Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States. If you are worried about heart disease, one of the most important things you can do is to start eating a heart-healthy diet. Changing your diet can help stop or even reverse heart disease.
At first, it may seem like there is a lot to learn. But you don't have to make these changes all at once. Start with small steps. Over time, making a number of small changes can add up to a big difference in your heart health.
To have a heart-healthy diet:
• Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other high-fiber foods.
• Choose foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol.
• Limit salt (sodium).
• Stay at a healthy weight by balancing the calories you eat with your physical activity.
• Eat more foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish.
• Limit drinks and foods with added sugar.
What Foods are part of a heart-healthy diet?
A heart-healthy diet focuses on adding more healthy foods to your diet and cutting back on foods that are not so good for you. This advice matches the heart-healthy diet recommended by the American Heart Association.
Eat foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients, such as:
• Fruits and vegetables.
• Beans (including chickpeas and lentils) and whole grains (such as whole wheat, brown rice, oats, rye, bulgur, barley, quinoa, and corn).
• Oily fish like salmon, trout, herring, mackerel, and sardines, which contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. You can also get omega-3 fats from omega-3 eggs, walnuts, flax seeds, and canola oil.
Foods to limit
Limit foods that are high in:
• Unhealthy fats, such as saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol.
• Saturated fats are mostly found in animal products, such as meats and dairy products.
• Trans fats include shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, and hydrogenated vegetable oils. Trans fats are made when a liquid fat is turned into a solid fat (for example, when corn oil is made into stick margarine). They are found in many processed foods, such as cookies, crackers, and snack foods. Restaurants often use hydrogenated oils for frying foods, so try to limit fried foods when you eat out.
• Cholesterol is found in animal products, such as eggs, dairy products, and meats.
• Salt (sodium). You need some sodium in your diet, but most people get far more than they need. Too much sodium tends to raise blood pressure. Processed foods and fast foods often contain a lot of sodium. Try to limit these foods and eat more fresh foods.
• Added sugars in food and drinks.
Eating foods that contain unhealthy fats can raise the LDL ("bad") cholesterol in your blood. Having a high level of LDL cholesterol increases your chance of having clogged arteries ( atherosclerosis ), which can lead to coronary artery disease and heart attack.
Trans fat is especially unhealthy. It both raises the level of "bad" cholesterol and lowers the "good" cholesterol in the blood. Try to avoid trans fat as much as possible.
Why is it important to choose a heart-healthy diet?
Making good food choices can have a big impact on your health. Eating a heart-healthy diet can help you to:
• Lower your blood pressure.
• Lower your cholesterol .
• Reach and stay at a healthy weight.
• Control or prevent diabetes .
• Improve your overall health.
A heart-healthy diet is not just for people with existing health problems. It is good for all healthy adults and children older than age 2. Learning heart-healthy eating habits now can help prevent heart disease in years to come.
How to eat a heart-healthy diet
To have a heart-healthy diet:
• Eat fruits and vegetables. Eat a variety of fruit and vegetable servings every day. Dark green, deep orange, and yellow fruits and vegetables are especially nutritious. Examples include spinach, carrots, peaches, and berries.
• Eat a variety of grain products every day. Include whole-grain foods that have lots of fiber and nutrients. Examples of whole grains include oats, whole wheat bread, and brown rice.
• Eat fish at least 2 times each week. Oily fish, which contain omega-3 fatty acids, are best for your heart. These fish include salmon, mackerel, lake trout, herring, and sardines.
• Limit saturated fat and cholesterol. To limit saturated fat and cholesterol, try to choose the following foods:
• Lean meats and meat alternatives like beans or tofu
• Fish, vegetables, beans, and nuts
• Nonfat and low-fat dairy products
• Polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats, like canola and olive oils, to replace saturated fats, such as butter
• Read food labels and limit the amount of trans fat you eat. Trans fat raises the levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol and also lowers high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or "good") cholesterol in the blood. Trans fat is found in many processed foods made with shortening or with partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated vegetable oils. These foods include cookies, crackers, chips, and many snack foods.
• Choose healthy fats. Unsaturated fats, such as olive, canola, corn, and sunflower oils, are part of a healthy diet. But all fats are high in calories, so watch your serving sizes.
• Limit salt (sodium). For good health, less is best. This is especially important for people who are at risk for or already have high blood pressure. If you are African-American, have diabetes or chronic kidney disease, or are older than age 50, try to limit the amount of salt you eat to less than 1,500 mg a day. If none of those things describe you, try to limit sodium to 2,300 mg a day. Choose and prepare foods with little or no salt. Watch for hidden sodium in foods.
• Eat only as many calories as you need to stay at a healthy weight. Learn how much is a serving, and then check your portion sizes. Limit drinks with added sugar. If you want to lose weight, increase your activity level to burn more calories than you eat.
