Heart-healthy eating involves consuming vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, lean meats, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, soy products, legumes, and vegetable oils (except coconut and palm oils). Also, it limits sodium, saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and alcohol.
Your doctor may recommend the heart-healthy Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan because it has been proven to lower blood pressure and bad in the blood.
Foods to eat
The following foods are the foundation of a heart-healthy diet.
- Vegetables such as greens (spinach, collard greens, kale), broccoli, cabbage, and carrots
- Fruits such as apples, bananas, oranges, pears, grapes, and prunes
- Whole grains such as plain oatmeal, brown rice, and whole-grain bread or tortillas
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy foods such as milk, cheese, or yogurt
- Protein-rich foods:
- Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna, and trout, about 8 ounces a week
- Lean meats such as 95 percent lean ground beef or pork tenderloin
- Poultry such as skinless chicken or turkey
- Nuts, seeds, and soy products
- Legumes such as kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, and lima beans
- Oils and foods containing high levels of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that can help lower blood cholesterol levels and the risk of cardiovascular disease. Some sources of these oils are:
- Canola, corn, olive, safflower, sesame, sunflower, and soybean oils
- Nuts such as walnuts, almonds, and pine nuts
- Nut and seed butters
- Salmon and trout
- Seeds such as sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, or flax
How much should you eat?
You should eat the right amount of calories for your body, which will vary based on your sex, age, and physical activity level. Find out your daily calorie needs or goals with the Body Weight Planner. You may also visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans for more information about healthy eating and to read about their recommendations for the following healthy eating patterns.
- Healthy U.S.-style eating pattern
- Healthy Mediterranean-style eating pattern
- Healthy vegetarian eating pattern
Nutrients to limit
A heart-healthy diet limits sodium, saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and alcohol.
Adults and children over the age of 14 should eat less than 2,300 mg of sodium a day. Children younger than 14 may need to eat even less sodium each day based on their sex and age. If you have high blood pressure, you may need to restrict your sodium intake even more. Talk to your doctor or health care provider about what amount of sodium is right for you or your child.
Try these shopping and cooking tips to help you choose and prepare foods that are lower in sodium.
- Read food labels and choose products that have less sodium for the same serving size.
- Choose low-sodium, reduced sodium, or no-salt added products.
- Choose fresh, frozen, or no-salt-added foods instead of pre-seasoned, sauce-marinated, brined, or processed meats, poultry, and vegetables.
- Eat at home more often so you can cook food from scratch, which will allow you to control the amount of sodium in your meals.
- When cooking, limit your use of premade sauces, mixes, and “instant” products such as rice, noodles, and ready-made pasta.
- Flavor foods with herbs and spices instead of salt.
For more ways to control sodium intake, visit Living With the DASH Eating Plan.
Saturated and trans fats
When you follow a heart-healthy eating plan, you should:
- Eat less than 10 percent of your daily calories from saturated fats found naturally in foods that come from animals and some plants.
- Limit intake of trans fats to as low as possible by limiting foods that contain high amounts of trans fats.
The following are examples of foods that are high in saturated or trans fats.
- Saturated fats are found in high amounts in fatty cuts of meat, poultry with skin, whole-milk dairy foods, butter, lard, and coconut and palm oils.
- trans fats are found in high amounts in foods made with oils, such as some desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, stick margarines, and coffee creamers.
To help you limit your intake of saturated fats and trans fats:
- Read the nutrition labels and replace foods high in saturated fats with leaner, lower-fat animal products or vegetable oils, such as olive or canola oil instead of butter. Foods that are higher in saturated fats, such as fatty meats and high-fat dairy products, tend to be higher in dietary cholesterol that should also be limited.
- Read the nutrition labels and choose foods that do not contain trans fats. Some trans fats naturally occur in very small amounts in dairy products and meats. Foods containing these very low levels of natural trans fats do not need to be eliminated from your diet because they have other important nutrients.
When you follow a heart-healthy eating plan, you should limit the amount of calories you consume each day from added sugars. Because added sugars do not provide essential nutrients and are extra calories, limiting them can help you choose nutrient-rich foods and stay within your daily calorie limit.
Some foods, such as fruit, contain natural sugars. Added sugars do not occur naturally in foods, but instead are used to sweeten foods and drinks. Some examples of added sugars include brown sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, raw sugar, and sucrose.
In the United States, sweetened drinks, snacks, and sweets are the major sources of added sugars. Sweetened drinks account for about half of all added sugars consumed. The following are examples of foods and drinks with added sugars.
- Sweetened drinks include soft drinks or sodas, fruit drinks, sweetened coffee and tea, energy drinks, alcoholic drinks, and favored waters.
- Snacks and sweets include grain-based desserts such as cakes, pies, cookies, brownies, doughnuts; dairy desserts such as ice cream, frozen desserts, and pudding; candies; sugars; jams; syrups; and sweet toppings.
To help you reduce the amount of added sugars in your diet:
- Choose unsweetened or whole fruits for snacks or dessert.
- Choose drinks without added sugar such as water, low-fat or fat-free milk, or 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice.
- Limit intake of sweetened drinks, snacks and desserts by eating them less often and in smaller amounts.
If you drink alcohol, you should limit your intake. Men should have no more than two alcoholic drinks per day. Women should have no more than one alcoholic drink per day. One drink is:
- 12 ounces of regular beer (5 percent alcohol)
- 5 ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol)
- 1½ ounces of 80-proof liquor (40 percent alcohol)
Talk to your doctor about how much alcohol you drink. Your doctor may recommend that you reduce the amount of alcohol you drink or that you stop drinking alcohol. Too much alcohol can:
- Raise your blood pressure and levels of triglyceride fats in your blood.
- Add calories to your daily diet and possibly cause you to gain weight.
- Worsen heart failure in some patients.
- Contribute to heart failure in some people with cardiomyopathy.
If you do not drink, you should not start drinking. You should not drink if you are pregnant, under the age of 21, taking certain medicines, or have certain medical conditions including heart failure. It is important for people with heart failure to take in the correct amounts and types of liquids because too much liquid can worsen heart failure.
Remember that alcoholic drinks do contain calories and contribute to your daily calorie limits. The amount of calories will vary by the type of alcoholic drink. Read more of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to learn about what is considered one alcoholic drink and how calories vary by drink.