What you eat can have a major impact on your heart health. Some foods clog your arteries and make it harder for blood to pump throughout your body, while others are packed with nutrients that protect your ticker. In fact, when done consistently, eating foods for heart health might just help lower your risk of major health concerns down the road, such as a heart attack or stroke.
While genetics can certainly play a role in your heart health as well, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that the risk of heart disease can actually increase “when heredity combines with unhealthy lifestyle choices,” including the food you eat.
Still, it’s important to recognize that nutrition is just one among multiple factors within your control that can keep your heart healthy. It’s also crucial to stay active, keep an eye on your weight, and manage your stress levels. (To track your progress with all of the above and more, become a One Drop Premium member and explore our Complete Heart Health package.)
As for nutrition, here are some guidelines to follow for heart-healthy eating.
What to Look for In Heart-Healthy Foods
First, it’s important to recognize that a heart-healthy way of eating isn’t defined by one specific diet, says One Drop coach Danica Crouse, a registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN) and certified nutrition support clinician (CNSC). “There are foods that are encouraged, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, plant-based protein like beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, lean meat, seafood, and low-fat dairy,” she explains.
That said, if you’re not sure where to start, Erin Decker, a registered dietitian (RD) and certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES), recommends learning about the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
“I describe a heart-healthy diet as being comparable to a Mediterranean diet, but that doesn’t mean you have to eat olives and hummus all day long,” she explains. Rather, Decker echoes many of Crouse’s suggestions, noting the Mediterranean diet’s emphasis on lean proteins (especially those low in saturated fat, such as beans, chicken, fish, eggs, and low-fat dairy), whole grains (whole wheat bread, oats, brown rice), fruits, veggies, and healthy fats found in olive oil, nuts, seeds, nut butter, and avocados.
The DASH diet, on the other hand (a.k.a. dietary approaches to stop hypertension), is specifically designed to help treat or prevent high blood pressure. Similar to the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet limits foods that are high in saturated fat, replacing them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (found in vegetable oils, nuts, avocados, etc.). Following the DASH diet can also help you reduce sodium and increase potassium, calcium, and magnesium (e.g., minerals that help with blood pressure management—all of which are abundant in the Mediterranean diet as well, notes Decker).
To maintain a healthy balance of fats in your diet, Crouse suggests reducing saturated fat to no more than about 5 or 6% of your total calories, especially if your goal is to lower your cholesterol levels. “For someone eating 2,000 calories a day, that’s about 13 grams of saturated fat,” she says. As for sodium, she recommends an upper limit of 2,300 milligrams per day if you’re trying to lower your blood pressure.
Fiber is another important nutrient in any heart-healthy diet. Specifically, soluble fiber—the kind that dissolves in water and helps promote regular stools, found in foods such as oats and beans—can help lower cholesterol levels by binding to cholesterol in the intestine and removing it from the body through waste, explains Crouse. “Fiber also slows digestion and the speed with which blood sugar rises after eating,” she adds. “High blood sugar increases the production of triglycerides, which can cause more cholesterol to be formed.” (Find out how to lower blood sugar with a strategy that works for you.)
For your fiber goals, Crouse recommends aiming for 25 to 38 grams per day by including at least one high-fiber food in each meal (and “leveling up” with more fiber-rich foods when you can). “Reach for high-fiber foods at snack time, including fresh fruits, raw veggies with dip, popcorn, nuts, or whole-grain crackers,” she says.
To easily spot heart-healthy foods during your next trip to the store, One Drop coach Lindsay Vettleson, RDN, CDCES, and certified personal trainer (CPT), suggests looking for the American Heart Association (AHA)’s Heart-Check Mark. The check-mark signifies that a food product aligns with the AHA’s recommendations for healthy eating (e.g., it’s a good source of nutrients, such as fiber and protein, and is limited in sodium, as well as saturated and trans fats).
How to Incorporate More Foods for a Healthy Heart
It’s one thing to know what to look for in the grocery store, but it’s an entirely different feat to know what to do with those groceries once you take them home.
