9 Best and Worst Foods for Heart Health

Plus, what you should do about coffee.

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A healthy diet is important to the vitality of your heart, and even more so after a cardiovascular event, like heart attack or stroke. Lifestyle interventions, like a well-balanced diet and regular exercise—can help prevent heart attack and stroke in people with heart disease. A healthy meal plan "gives your body optimal performance, so that it can recover and heal itself and also prevent another cardiac event in the future," says Lauri Watson, RD, a registered dietitian with Summerville Medical Center in Summerville, South Carolina.

Learning about nutrition and implementing a healthy diet is a big part of cardiac rehabilitation, a program designed to aid recuperation after heart attack, heart failure or cardiovascular surgery. Sure, there are certain heart-healthy guidelines, but consuming a ticker-friendly diet isn’t as difficult as you might think. Watson recommends focusing on a whole food and plant-based food plan. She also says it's OK to start small. "Even small changes add up to big changes over time."

A healthy diet is the best weapon against heart disease, suggests Watson. Read on to build your arsenal.

Medically reviewed in May 2018.

Enjoy: fruits and veggies

2 / 10 Enjoy: fruits and veggies

Watson recommends adding a variety of colorful produce to your meals. Depending on your age and gender, the US government recommendations for fruit and vegetable intake vary, but most adults should aim to consume between 1.5 and 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of veggies a day. The DASH Diet, an eating plan that focuses primarily on heart health and lowering blood pressure, recommends those on an 1,800 or 2,000 calorie-diet consume between four and five servings of fruit and veggies a day. Both fruits and veggies are low in calories and fat and high in vitamins and minerals. But there are even more potential benefits to reaching these dietary goals.

Loading your plate with low-calorie fruits and veggies leaves less room for higher calorie foods and may promote weight loss. Excess body weight has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, making this a heart-smart move. Produce is also generally free of unhealthy, saturated fats that can increase your cholesterol levels and clog your arteries, upping the chances of heart attack and stroke.

Sure, steamed broccoli makes a great dinner side and fruit salad is a sweet afternoon treat, but produce can also be used in other tasty ways. Say "so long" to your sad desk lunch and try this crispy kale salad—just be wary of dressings and sauces with hidden sodium. Or sweeten up snack time with some mixed berry salsa. You can start and finish your day with fruits and veggies, too—mash a banana into plain non-fat Greek yogurt to create a fruity morning pudding or swap your typical evening starch with mashed or riced cauliflower.

Enjoy: whole grains

3 / 10 Enjoy: whole grains

Hearty whole grains like whole wheat, brown or wild rice, quinoa and oats boast a number of benefits. For one, grains are especially filling, which may help sate your desire for between-meal snacking and stave off weight gain, a contributor of heart problems. Whole grains are rich in dietary fiber, which can help keep cholesterol levels in check and lower the likelihood of stroke, heart disease and diabetes. For example, cooked quinoa contains 5 grams of fiber per cup, while dry oats contain 4 grams per half cup. Government guidelines recommend men consume 38 grams of fiber daily, and women take in 25 grams.

But how do you get enough? Start your morning with a bowl of oatmeal topped with a tablespoon of chia seeds and a cup of fresh berries. These toppings add another 8 grams of fiber to your first meal, for a total of 12 grams. Typically adding white rice to your dinner plate? Try swapping with a new-to-you whole grain like barley or farro.

Another way to help ensure you're getting the nutrients you need is tracking your meals. Phone applications like Sharecare, available for iOS and Android, make keeping tabs on your daily food and beverage consumption simple. There's almost nothing to it—open the app and record the size and quality of your meals.

Enjoy: lean meats

4 / 10 Enjoy: lean meats

Protein is essential for the health and function of each of our bodies' cells, including the heart, but how much do we really need? Not as much as you might think, and there could be a downside to consuming too much or protein from the wrong sources. Specific recommendations vary by age and gender, but general guidelines suggest we need at least 8 grams of protein per 20 pounds of body weight.

Some animal proteins, like ground beef, pork, duck and lamb, are high in saturated fats, which can increase levels of artery-clogging cholesterol. Instead, choose lean sources of protein, like chicken or turkey breast and beef with 10 percent fat or less. Plain non-fat Greek yogurt and eggs are other lean sources of protein to enjoy throughout the week. Depending on the condition of your heart, it may be wise to limit your egg yolk consumption. Before whipping up an omelet, ask your doctor how many egg yolks are safe for you to consume, or stick with egg whites only.

When building your next dinner, fill half your plate with vegetables before serving up a three- ounce serving of grilled or roasted chicken breast, with 26 grams of protein.

Enjoy: fatty fish

5 / 10 Enjoy: fatty fish

Oven-roasted or grilled, fatty fishes, like salmon and tuna, are a heart-conscious protein choice. Government dietary guidelines recommend men and women consume 8 or more ounces of seafood, including fish and shellfish, each week. Research suggests regular seafood consumption has been linked to a decreased risk of cardiac deaths in people with and without heart disease.

