of good whole grain choices would be brown rice, whole wheat bread and whole wheat pasta.

Fruits and Vegetables

When not eating fruits and vegetables, we may fill up on foods that do not provide us as much benefit. Fruits and vegetables contain a high amount of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Plus, they are low in calories. Fresh and frozen vegetables and fruit, with no added sugar, are great places to start. Fruit is also the best choice for dessert!

Healthy Fats

The difference between healthy fats and bad fats is unsaturated vs. saturated. Unsaturated fats can lower cholesterol and saturated fats will raise cholesterol. Unsaturated fats come from more plant-based foods. Examples include olive oil, unsalted nuts and avocados. Saturated fats come from animal products, including high-fat dairy products or the visible fat on meats.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are unsaturated fats that can help lower cholesterol and decrease inflammation in the body. Long-term inflammation can contribute to cell, tissue and organ damage. A healthier alternative to eating a steak could be to eat wild salmon. Other omega-3 fatty acid options include walnuts, ground flaxseed and chia seeds.

Lean Protein Sources

Protein is important in our diet to maintain muscle and provide energy. However, it is best to limit animal products. Plant-based foods such as beans and lentils are a great option and provide a good amount of protein. Other lean animal protein options include nonbreaded fish, lean pork, tuna, etc.

Why are some foods bad for your heart?

Now let me explain why some food choices are bad for your heart and why they should be consumed in moderation or avoided altogether.

High-Sodium Foods

High sodium intake can increase blood pressure. Even if you don’t have high blood pressure, consuming high-sodium products can eventually lead to issues. Limit sodium to 600 milligrams per meal and snacks to under 200 milligrams. Avoid the saltshaker at the table and in cooking and baking. Many processed and convenience foods are very high in sodium.

Added Sugars and Sugary Beverages

There is sugar in more products than you think. It can be easy to take in too much. Sugar contributes to increased inflammation in our body, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and increased weight, especially if you’re eating a lot of extra calories. If you’re eating a lot of sugary foods, you may be missing out on foods that have more beneficial nutrients. Limit daily added sugars to no more than 6 tsp. (24 grams) for women and 9 tsp. (36 grams) for men. Added sugars include cane sugar, honey, maple syrup, corn syrup, molasses, agave nectar and more. Instead of drinking pop, try sparkling water or put some raspberries, cucumbers or mint leaves in your water to add some extra flavor.

Highly Processed Foods

Highly processed foods tend to have a lot of sodium, added sugar and saturated fat. These foods have the least amount of nutrients and are higher in calories. Examples include frozen meals or boxed products that are not able to maintain their nutrients when processed.


I tell my patients that alcohol contributes to high blood pressure, weight gain and other health issues. Excessive alcohol can lead to severe heart problems. Water is the best option for keeping hydrated and healthy.

Red and Processed Meats

Red and processed meats are high in saturated fat and sodium, a very unhealthy combination. Healthier substitutes include fish and seafood, which can add variety and flavor to your meals. I recommend and emphasize the health benefits of plant-based foods, which are typically low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Plants have beneficial antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that we don’t typically get from animal products.

If you would like to learn more about foods to choose or limit, check out our heart healthy eating plan. Or make an appointment with one of our cardiac nutritionists. Our team understands the challenges of changing a diet and can offer guidance during each phase of your journey. Virtual visits are available.