You might not notice what’s really going on with your heart most of the time, but make no mistake: Your heart definitely notices your daily habits—whether it’s exercise (or lack thereof), a medication you take, or the foods you eat. In fact, nutrition plays an especially important role, not just in managing heart conditions, but in preventing future heart health issues, too. So, is there a “best” cardiac diet plan to follow?
Food Is the Way to the Heart—Literally
When it comes to nutrition and heart health, food can either help promote or obstruct blood flow to your heart. So an ideal cardiac diet plan is one that helps promote healthy blood flow. Let's consider some examples of how a heart-healthy diet plan can affect cardiac health.
Sodium (a.k.a. salt), for instance, can make it hard to maintain healthy blood flow to the heart. “Consuming an excess of salt can cause your body to pull extra water into the blood vessels,” explains One Drop coach, Lorraine Chu, a registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN). “This added water means more blood inside your blood vessels, which places stress on both the blood vessels and your heart.” Over time, that stress can then lead to high blood pressure, which forces your heart to work even harder to pump blood to the rest of your body and increases your risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart failure.
Your blood vessels can also be stressed out by added sugars and certain types of carbohydrates—in other words, foods that raise your blood sugar. “If your blood sugar is too high, the blood vessels and nerves that control the heart can be damaged,” explains One Drop coach, Danica Crouse, RDN, a certified nutrition support clinician (CNSC). “The higher and longer blood sugar is elevated, the more likely it is for that damage to happen. Even if blood sugar is too low, the heart’s workload can increase, too.” (Find out how to manage your blood sugar with a strategy that works for you.)
Then there’s cholesterol, a type of fat that can come from the food we eat (via animal sources) or be produced naturally by our liver. “When there’s too much cholesterol in the blood, it can build and harden in the arteries as plaque (a condition known as atherosclerosis),” says Chu. “This causes the path through which blood can flow to narrow, potentially leading to heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.”
Specifically, LDL (or low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol—which contributes to fatty blockages in your artery walls—can raise your risk of heart disease most, notes Chu. HDL (or high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, on the other hand, collects excess LDL cholesterol in the arteries and takes it back to your liver, where it can be properly removed.
If you need to lower your LDL cholesterol, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends reducing your saturated fat intake to no more than 6% of your total calories. If you eat 2,000 calories a day, for instance, that means limiting yourself to about 11 to 13 grams of saturated fat per day. As for sodium, the AHA recommends eating no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, with an “ideal limit” of 1,500 milligrams per day for most adults, particularly those managing high blood pressure.
“You can monitor blood pressure and cholesterol levels at your physical each year (or more frequently, depending on your doctor’s recommendation,” notes Erin Decker, a registered dietitian (RD) and certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES). “I often see reductions in LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (a type of fat associated with high LDL cholesterol and low HDL cholesterol), and increases in HDL cholesterol, after a few months of implementing dietary changes,” she says.
Heart-Healthy Foods to Include In a Cardiac Diet Plan
Just as there are foods that can block blood flow to the heart and increase your risk of certain chronic conditions, there are also foods that can reduce these risks and promote better heart health overall.
One way to help lower LDL cholesterol, for example, is to increase your intake of fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, says Chu. Fiber (particularly soluble fiber) can help reduce your body’s absorption of LDL cholesterol into your bloodstream. Chu recommends oats, legumes, and barley for a few great sources of soluble fiber.
“Aim for a goal of 25 to 38 grams of fiber per day,” adds Crouse. To reach that goal, she recommends including at least one high-fiber food at each meal and “leveling up” when you can.
Foods that can help boost your HDL cholesterol include whole grains, olive oil, avocado, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds—meaning, it’s not just fiber that can boost your heart health, but certain types of fats as well. While saturated and trans fats (think: processed meat, fried food, etc.) tend to promote high LDL cholesterol levels, foods with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help raise HDL cholesterol.
