A good diet is critical to good heart health. You should eat plenty of:
- Fruits and veggies
- Fish and skinless poultry
- Whole-grain foods
- Protein-rich beans
- Low-fat dairy products
You should also limit salt and avoid:
- Sugar and sugary beverages
- Saturated and trans fats
- Refined grains
- Red meat
But even if you know all of that, you probably still have questions. Finding the best heart-healthy foods takes some doing.
“Typically, what you see on your plate is maybe like a big piece of protein, and some type of grain — so let’s say a steak with potatoes — and then a small side salad,” says Roxana Ehsani, a Las Vegas Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“I tell people, ‘We need to kind of reinvent how you’re typically eating, how you’re typically looking at your plate, and kind of reverse it.’ The salad or vegetable courses should be the main thing on your plate.”
The Mediterranean diet is a good template to follow, as is the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (or DASH) diet. Both incorporate the basics above, though Mediterranean diets often use a lot of olive oil, and DASH diets mix in more meat and dairy products.
No matter which plan you choose, there are a few foods that should be on every heart-conscious eater’s shopping list.
The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon and some other fatty fish — like Atlantic mackerel, canned light tuna, and sardines — are heart-health superstars.
- Lower your chances of stroke and heart failure
- Ease your blood pressure
- Help keep your heartbeat regular
Two servings a week can lower your odds of heart disease, including heart attacks.
The ones with brilliant colors, like raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and cranberries, are excellent sources of antioxidants. Those are compounds that help ease inflammation and help your heart.
Fresh berries are the best, when the antioxidants are plentiful and most active. But frozen berries are great substitutes and readily available, especially when fresh berries are out of season.
“You can’t go wrong with berries,” says Jerlyn Jones, an Atlanta-based Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “They are so easy to include in your diet. Smoothies, your morning cereal, in yogurt.”
Not a berry person? Grapes can give you a lot of the same benefits.
Green, Leafy Veggies
You know the so-called “green leafies,” like spinach and lettuce, but don’t forget cruciferous vegetables, like cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower (which isn’t green at all).
A lot of the heart-healthy qualities of leafy greens come from fiber. It can lower bad cholesterol and your chance of heart disease. But pigments (things that provide color) found in many of these vegetables, also provides antioxidants that can protect your heart against disease.
In addition, because veggies are low in calories, you can load up your plate, which helps keep calories down and your weight in check. (Obesity is a major red flag for heart problems.)
Often people will eat vegetables, but they won’t venture out with ones that are different colors, Jones says. “It’s easy when it comes to green leafy vegetables; maybe slap some lettuce on your sandwich, or spinach, or even kale. But there are a variety of different vegetables with different nutrients.”
- Sweet potatoes
They’re packed with carotenoids and vitamins to keep your heart strong, Jones says.
Nuts also have the added benefit of omega-3 fatty acids. That’s one reason choices like walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, and peanuts are a great addition to any healthy diet.
Other things that make nuts a smart snack include fiber, unsaturated fat, and other heart-boosting nutrients.
Adding nuts to your diet can:
- Lower your “bad” cholesterol
- Strengthen the lining of your blood vessels
- Lower your chances of blood clots
- Ease inflammation related to heart disease
Nuts can be high in calories. So it’s easy to get too much of this good thing. Shoot for four servings of nuts a week. A serving is a small handful.
Flaxseed and Chia
Flaxseed and flaxseed oil boast omega-3s too. Flaxseed may help lower “bad” cholesterol and blood pressure. Chia seeds also have some of the same fatty acids and nutrients, plus their high fiber content can help you feel fuller longer.
Like nuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds (and other seeds like hemp, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower) don’t come without calories. So enjoy them in moderation, either as a snack, on a salad, or sprinkled over a main dish.
Oats and Other Grains
Whole grains are one of the basics of a heart-healthy diet. Half the grains you eat should be whole grains. The fiber in grains can help lower cholesterol, and because it makes you feel full, it can help you lose weight.
Maybe the star of whole grains is the modest oat, which you can get in whole-grain bread or in your basic bowl of oatmeal.
With just berries or other fruit added for natural sweetness, oatmeal is a nutritious, heart-healthy powerhouse.
How much? A cup and a half of cooked oatmeal a day can lower your cholesterol by 5% to 8%.
Other foods that can help your heart include:
- Garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas. They’re high in fiber and protein.
- Tofu, a protein-rich soy-based food that’s sometimes a substitute for meat.
American Heart Association: “The American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations,” “What is the Mediterranean Diet?” “Know the flax (and the chia): A little seed may be what your diet needs,” “Whole Grains, Refined Grains, and Dietary Fiber,” “The Benefits of Beans and Legumes,” “Soy-rich foods like tofu may help lower heart disease risk.”
Roxana Ehsani, spokesperson Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, registered nutritionist dietician, Las Vegas.
Mayo Clinic: “Omega-3 in fish: How eating fish helps your heart,” “Nuts and your heart: Eating nuts for heart health,” “Flaxseed and flaxseed oil.”
International Journal of Molecular Sciences: “Bioactive Compounds and Antioxidant Activity in Different Types of Berries.”
Jerlyn Jones, spokesperson Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, registered nutritionist dietician, Atlanta.
Nutrients: “Cardiovascular Health Benefits of Specific Vegetable Types: A Narrative Review.”
JRSM Cardiovascular Disease: “The effect of green leafy and cruciferous vegetable intake on the incidence of cardiovascular disease: A meta-analysis.”
USDA: “Why is it important to eat vegetables?”
Food & Nutrition Research: “Carotenoids: potential allies of cardiovascular health?”
Cleveland Clinic: “Obesity & Heart Disease,” “How Much Oatmeal Do You Need to Eat to Lower Your Cholesterol?”