Your heart has a big job: it is responsible for transporting blood through the body and maintaining your heart blood pressure and keep you alive. Because the heart is such a vital organ, it needs to stay healthy – and your diet plays an important role in this.
Everyone from the American Heart Association to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends making specific dietary choices to support a healthy heart. Because foods for heart health can reduce other potential cardiovascular problems, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, it’s worth keeping that in mind when planning your weekly meals.
Keep reading to find out which foods to focus on, which foods you’re probably already eating, and what a heart-healthy diet looks like in general.
Read more: Mediterranean Diet for Beginners: Health Benefits, Foods to Eat, and How It Works
What is a Heart Healthy Diet?
Studies have revealed two things: foods that are riskier for your heart and foods that strengthen it. Luckily, you’re not about to get hit with a bunch of curveballs. The best foods for heart health are the ones you probably already consider healthy. Likewise, the not-so-heart-healthy foods are probably already on your radar because they don’t do your body any favors.
Before we delve deeper into this, let’s just say: everything in moderation. Unless you already know that you have a heart health problemyou don’t have to cut out foods or make drastic changes. We’re not saying you should never eat another piece of bacon or crack open another soda. Instead, being aware of what a heart-healthy diet looks like can help you include more of these foods in your meals.
Now let’s talk about the details. According to the AHA and the Department of Health, a heart-healthy diet is rich in:
- Lean proteins
- Fiber-rich complex carbohydrates
- Healthy fats
A diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains and healthy proteins and fats gives your body the fiber, vitamins and minerals it needs to support a healthy heart.
Conversely, if you’re trying to improve cardiovascular health, you’ll want to limit your intake of:
- Trans fats
- Saturated fats
- Processed meat (e.g. lunch meat, salami and hot dogs)
- Excess salt
- Excess sugar
- Refined carbohydrates (e.g. white bread and snacks)
- Red meat
- Excess alcohol
If many of your favorites are on the lower heart health list, don’t panic. You can still include them in your diet (unless your doctor says otherwise). Don’t let these foods take over every meal, and try to add as many heart-healthy foods into your day as possible.
If you want to feel good about what your next grocery trip will do for your heart health, grab items in these specific categories.
1. Fruits and vegetables
Do you remember the food pyramid from the past? It was on to something. Your body benefits from eating a fair amount of products.
That’s because fruits and vegetables contain a lot of nutritional density per bite. Bananas and sweet potatoes provide potassium, an important mineral for heart health. Cruciferous vegetables can help prevent clogged arteries. Leafy greens provide fiber, which can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
Long story 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 plenty of nutritional benefits from frozen, dried and canned options. Make sure they are marked as low sodium.
2. Whole grains
Not all carbohydrates are bad. Refined carbohydrates like those in white bread rush through your body and usually do you more harm than good. But complex carbohydrates, like those you find in whole grain products, provide fiber, which we’ve already mentioned as a heart health booster.
In addition, they are often packed with vitamins and minerals such as iron, selenium, thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), folic acid (vitamin B9) and magnesium. If you’re looking for a heart-healthy diet, choose products with whole grains in the ingredient list. In addition, complex carbohydrates can also be found in beans, potatoes, peas and corn.
3. Lean and plant-based proteins
While certain proteins — like red and processed meat — can be tough on your heart, others top the list of foods for heart health. The key here is to look for plant-based proteins, lean animal proteins and fish. Experts recommend mixing your protein sources. So there are plenty of options, stock up on:
- Fish, especially those high in omega-3 fatty acids
- Low-fat dairy products
Swap some of your red meat and cured pork for the above options and you’ll do your heart a favor.
4. Healthy fats
You might think that fat causes heart problems, but it’s all about the… type of fat. Although trans and saturated fats have been linked to cardiovascular problems in numerous studies, your body, including your heart, needs healthy fats. You can get these from fish, nuts and seeds, along with avocados and moderate amounts of vegetable oils such as:
- Olive oil
- sesame oil
- Soya oil
- Rapeseed oil
- Corn oil
- Safflower oil
As a general rule of thumb, if the fat were solid at room temperature, it is probably saturated. If it were a liquid, it would most likely fall under the unsaturated variety. Think butter (controversial for health) vs. olive oil (definitely part of a heart-healthy diet).
5. Perform a heart check
The American Heart Association has certified certain foods for heart health and labeled them with the Heart-Check seal, which you can find on some food packages. Once you know that seal, it can make it easier to fill your shopping cart with foods for heart health.
For best results, combine your heart-healthy diet with other heart health boosters like it regular exercise, sleep and stress management techniques. It can also be helpful to know your blood type what it means for your risk of specific cardiovascular conditions.