• If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation. Limit alcohol intake to 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women. See a picture of a standard drink .
• Limit added sugar. Limit drinks and foods with added sugar.
• When you are eating away from home, try to follow these heart-healthy diet tips.
You can get even more benefit from making diet changes if you also get plenty of exercise and don't smoke.
Start with small changes
But you don't have to be perfect, and you don't have to do it all at once. Make one or two changes at a time. As soon as you are used to those, make another one or two changes. Over time, making a number of small changes can add up and make a big difference in your health.
Here are some ideas about how to get started:
• Choose whole-grain bread instead of white bread.
• Have a piece of fruit instead of a candy bar.
• Try to eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Add one or two servings of fruits and vegetables to your day. Slowly add more servings until you are eating at least 5 servings a day.
• Switch from 2% or whole milk to 1% or nonfat milk.
• Instead of meat, have fish for dinner. Brush it with olive oil, and broil or grill it.
• Switch from butter to a cholesterol-lowering soft spread. Use olive or canola oil for cooking.
• Use herbs and spices, instead of salt, to add flavor to foods.
• Modify your favorite recipes so they have less fat and calories but still taste good.
It may take some time to get used to new tastes and habits, but don't give up. Keep in mind the good things you are doing for your heart and your overall health.
Where to go from here
Now that you have read this information, you are ready to eat a more heart-healthy diet.
Talk with your doctor
If you have questions about this information, take it with you when you visit your doctor or dietitian. You may want to mark areas or make notes in the margins where you have questions.
American Heart Association (AHA)
7272 Greenville Avenue
Dallas, TX 75231
Phone: 1-800-AHA-USA1 (1-800-242-8721)
Web Address: www.heart.org
Visit the American Heart Association (AHA) website for information on physical activity, diet, and various heart-related conditions. You can search for information on heart disease and stroke, share information with friends and family, and use tools to help you make heart-healthy goals and plans. Contact the AHA to find your nearest local or state AHA group. The AHA provides brochures and information about support groups and community programs, including Mended Hearts, a nationwide organization whose members visit people with heart problems and provide information and support.
Web Address: www.cardiosmart.org
CardioSmart is an online education and support program that can be your partner in heart health. This website engages, informs, and empowers people to take part in their own care and to work well with their health care teams. It has tools and resources to help you prevent, treat, and/or manage heart diseases.
You can set health and wellness goals and track your progress with online tools. You can track your weight, waist measurement, blood pressure, and activity. You can use calculators to help you find your body mass index (BMI) and check your risk for heart problems. You can search for a cardiologist. And you can find medicine information and prepare for your next appointment. Also, you can join online communities to connect with peers and take heart-healthy challenges.
CardioSmart was designed by cardiovascular professionals at the American College of Cardiology, a nonprofit medical society. Members include doctors, nurses, and surgeons.
Food and Nutrition Information Center
10301 Baltimore Avenue
Beltsville, MD 20705
Phone: (301) 504-5414
Fax: (301) 504-6409
Web Address: http://fnic.nal.usda.gov/
This U.S. Department of Agriculture Web site has information about nutrition, food labels, weight, dietary guidelines, food safety, supplements, nutrition research, and more.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD 20824-0105
Phone: (301) 592-8573
Fax: (240) 629-3246
TDD: (240) 629-3255
Web Address: www.nhlbi.nih.gov
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) information center offers information and publications about preventing and treating:
Diseases affecting the heart and circulation, such as heart attacks, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, peripheral artery disease, and heart problems present at birth (congenital heart diseases).
Diseases that affect the lungs, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, sleep apnea, and pneumonia.
Diseases that affect the blood, such as anemia, hemochromatosis, hemophilia, thalassemia, and von Willebrand disease.
Office on Women's Health
Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue, SW Room 712E
Washington, DC 20201
Fax: (202) 205-2631
Web Address: www.womenshealth.gov
The Office on Women's Health is a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It provides women's health information to a variety of audiences, including consumers, health professionals, and researchers.
Other Works Consulted
American Heart Association (2006). Diet and lifestyle recommendations revision 2006. Circulation, 114(1): 82-96. [Erratum in Circulation, 114(1): e27.]
Expert Panel on Integrated Guidelines for Cardiovascular Health and Risk Reduction in Children and Adolescents (2011). Expert panel on integrated guidelines for cardiovascular health and risk reduction in children and adolescents: Summary report. Pediatrics, 128(Suppl 5): S213-S256.
Johnson RK, et al. (2009). Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 120(11): 1011-1020.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture (2010). Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, 7th ed. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Last Revised: March 22, 2012
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Rakesh K. Pai, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology & Colleen Gobert, PhD, RD - Registered Dietitian
For more information, visit Maine Medical Center's Cardiovascular Institute.