If you struggle with finding healthy recipes, try getting a little more creative with your search. “When searching for recipes, don’t limit yourself to just ‘healthy’ recipes,” suggests Decker. “See if you can modify what you find to incorporate more whole grains or veggies, or swap a saturated fat (such as butter) for an unsaturated fat (such as olive oil).”
You can also get creative when it comes to leftovers. For example, let’s say you took home some grilled chicken after going out to dinner. Instead of just eating it as is for lunch the next day, toss it with some frozen veggies and eat it all in a wrap, bowl, or even an omelet for a hearty, delicious meal.
And remember: Eating heart-healthy foods doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing endeavor, especially when you’re still getting used to it. “Start with one meal or even one day of the week (such as a ‘meatless Monday’),” suggests Crouse. “Try to swap the protein in your favorite dish for a plant-based option—for example, tofu stir-fry in place of beef or chicken, meatless chili using beans and vegetables, or veggie burgers instead of meat burgers.” (Become a One Drop Premium member to find more recipe ideas and meal plans that benefit your heart.)
If you’re looking for basic recipe ideas to inspire your next heart-healthy meal, here are some recommendations from our One Drop coaches:
- Trail mix. Considering how easy it is to customize to your cravings and preferences, trail mix is a great heart-healthy staple to have in your repertoire. Try combining unsweetened cereal and popcorn with your choice of dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and, for extra flavor, a sprinkle of cinnamon.
- Oatmeal bites. If you’re sick of your usual bowl of oatmeal, switch it up with snackable oatmeal bites. Combine rolled oats with unsweetened shredded coconut, dark chocolate (no sugar added) chips, nut butter, chia seeds, flaxseed, and vanilla extract, then chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. Once the mixture is chilled, divide it up into rolled-up balls for a tasty on-the-go snack.
- Mini egg frittata. Whether you’re meal-prepping for next week’s breakfasts or whipping up a batch for a weekend brunch with friends, mini egg frittatas are always a crowd-pleaser. To make them, you’ll need a dozen eggs, one bell pepper of your choice, and one cup each of chopped fresh veggies (spinach, broccoli, arugula, mushrooms, etc.) and part-skim shredded cheese (mozzarella, Swiss, parmesan, etc.). After washing and chopping your veggies, crack and whisk the eggs, and season them with salt and pepper. Mix the veggies into the eggs, then distribute the egg mixture throughout a greased muffin tin. Bake for about 18 to 20 minutes in an oven preheated to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, and you’re ready to dig in.
- Acai bowl. When you pick up an acai bowl at your local smoothie shop, there’s a solid chance it’s loaded with a ton of extra sugar. To make a heart-healthy version at home, blend frozen acai berries, frozen riced cauliflower, sliced zucchini, raw spinach leaves, unsalted nut butter, almond milk, frozen blueberries, and hemp hearts. If you want a little extra sweetness, add a few drops of liquid Stevia or a couple of Medjool dates (just be mindful of the extra carb content if you go with the latter).
- Mediterranean bowl. A colorful combo of all the best heart-healthy ingredients, Mediterranean bowls always hit the spot. Combine your choice of salad greens with cooked quinoa, diced cucumber, halved cherry tomatoes, diced avocado, Kalamata olives, and cooked chicken breast (boneless and skinless), top with tzatziki, and enjoy! Remember: You can always customize by swapping chicken for another protein source like salmon or chickpeas, or dress with hummus or tahini in lieu of tzatziki, or even play around with the different veggies you add to the mix.
- Roasted ratatouille. Ratatouille may sound fancy, but in truth, all it takes is a variety of veggies and a few basic spices. Cut up some eggplant, zucchini, squash, and cherry tomatoes, spread on a lined baking sheet with white beans, coat with olive oil, Italian seasoning, garlic powder, and red pepper flakes, and bake for 30 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, stirring halfway through. Top with basil and lemon juice for added freshness, and voilà!
This article has been clinically reviewed by Jamillah Hoy-Rosas, MPH, RDN, CDCES, and VP of clinical operations at One Drop.