What Is a Heart-Healthy Diet?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2023

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 having fussy eaters at home. But it doesn’t have to be done all at once. You can make gradual changes toward eating a healthy diet.2

There are some basic benefits of heart-healthy diets that can help:2

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

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:3

  • 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 intake

It is important to learn to read food labels to understand each food's healthy and unhealthy nutrients. Nutrient-rich foods have minerals, protein, and 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 protect your heart.2

Some of the many diets associated with good heart health include the DASH, Mediterranean, and ones to manage heart failure. Please ask your doctor which diet would be best for you based on your medical history.

DASH diet

The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet reduces the amount of sodium you eat while including nutrients like potassium, calcium, and magnesium to help lower blood pressure. The diet is low in saturated fat, trans fats, and total fats. It also limits red meat and sweets.4

The DASH diet encourages:4

  • Whole grains
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Legumes
  • Occasional nuts and seeds

Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet has been touted for numerous long-term health benefits, including:5

  • Good heart health
  • Decreased inflammation
  • Longer life

The diet is based on consuming:5

  • Plant-based foods
  • 7 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day
  • Whole grains
  • Healthy fats,
  • Fewer animal-based proteins

Eating fish, olive oil, and nuts, along with drinking moderate amounts of wine, is part of the lifestyle in many Mediterranean countries.5

Congestive heart failure diet

A standard heart-healthy diet is important for people with congestive heart failure. However, restricting salt intake to less than 2,000 milligrams of sodium each day is even more important because it prevents fluid retention. Salt increases thirst and causes the body to retain fluids rather than excreting them through the urine.2

It is also important to limit fluid intake and to weigh yourself daily to measure fluid retention.2

Other things to know

Whatever diet you choose, even small changes in a diet can have major health benefits when maintained over time. Other steps to heart-healthy living include not smoking and increasing the amount and intensity of your exercise with your doctor’s permission.1,2

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, and note heart-healthy recipes.

Talk to your doctor before making any changes to your diet.

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