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9 Best and Worst Foods for Heart Health

Plus, what you should do about coffee.

Medically reviewed in September 2022

Updated on September 23, 2022

food in the shape of a heart
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Eating a well-balanced diet is critical for your heart health, especially following a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack or stroke. Nutritious food "gives your body optimal performance, so that it can recover and heal itself and prevent another cardiac event in the future," says Lauri Watson, RD, a registered dietitian with Summerville Medical Center in Summerville, South Carolina.

Though it’s wise to follow some guidelines, consuming a heart-friendly diet isn’t as difficult as you might think. Watson recommends focusing on a plant-based eating plan and says it's OK to start small. "Even small changes add up to big changes over time,” she explains. Here’s how to begin.

fruit and vegetables in a box
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ENJOY: Fruits and veggies

Watson recommends adding a variety of colorful produce to your meals. Depending on your age and sex, United States government recommendations for fruit and vegetable intake vary, but most adults should aim to consume between 1.5 and 2 cups of fruit each day. Women should shoot for about 2 to 3 cups of veggies daily, while 3 to 4 cups is suggested for men. 

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 low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol levels and clog your arteries, raising the chances of heart attack and stroke.

To enjoy more fruits and veggies: 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. 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.

quinoa and vegetable salad
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ENJOY: Whole grains

Hearty whole grains like whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa, and oats boast a number of benefits. For one thing, they’re rich in dietary fiber, which can help keep cholesterol levels in check and lower the likelihood of stroke, heart disease, and diabetes. Their fiber content also makes whole grains especially filling, which may help sate your desire for between-meal snacking and stave off weight gain.    

Government guidelines recommend men consume 28 to 34 grams of fiber daily, and women take in 22 to 28 grams, depending on age. Cooked quinoa, for example, contains 5 grams of fiber per cup, while dry oats contain 4 grams per half cup.

To enjoy more whole grains: 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.

grilled chicken
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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, or beef with 10 percent fat or less. 

Tofu, beans, nuts, plain low- or 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 healthcare provider how many egg yolks are safe for you to consume, or stick with egg whites only.

To enjoy lean meats: When building your next dinner, fill half your plate with vegetables before serving up a 3-ounce serving of grilled or roasted chicken breast, with 26 grams of protein.

salmon and salad
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ENJOY: Fatty fish

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. Some fish, like albacore tuna and wild-caught salmon, are also high in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s may help lower blood pressure levels, slow the buildup of atherosclerotic plaque, and decrease the risk of an irregular heartbeat.

To enjoy fatty fish: Ready to test the water and safeguard your heart? Give Norwegian-Style Oven Roasted Salmon 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.

bowls of beans
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ENJOY: Beans and lentils

Legumes such as beans and lentils contain several heart-healthy nutrients including protein and fiber. Not only can they help keep you full and prevent overeating at your next meal, but eating legumes as part of a healthy diet has also been linked to better blood cholesterol levels. High cholesterol is a known contributor of heart disease.

To enjoy beans and legumes: These healthy sources of plant-based protein can easily be incorporated into your meal plan. Stir plump lentils into soup or blend beans into a creamy dip.

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.

iced coffee
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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. Other evidence suggests those with heart conditions should be careful about consumption. Regardless, you should still ask your healthcare provider (HCP) 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 HCP, 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.

pile of desserts
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LIMIT: Sugar

Found in soda, juice, and bakery treats among other processed foods, added sugars can contribute to weight gain, raising 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.

fried food
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LIMIT: 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 (high-density lipoprotein or HDL) and bumping up the harmful type (LDL). Too much LDL can increase your risk for arterial blockage and up your likelihood of stroke and heart attack.

Replacing saturated fats with healthy unsaturated fats found in plant-based foods like nuts, avocados, and olive oil can help lower bad cholesterol levels and improve your heart health.

Federal dietary guidelines recommend 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.

baked potato chips and sea salt
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LIMIT: 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.

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 flavor to any dish.

Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

USDA. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. December 2018.
NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. DASH Eating Plan. Last updated December 29, 2021.
American Heart Association. Understand Your Risks to Prevent a Heart Attack. Last reviewed June 30, 2016.
American Heart Association. Saturated Fat. Last reviewed November 1, 2021.
American Heart Association. What is Atherosclerosis? Last reviewed November 6, 2020.
American Heart Association. Whole Grains, Refined Grains, and Dietary Fiber. Last reviewed November 1, 2021.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Easy Ways to Boost Fiber in Your Daily Diet. Reviewed February 2021.
USDA MyPlate. