The best foods for heart health and what to avoid

When it comes to heart disease risk, some factors are beyond your control—like, say, your blood type. But other factors are more variable, including your diet. Everyone from the American Heart Association to the US Department of Health and Human Services recommends specific food choices to support a healthy heart. Since heart-healthy foods can reduce other potential cardiovascular problems — like high blood pressure and high cholesterol — it’s worth keeping in mind when planning your weekly meals.

Keep reading to find out which foods to look for and what a heart-healthy diet looks like in general.


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What is a heart healthy diet?

Studies have revealed two things: foods that are more risky for your heart, and foods that strengthen it. Fortunately, you won’t be hit with a bunch of curveballs. The best foods for heart health are the ones you probably already think are healthy. Likewise, not-so-heart-healthy foods are probably already on your radar because they’re not doing your body any favors.

Before we dive in here, let’s say: everything in moderation. Unless you already are you know you have a heart problem, you don’t have to cut out any foods or make any drastic changes. We’re not saying you can never eat another piece of bacon or crack open another soda. Instead, keeping in mind what a heart-healthy diet looks like can help you include more of these foods in your diet.

Now let’s talk about details. According to the AHA and the Department of Health, a healthy diet is rich in:

  • Production
  • Lean proteins
  • Fiber-rich complex carbohydrates
  • Healthy fats

A diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins and fats will give your body the fiber, vitamins, and minerals it needs to support a healthy heart.

A bright rainbow spectrum of products on a tray.

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Conversely, if you’re trying to improve cardiovascular health, you’ll want to limit your intake of:

  • Trans fats
  • Saturated fat
  • Processed meats (e.g. luncheon meats, salami and hot dogs)
  • Excess salt
  • Excess sugar
  • Refined carbohydrates (eg white bread and snacks)
  • red meat
  • Excess alcohol

If many of your favorites are on the less heart-healthy list, don’t panic. You can still include them in your diet (unless your doctor says otherwise). Just make sure these foods don’t take over every meal and try to add as many heart-healthy foods into your day as possible.

Heart-healthy foods

A person in a long brown dress browses an aisle in a grocery store.

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If you want to feel good about what your next grocery trip will do for your heart health, you can pick up items in these specific categories.

1. Fruits and vegetables

Remember the food pyramid from back in the day? It was aimed at something. Your body benefits from eating quite a few foods.

This is because vegetables and fruits pack a lot of nutritional density per bite. Bananas and sweet potatoes provide potassium, a key mineral for heart health. Cruciferous vegetables may help prevent clogged arteries. Leafy greens provide fiber, which can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure.

In short, the more products you pack, the better. And if fresh produce doesn’t fit your budget or lifestyle, don’t worry. You can get many nutritional benefits from frozen, dried, and canned options. Just make sure they’re marked as low sodium.

2. Whole grains

Not all carbs are bad. Refined carbohydrates like those in white bread fly through your body, usually doing you more harm than good. But complex carbohydrates, like those you’ll find in whole grains, provide fiber, which we’ve already mentioned as a heart-healthy booster.

Plus, they’re often full of vitamins and minerals like iron, selenium, thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), folate (vitamin B9), and magnesium. If you’re looking for a heart-healthy diet, choose products that have whole grains in their ingredient list. Plus, complex carbohydrates can also be found in beans, potatoes, peas, and corn.

Fish tacos on a plate, with corn tortillas and fresh cilantro.

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3. Lean and vegetable protein

While certain proteins—like red and processed meat—can be hard on your heart, others top the list of heart-healthy foods. The key here is to look for plant-based proteins, lean animal proteins and fish. Experts recommend mixing protein sources. So you have many options, stock up on:

  • Lentils
  • Bob
  • Nuts
  • seeds
  • Tofu
  • Fish, especially those high in omega-3 fatty acids
  • eggs
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Domestic birds
  • seeds

Swap some of your red meat and pulled pork for the options above and you’ll be doing your heart a favor.

4. Healthy fats

You might think that fat causes heart problems, but it’s all about Type of fat. Although trans and saturated fats have been linked to cardiovascular problems in multiple studies, your body, including your heart, needs healthy fats. You can get them from fish, nuts and seeds, along with avocados and moderate amounts of vegetable oils such as:

  • Olive oil
  • Sesame oil
  • Sunflower
  • Soybean oil
  • Rapeseed oil
  • Corn oil
  • Safflower oil

As a general rule, if a fat is solid at room temperature, it is probably saturated. If it is a liquid, it most likely falls into the unsaturated variety. I think butter (controversial for health) vs. olive oil (definitely part of a heart-healthy diet).

Sesame oil is poured into a small plate.

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5. Heart check foods

The American Heart Association has certified certain foods for heart health and given them the Heart-Check seal, which you can find on some food packages. Once you learn this print, it can make it easier to load up your cart with heart-healthy foods.

For best results, combine your healthy diet with other stimulants for heart health like regular exercise, a dream and stress management techniques. It can also be helpful to learn your blood type and what does it mean on the risk of specific cardiovascular diseases.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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