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What is a Heart Healthy Diet?

by Deborah Ng

One out of every four deaths in America is attributed to heart disease, making it the number one cause of death in this country. However, heart disease may be avoidable. Heart health may be maintained with proper nutrition, regular exercise, and eliminating risk factors such as excessive drinking, smoking, and obesity.  For many people, having a healthy heart means undergoing a lifestyle change.

Why is a heart-healthy diet important?

Proper nutrition and exercise may help  combat heart disease. Foods that are high in sodium, added sugars, and unhealthy fats may lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and clogged arteries, increasing the risk of heart attacks, heart disease, and stroke. People who smoke, suffer from obesity, and lead a sedentary lifestyle, may further increase that risk.

What is a heart-healthy diet?

Eating for heart health includes adding lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, low fat or fat-free dairy products, and whole grains while cutting out, or at least limiting, foods that are high in sodium, sugars, and the unhealthy trans and saturated fats.

People who are interested in heart-healthy eating should discuss making a lifestyle change with their healthcare practitioner, who can make dietary recommendations based on individual needs.

Recommended heart-healthy foods include:

  • Lean proteins such as chicken and fish: Up to 6 ounces depending on recommended daily calorie intake.

  • Fruits and Vegetables: At least 3 to 5 servings per day. Vegetables should take up at least half the dinner plate.

  • Whole grains: 6 - 8 servings per day depending on recommended calorie intake. This includes whole grain cereals, pasta, brown rice, and oatmeal.

  • Healthy fats: 2 - 3 servings per day. Choose foods with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil, avocados, almonds, walnuts, and salmon.

  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy: 2 - 3 servings per day.

  • Added sugars or sweets: As little as possible. Fewer than 5 servings per week.

Foods to avoid in a heart-healthy diet:

  • High sodium foods: High sodium, especially when it’s found in processed foods, can lead to high blood pressure.

  • Processed grains and carbohydrates: Not only are rice, potatoes, and processed foods high in fats and low in nutrients, but they also cause blood sugar to spike.

  • Sugary drinks such as juices and sodas: People who drink sweets add more calories to their diet. Those who consume sugary beverages on a regular basis have a higher risk of obesity.

  • Foods high in trans and saturated fats and cholesterol: Avoid foods that are high in fats such as butter, mayonnaise, full-fat dairy, and processed foods that contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil. These foods may lead to obesity and can clog the arteries, putting one at a higher risk for heart disease and stroke.

Making a lifestyle change

A heart healthy lifestyle change should start sooner rather than later. The first step is to visit a doctor or healthcare practitioner who can make recommendations and give guidance based on an individual’s health history. After an examination, the doctor will discuss foods to eat and avoid, how many calories to consume, and how to get started with an exercise routine.

A heart healthy diet doesn’t have to be a bland diet. Rather than seasoning food with salt, try using fresh herbs and spices, aromatic vegetables, and unsalted broth to give food more flavor. Instead of sweet drinks, try adding fresh fruit or berries to water for flavor and health benefits. 

A lifestyle change also means making time for regular exercise. The American Heart Association recommends getting in at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise at least five days per week. As the body gets stronger and leaner, adding more vigorous cardio and strength training is recommended. 

The key to a healthy lifestyle change is establishing a routine. Heart-healthy habits include:

  • Eating healthy and keeping portion size under control

  • No smoking and alcohol in moderation

  • Staying active and exercising regularly

  • Maintaining a healthy weight

  • Getting at least 8 hours of sleep each night

  • Keeping blood pressure under control

  • Keeping cholesterol levels under control

  • Visiting the doctor regularly


A heart-healthy lifestyle could lead to a longer life. When it comes to eating for heart health, it's better to establish good habits sooner rather than later.

Source list:

The American Heart Association's Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations, www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/The-America....

Suggested Servings from Each Food Group, www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/HealthyDietGoals/Sugg....

American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults, www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/PhysicalActivity/FitnessBasics/Amer....

“Heart Disease.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 Nov. 2017, www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm.

“Heart-Healthy Eating.” Womenshealth.gov, 30 Nov. 2017, www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/heart-healthy-eating.

Publishing, Harvard Health. “Avoid These Foods for a Healthier Heart.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/avoid-these-foods-for-a-healthier-heart.

Publishing, Harvard Health. “Healthy Eating for a Healthy Heart.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/special-health-reports/healthy-eating-for-a-healt....