What are the best foods for a heart healthy diet?
Say yes to heart-healthy eating
A healthy diet is one of the key factors for heart health, of which there are three pillars – eating well, staying active, and mindfulness.
Even just making a few small changes to your diet now will have positive implications for your heart, but the aim should be to change your eating habits in the long-term and follow a hearty-healthy diet as much as possible.
Tips for eating ‘heart healthy’
It’s important to know which are good and bad foods for the heart, so that you can make informed decisions when choosing food based around a heart-healthy diet. Poor quality diets1 should be avoided. They can be recognised broadly by fitting into one of the following descriptions:
• High in refined grains and added sugars, salt, unhealthy fats and animal-source foods
• Low in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, and nuts
• High in processed food products – typically packaged and often ready to consume
• Light on whole foods and freshly prepared dishes
A heart-healthy diet should be the opposite of this, such as the Mediterranean diet which is high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and olive oil. Research has shown that following a Mediterranean Diet is associated with reduced cardiovascular disease (CVD), blood pressure and serum lipid risk factors for CVD1
Best foods for heart health
Fruits and vegetables:
For a heart-healthy diet, it’s recommended that you eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Ensure your plate is as colourful as possible with healthy fruits and vegetables like broccoli, tomato, peppers and avocado.
Whole grain foods are rich in lots of fibre and nutrients. Oats, whole wheat bread and brown rice are all great sources of whole grains. Oat beta-glucan has been shown to lower blood cholesterol (high cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease) while consumption of beta-glucans from oats or barley as part of a meal contributes to the reduction of the blood glucose rise after that meal. Beta-glucans are important as they contribute to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels
Beans, peas and lentils are all healthy legumes that are beneficial when combined in a heart-healthy diet. Several studies have demonstrated that the consumption of lentils is immensely connected to the reduction in the incidence of cardiovascular diseases due to its bioactive compounds.2
Fish is rich in the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – fatty acids which contribute to the normal function of the heart.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids are the best choices for a heart healthy diet. Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol, which is important as high cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease. Vegetable oils such as olive, canola, corn and sunflower oil are good sources of healthy fats.
Dark chocolate as a treat in a cardiac diet
While milk chocolate is not the healthiest of options, people who treat themselves to a piece of chocolate every now and then should learn that moderate dark chocolate consumption has been associated with a modest benefit in blood pressure and cardiovascular disease3
Foods to limit in a heart-healthy diet
Alongside knowing what food aren’t good choices for a heart healthy diet, it’s also important to be aware of the foods and food groups which are bad for the heart:1
Saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol:
The American Heart Association4 which suggests limiting your intake of saturated fat and trans fats. For people who need to lower their blood cholesterol, they recommend reducing saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 % of your total calories.
Reducing the consumption of sodium contributes to the maintenance of normal blood pressure.
Alcohol has no benefits for the heart, and should be consumed only in moderation.
It’s always best to avoid foods and drinks with added sugar in favour of heart health. The consumption of foods or drinks containing a sugar substitute results in a lower blood glucose rise after their consumption compared to sugar-containing foods and drinks.
Overview of foods that are good or bad for your heart
The following table shows foods to eat and those to avoid in maintaining a healthy heart diet.
|Eat more||Eat less|
|Fruits and vegetables|
|Fresh or frozen vegetables and fruits|
Low-sodium canned vegetables
Canned fruit packed in juice or water
|Vegetables with creamy sauces|
Canned fruit packed in syrup
Frozen fruits with added sugar
Whole grains such as brown rice or barley
Muffins, waffles, biscuits etc.
|Fats and fatty acids|
|Olive, canola, corn, and sunflower oil|
Nuts and seeds
|Coconut, palm, cottonseed, and palm-kernel oil|
|Herbs and spices|
Salt-free seasoning blends
Prepared meals with a reduced amount of salt
Prepared meals with a high amount of salt
Find your own way into a heart-healthy future
Along with the other two pillars of a healthy heart – staying active and mindfulness, following a heart-healthy diet plan is one of the best ways to keep your heart in top condition.
A heart-healthy diet is very doable and can be enjoyable, with lots of fresh, natural flavours to fill your plate. There are many heart-healthy recipes and meal plans to help you with making healthy diet choices and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers a shopping list for a heart healthy diet on their website. You might also like to take a look at the recipes section on the website of the American Heart Association.
It’s incredibly important to keep a close eye on your heart health and always consult a doctor if you have any concerns, or if anything seems out of the ordinary, especially if you are at risk of a cardiac disease or are suffering from one.