“Oily fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines) are full of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which decrease triglycerides and increase HDL cholesterol,” explains Chu. In fact, research shows that those who eat fatty fish a few times per week have almost half the risk of death from heart disease, not to mention one-third of the risk of death from a heart attack, compared to those who don’t eat fatty fish.
It’s also important to get enough potassium (commonly found in veggies, fruits, dairy products, nuts, beans, and seafood), notes Crouse. “Potassium helps to lessen the effects of sodium and relaxes the walls of blood vessels, which helps lower blood pressure,” she explains. “Potassium also helps to keep your heartbeat regular by controlling electrical signals in the heart.” Just keep in mind that too much potassium can be harmful to those living with kidney disease and may also cause an irregular heartbeat, Crouse cautions, so be sure to talk to your doctor about the right amount of potassium for your diet.
Outside of these general recommendations, you can also keep an eye out for the AHA’s Heart-Check Mark on food products at the grocery store. Any product with the checkmark is AHA-certified as a good source of heart-healthy nutrients and is also limited in sodium and unhealthy fats.
Looking for more snacks to put on your grocery list? Check out our beginner’s guide to heart-healthy eating before your next trip to the store.
What Is the “Best” Cardiac Diet Plan to Follow?
Now that you know the general nutrients to include or limit in your meals, how do you create a cardiac diet plan that you can follow consistently and successfully?
First, it’s worth noting that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to heart-healthy eating. Yes, there are certain nutrients you should aim for more than others, but the goal is to find balance among all the foods you enjoy so you never feel too indulgent or too restrictive.
That said, there are some established “diets,” so to speak, that might inspire you as you figure out what works for you. The DASH diet, for example (a.k.a. dietary approaches to stop hypertension), isn’t exactly a specific, regimented way of eating, but it is meant to help treat or prevent high blood pressure. Generally speaking, DASH encourages you to eat foods that are rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium (nutrients that promote healthy blood pressure), fiber, and protein, and foods that are low in saturated fat, salt, and added sugars.
There’s also the Mediterranean diet, which, similar to DASH, doesn’t actually refer to one specific “diet.” Rather, it encompasses all of the traditional eating habits of those living along the Mediterranean coast (think: plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, plus moderate amounts of low-fat dairy, eggs, fish, and poultry). According to the AHA, a Mediterranean way of eating can play “a big role” in not only preventing heart disease and stroke, but also reducing risk factors for other chronic conditions, including obesity and diabetes.
Again, though, the goal isn’t to follow these approaches to a T; instead, try to pull ideas from these different diets and figure out what works best for you and your unique lifestyle.
If reconceptualizing your entire way of eating feels too overwhelming, try taking it just one meal at a time. “It’s helpful to know what a balanced plate can look like for you,” says Chu.
Not sure where to start with that plate? Chu recommends filling half of it with a non-starchy vegetable (such as broccoli, cabbage, jicama, peppers, or leafy greens), a quarter with lean protein (how about salmon, or perhaps some lentils?), and the remaining quarter with a high-fiber carbohydrate (think: quinoa, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, etc.).
“By having a general idea of how to build a balanced plate instead of sticking to rigid rules or diets, eating becomes more enjoyable and provides flexibility to create endless possibilities of what a ‘balanced’ plate can look like,” explains Chu.
Bottom line: Rigid rules can lead to feelings of self-doubt or guilt when you (inevitably) don’t eat “perfectly” from time to time. In the long run, this can lead to a sense of burnout that can sabotage your motivation to reach your health goals and may contribute to emotional eating, says Chu.
“There’s no need to completely cut yourself off from the foods you love,” she adds. “Instead, finding that balance is key. Your health coach can help you come up with ways to balance your cravings with your overall eating in a way that makes sense for you and your individual health.”
To find a heart-healthy eating approach that works for you and your cardiac health plan, connect with a One Drop coach today and ask about our meal planners for carb-conscious eating, plant-based meal prepping, and much more.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Jamillah Hoy-Rosas, MPH, RDN, CDCES, and VP of clinical operations and program design at One Drop.