What Is a Heart Healthy Diet?

A healthy diet has different meanings for different people. A healthy diet can vary based on where in the world you live, any medical conditions or allergies you have as well as other traditions and beliefs. A heart-healthy diet is one that focuses on foods to help promote, regain or sustain heart health. There are dozens of diets easily found on the internet or in a bookstore that claim to be heart healthy. To determine the best eating plan for you or your family seek input from your healthcare team.

Eating a heart-healthy diet

If you are concerned about or have heart disease, an easy first step is to begin eating a heart-healthy diet. According to the American Heart Association, a healthy diet and lifestyle are essential tools to prevent cardiovascular disease.1

Changing your diet can seem overwhelming, especially if you are used to fast foods, eating out, eating at your desk, or have fussy eaters at home.2 But it doesn’t have to be done all at once. You can make gradual changes towards eating a healthy diet.

There are some basic benefits of heart-healthy diets that can help:

  • Lower bad cholesterol
  • Decrease inflammation
  • Weight loss or maintaining a healthy weight2

This can be achieved by controlling portion size, making good food choices, and not consuming more calories than you burn.1 Most heart-healthy diets include:

  • Eating more fruits and vegetables
  • Eating whole grains, nuts, and legumes
  • Reduce bad fats by eating fewer fried or processed foods
  • Eating low-fat proteins like poultry and fish
  • Lower your salt, sugar, red meat, alcohol and white starch intake3

It is important to learn to read food labels to understand the healthy and unhealthy nutrients each food contains.1 Nutrient-rich food have minerals, protein, whole grains but are lower in calories.1 Consuming foods that are low in saturated fat and trans fats and that are high in monounsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will help to protect your heart.2

Key diets

Some of the many diets associated with good heart health include the DASH, Keto, Mediterranean, and ones to manage heart failure.

Please ask your healthcare provider which diet would be best for you based on your medical history.

DASH

The DASH - Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet - reduces the amount of sodium you eat along with eating foods rich in nutrients like potassium, calcium and magnesium that help lower blood pressure.4 DASH like other diets encourages eating whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products. Fish, poultry and legumes, as well as some occasional nuts and seeds. DASH limits red meat, sweets and fats. The DASH diet is low in saturated fat, trans fats and total fats.4

Keto

Keto is a low-carb, high-fat diet similar to the Atkins diet. It is based on replacing carbohydrates with fat.5 This reduction in carbs places your body into a metabolic state called ketosis. This means the body lowers blood sugar and insulin levels and burns fat for energy turning it into ketones in the liver.

There are several versions of the ketogenic diet, the standard is most common which suggests eating 75% fat, 20% protein and 5% carbohydrates. Key foods consumed on the Keto diet include meat, eggs, processed meats, sausages, cheeses, fish, nuts, butter, oils, seeds, and fibrous vegetables.6 A ketogenic diet promotes more weight loss than a low-fat diet. It can improve risk factors for heart disease.5-6 There may be some initial side effects of a keto diet as it changes the water and mineral balance of the body.

Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean Diet has been touted for numerous long-term health benefits including good heart health, decreased inflammation and longer life. It is based on consuming plant-based foods, more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats, and fewer animal-based proteins. Eating fish, olive oil and nuts, along with the moderate drinking of wine is part of the lifestyle in many Mediterranean countries.7

The diet is based on eating 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day and reducing high-cholesterol foods. Making heart-healthy swaps like olive oil instead of butter, honey instead of sugar, and vegetables instead of meat can be both good for your waistline and good for your body and mind.

Congestive Heart Failure diet

A standard heart-healthy diet is important for people with congestive heart failure, but even more important is to restrict salt intake. A low-sodium diet, no more than 2,000 milligrams of sodium intake, is important to prevent fluid retention. Salt increases thirst and causes the body to retain fluids rather than excreting them through the urine. It is also important to limit fluid intake and to weigh yourself daily to measure fluid retention.8

Whatever diet you choose, even small changes in a diet can have significant health benefits when maintained over time.2 Another part of heart-healthy living includes not smoking, increasing the amount and intensity of your exercise with your doctor’s permission.1 Combine a heart-healthy diet with exercise for weight loss and to feel good.

Just like you track your fitness, track your food. Keep a food journal or use an online tracker to monitor what you eat, track portion control, find healthy recipes to help maintain good heart health.

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Written by: Linda Minton | Last reviewed: March 2021