Swap Foods to Get a Healthy Heart and Waistline

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on May 15, 2023
4 min read

What you eat and drink can help save your ticker.

Research shows your diet and weight, and other lifestyle habits, can prevent up to 80% of heart attacks and strokes.

You don't have to overhaul your kitchen to eat meals that are good for your heart and waistline. It can be as simple as trading one food for another.

When it comes to your heart, butter doesn't make everything better. It's a big source of saturated fat, which raises your level of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol.

Cook with a vegetable oil instead, like olive, canola, corn, or safflower. They have healthier unsaturated fat. If you replace 5% of your daily calories from saturated fat with the unsaturated kind, you’ll cut your chance of heart disease by up to 25%.

Whole grains are loaded with fiber, which helps to lower your LDL, or "bad," cholesterol. One study says every 1-ounce serving you eat can reduce your chances of dying from heart disease by 9%.

Plus, it takes your body longer to digest fiber, so you stay full longer. This may help you eat fewer calories and stay at the weight you should be.

The American Heart Association recommends getting at least three servings of whole grains a day. To hit that mark, try these substitutions:

  • Buy 100% whole wheat bread and tortillas in place of white.
  • Have oatmeal instead of cream of wheat or corn flakes.
  • Eat brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, or whole-grain barley rather than white rice.
  • Replace at least half of the all-purpose flour in a recipe with the whole-wheat kind.

At lunch, instead of a burger, go for chicken, turkey, or fish instead. Or try a dish made with beans.

Deciding how to make your fish for dinner? Do your heart a favor. Broil or bake it instead of frying it.

When you fry food, the breading soaks up extra grease. That means you eat more fat, which often is the unhealthy saturated kind. This can add up: One study shows that people who eat fried foods one to three times a week are 24% more likely to have heart failure than those who have less than one serving a week.

Before you reach for that salt shaker, head to the spice rack. Spices can add flavor and disease-fighting antioxidants without the extra sodium.

Too much salt can raise your blood pressure. How much should you eat? Recommendations vary from 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams a day.

Dragging in the afternoon? At the vending machine, get mixed nuts rather than chips or pretzels. You'll get a dose of fiber and heart-healthy unsaturated fat with your snack.

One study contends that munching on a serving of nuts each week cuts your risk of dying from heart disease by 8%. But remember, you can also add calories this way, so read the nutrition labels carefully to know how many are in each serving.

Watch out for sugar that's added to foods, like the sweetener baked into a cookie or the sugar you stir into your coffee. It tacks on calories without nutrients. This can lead to weight gain and obesity, which wears on your heart.

To scale back the sweet stuff, go for fruit instead. You can also use a sugar substitute to cut back on calories.

Also, consider these trades:

  • Top your cereal with fruit rather than sugar.
  • Stir fresh berries into your yogurt instead of buying the flavored or fruit-on-the-bottom kind.
  • In place of ice cream, puree a banana in a food processor and freeze it for a creamy frozen treat.

The green fruit adds creaminess to that turkey-and-cheese sandwich without all of the saturated fat of mayo. Avocados have healthy unsaturated fat and nutrients that can boost heart health.

It's no secret that sugar-sweetened drinks, like soda, can lead to weight gain. They can also take a toll on your ticker. Just one can a day raises your risk of heart disease by 20%, a study published in the journal Circulation shows.  

Be careful about diet soda, too. Studies show people who drink it tend to make up for the missing calories by snacking on extra food.

If you're thirsty, pour a glass of water or unsweetened tea. Need a little flavor kick? Add a splash of 100% fruit juice to some sparkling water. You may want to avoid straight fruit juice because it's a high source of sugar.

This type of fat makes products stay fresh on the store shelf. It's the worst kind for your heart. It lowers your HDL, or "good," cholesterol, while raising the LDL, or "bad," kind.

The FDA has asked food companies to remove trans fats from their products. But they may still show up in items on your grocery list. So make sure you read the nutrition labels carefully.

Show Sources


CDC: "Leading Causes of Death."

American Heart Association: "Make the Effort to Prevent Disease with Life's Simple 7," "Whole Grains and Fiber," "Added Sugars," "About Sodium (Salt)," "Added Sugars Add Your Risk of Dying From Heart disease," "Eat More Chicken, Fish, and Beans," "Use Olive, Canola, Corn, or Safflower Oil As Your Main Kitchen Fats."

Wu, H. JAMA Internal Medicine, March 2015.

Ha, V. CMAJ, May 2014.

Li, Y. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, October 2015.

Wang, L. Journal of the American Heart Association, January 2015.

Sabate, J. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010.

De Koning, L. Circulation, March 2012.

Environmental Working Group: "Hidden in Plain Sight."

FDA: "Talking About Trans Fat: What You Need to Know."

National Institutes of Health: 'Diet Beverages and Body Weight."

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