Eat for a Healthy Heart

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on March 27, 2014
From the WebMD Archives

Eating heart-healthy foods may be easier than you think. You don't need to measure or weigh everything or consult calorie books and food labels before every meal. You can fit a healthy diet into a busy lifestyle.

It can be as simple as 1-2-3. Just focus on these three areas, says Katie Ferraro, MPH, RD, CDE, a dietitian and assistant clinical professor at the school of nursing at the University of California at San Francisco:

  1. Eat more fiber.
  2. Switch to healthier fats.
  3. Eat less sodium.

Here’s how to get started:

Eat More Fiber

Fiber helps lower cholesterol and your chances of heart disease. You should get 20-30 grams of fiber a day. Most adults in the U.S. get about half that.

To boost fiber, eat mostly fruits and vegetables. Eat one or the other with every meal and snack. Or fill ½ of your plate at every meal with fruits and vegetables. (Fill another ¼ with a lean protein and the last ¼ with a healthy starch, like whole wheat pasta or half a sweet potato.)

Choose deep-colored fruits and vegetables. Add a different color fruit to your breakfast each day. Serve a vegetable-loaded salad or soup with dinner.

"Grill a variety of vegetables to bring out the natural flavor," says Joan Salge Blake, RD, LDN, a dietitian and clinical associate professor at Boston University. "Have some for dinner and some for lunch the next day."

Fiber is also in whole grains, dried beans, seeds, and nuts. To get more of these foods:

  • Eat whole-grain bread and cereals with at least 5 grams of fiber.
  • Sprinkle oat bran or wheat germ on salad, soup, cereal, and yogurt.
  • Toss some beans into salads.

Switch to Healthier Fats

The type of fat you eat is important for protecting your ticker. Saturated fats -- in meat, cheese, butter, whole milk, and cream -- can be bad for your heart and arteries. They raise "bad" LDL cholesterol. Unsaturated fats -- such as those in oily fish, flaxseed, and walnuts -- can be good for your heart. If you swap out saturated fats and eat more unsaturated fats, you’re less likely to get heart disease.

A good rule of thumb for fats is: "Down with animal and up with plant," Ferrarro says. So sprinkle sunflower seeds instead of cheese on your salad, or cook with safflower or vegetable oil instead of butter. Just remember that all fats are high in calories, so don't overdo any of them.

One great source of unsaturated fats, omega-3, comes from oily fish. At least twice a week, eat an oily fish -- like salmon, trout, herring, or sardines -- in place of meat. Omega-3 fatty acids help protect against heart disease.

Other ways to cut saturated fats:

  • Switch from full fat to low-fat or no-fat dairy products, but beware that they may have more sugar or salt to bump up the flavor.
  • Keep meat portions no bigger than the palm of your hand.
  • Pick leaner cuts of meat, like pork tenderloin instead of spareribs.
  • Eat chicken or turkey without the skin.

Cut Back on Sodium

If your diet includes a lot of fruits and vegetables, you'll eat fewer processed foods, which are loaded with salt, or sodium. Salt holds excess fluid in your body, raising your blood pressure and your chances of heart disease and stroke. Most people in the U.S. eat more than twice the sodium that they should, and most of it comes from processed foods, like deli meats, and canned items like soup or tomato sauce. Choose fresh foods and season them with herbs.

Eating fruits and vegetables also boosts potassium, another way to lower sodium. Potassium sends more sodium out of your body in urine and helps lower blood pressure. Bananas, raisins, oranges, and white and sweet potatoes are great sources of potassium.

Show Sources


American Heart Association: "The Simple 7: Eat Better," "Salty Six - Common Foods Loaded with Excess Sodium," "Striking a Balance: Less Sodium (Salt), More Potassium," "5 Goals to Healthy Eating."

Joan Salge Blake, RD, LDN, FAND, dietitian; clinical associate professor, Boston University, Mass.

Katie Ferraro, MPH, RD, CDE, dietitian; assistant clinical professor, school of nursing, University of California at San Francisco, Calif.

Harvard Health Publications: "Resolution: Eat Your Way to a Healthy Heart."

Harvard School of Public Health: "Fiber: Start Roughing It!"

UCSF Medical Center: "Eating Right for Your Heart."

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