Seafood is low in saturated fats but high in vital nutrients like protein and some, like albacore tuna and wild-caught salmon, are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s, found abundantly in wild caught salmon, might slightly lower blood pressure levels, slow the buildup of atherosclerotic plaque and decrease the risk of an irregular heartbeat.

Ready to test the water and safeguard your heart? Give this salmon recipe a go—it's loaded with flavors like lemon, honey, garlic and paprika. When you're choosing your filets, opt for a swimmer with a low level of mercury, like salmon or trout, especially if you’re pregnant or plan to start a family.

Enjoy: beans and legumes

6 / 10 Enjoy: beans and legumes

Legumes, like beans, lentils and peanuts, contain several heart-healthy nutrients: protein, unsaturated fats and fiber. Protein and fiber can help keep you full and prevent overeating at your next meal. Bean and legume consumption as part of a healthy diet has also been linked to better blood cholesterol levels, a known contributor of heart disease.

These healthy sources of plant-based protein can easily be incorporated into your meal plan. Stir plump lentils into soup, blend beans into a creamy dip or toss chopped nuts into your next salad.

If you're reaching for canned beans, give them a good rinse to get rid of excess sodium, too much of which may increase your blood pressure. You can also cook your beans—sans salt—on the stovetop or in your slow cooker.

Limit: caffeine

7 / 10 Limit: caffeine

Caffeine, found in coffee, tea and chocolate, is a stimulant consumed by an estimated 90 percent of adults around the world. Some research suggests coffee is protective against type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's disease and heart disease, but the jury is still out. Other evidence suggests those with heart conditions should be careful about consumption. Regardless, you should still ask your doctor before sipping your morning cup.

Available evidence suggests coffee drinking doesn't have a big impact on the body's cholesterol levels, but long-term coffee use may produce a minor increase in blood pressure. Caffeine, in doses approved by your doctor, can be safe for people with an irregular heartbeat, but heart disease patients are cautioned to avoid consumption of excessive amounts of caffeine, found in products like energy drinks.

Research has yet to draw a conclusion on the "right" amount of caffeine for your heart, so all consumption should be discussed with your cardiologist.

Avoid: sugar

8 / 10 Avoid: sugar

Added sugars, found in soda, juice and bakery treats, add unnecessary calories to your diet, which have been known to increase the number on the scale, thereby upping your heart disease risk. Excess sugar can hurt your heart, even if you're not overweight, suggests a 2014 study published in JAMA: Internal Medicine. During the 15-year study, participants who consumed between 10 percent and 25 percent of their daily calories in the form of sugar had a 30 percent higher risk of heart disease-related mortality. People getting more than a quarter of their daily calories from sugar had almost triple the risk.

Watson is wary about recommending unhealthy foods "in moderation," given the various interpretations of the word. Instead, she suggests indulging only on a special occasion, like a birthday or holiday. "Nobody likes to be told they can't ever have something, but to me, these foods should be eaten sparingly," Watson says.

Avoid: saturated fat

9 / 10 Avoid: saturated fat

Saturated fats are abundant in foods like processed meats—think hotdogs and salami—full-fat dairy, french fries, red meat and packaged foods like cakes and biscuits. A diet rich in these fats can mess with the balance of cholesterol in your blood—lowering the protective kind (HDL) and bumping up the harmful type (LDL). Too much bad cholesterol can increase your risk for arterial blockage and up your likelihood of stroke and heart attack.

Replacing unhealthy fats with healthy ones can help shield your heart. Swapping red meat and packaged bakery snacks with grilled salmon, nuts and avocado can help lower cholesterol levels and improve heart health.

The United States Department of Agriculture recommends limiting saturated fat intake to no more than 10 percent of your daily calories, but people with heart conditions may want to be especially careful. The American Heart Association guidelines are a bit more restrictive for those with elevated LDL cholesterol levels, suggesting saturated fat be limited to just 5 or 6 percent of daily calorie intake. Speaking with your healthcare provider is the only way to be sure you're eating the right amount for you.

Avoid: salt

10 / 10 Avoid: salt

Sodium isn't just sprinkled on top of your food. The salty stuff lurks in some unexpected places, like bread, cereal, soda and frozen dinners. Sodium is a mineral our bodies need for proper nerve and muscle function. Too much salt however, can increase blood pressure levels, a main contributor to heart disease.

The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day but says 1,500 mg is the ideal target. And Watson agrees. Preparing food at home is one of the best ways to monitor sodium intake. "You're able to better control the salt in your food," Watson says. "And that 1,500 mg number is going to seem a lot harder to reach."

Instead of reaching for the salt shaker as you head to the stove, sprinkle a mix of chopped herbs into your pan. Watson recommends a combination of cilantro, basil and oregano, finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Peppers, garlic and onions also add great favor to any dish.

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