One of the top risk factors for heart disease involves a poor diet, but luckily, healthy eating is usually within your control and a key area of prevention. According to the American Heart Association, you can protect your heart by choosing plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, heart-healthy fats, and fatty fish—and reducing intake of sodium, trans fats, and saturated fats. Here’s why certain foods are deemed more heart-healthy than others. Plus, find out what to avoid and how making simple heart-healthy swaps.
What makes a food heart-healthy?
“Heart-healthy foods are rich in fiber and antioxidants, while also being low in sodium and saturated fats,” says registered dietitian Stephanie McKercher of the Grateful Grazer. “Most whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts are good for your heart. There’s no need to eliminate fat completely—just aim for foods that are primarily high in unsaturated fats and lower in saturated and trans fats. Avocados and nuts are both great options.”
Watching your intake of saturated fats is important, because they clog arteries and can actually lead to a heart attack or stroke, says Lisa De Fazio, registered dietitian and author of The Women’s Health Big Book of Smoothies and Soups. “Good” fats, on the other hand, help lower blood pressure and cholesterol as well as fight off heart disease as a whole.
“A heart-healthy food is one that is more nutrient-dense: it packs a ton of nutrients into every calorie,” explains Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD. “It can have a variety of nutrients, but heart-healthy foods tend to have fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. The ‘good fats,’ aka unsaturated fats, are also heart-healthy foods. All of these nutrients have been scientifically shown to help the heart in some way, whether it’s lowering blood pressure or cholesterol or fighting off cardiovascular disease.”
What are some things to avoid eating if you’re trying to eat healthy for your heart?
Unsurprisingly, Rizzo says the things that aren’t good for your health in general are also bad for your heart, including saturated fats, trans fats, refined carbohydrates (such as foods full of sugar), and fried foods.
“The worst foods for your heart are ice cream, red meat, cheese, fried foods, butter, organ meats, whole milk dairy products, and cream sauces,” notes De Fazio. “If it walks, swims, or flies—or comes from something that walks, swims, or flies—it has cholesterol. Excessive cholesterol leads to heart disease.”
In response, you could explore a vegetarian or vegan diet, but McKercher says you can also simply replace some of your meat and dairy choices with plant-based foods, or make heart-healthy swaps in your diet for better nutrition.
Easy Heart-Healthy Swaps
Our experts share their favorite suggestions of nutritious replacements for common meals or snacks, and three Aaptiv trainers chime in regarding what they recommend based on personal experience.
- Blend nutritional yeast with silken tofu to make heart-healthy Caesar salad dressing.
- Swap tempeh, a fermented soy product, or high-fiber beans for meat.
Opt for whole grain bread and noodles, whenever they’re available.
De Fazio’s Tips:
- Dip veggies in avocado, since it is high in healthy fats and contains zero cholesterol, versus relying on sour cream dips.
- Instead of cheese, snack on hummus, which is high in cholesterol-lowering fiber, with whole grain crackers.
- Make nuts and nut butter part of your diet, because they are low in saturated fat and sodium, yet high in potassium, magnesium, fiber, and healthy fats.
- Try a veggie pizza instead of a meat one, and ask if vegan cheese is available.
- Make chili with vegetables instead of beef, and eat bean-based soup instead of cream-based soups.
- Use lentils as a base for tacos, or beans as the base for a burger, since both offer a meaty taste without the saturated fat.
- Add veggies to every meal, including breakfast—whether that means pairing eggs with greens or adding a handful of spinach to a smoothie. Start out the day with some heart-healthy veggies.
- Oats have a special fiber called beta-glucan that has been shown to lower cholesterol. So, put oats in everything from traditional oatmeal to smoothies to veggie burgers to meatloaf. They’re a healthy whole grain that does wonders for the heart.
Fitness expert Kelly Chase’s Tips:
- Check out seed-based crackers instead of any other type of cracker. These are often made with whole grains, seeds, herbs, and spices—and they’re typically organic.
- Replace regular pasta, which is made with wheat that can be an allergen or create inflammation, with gluten-free, vegan, organic, or zucchini noodles.
- Pay attention to the ingredient list for any item. If you can’t read an ingredient or don’t know what it is, then you probably shouldn’t eat it.
Fitness expert Jennifer Giamo’s Tips:
- When making tuna, substitute avocado for mayo.
- Replace meat with fish in any recipe.
- Use olive oil instead of butter and spices rather than salt.
Fitness expert Candice Cunningham’s Tips:
- Substitute cauliflower rice for traditional rice and white potatoes; it has fewer carbs and calories and offers healthy fiber and some nutrients than simple, starchy carbohydrates.
- Swap dairy for coconut milk in coffee or smoothies, as it has healthy fats and a little bit of sweetness.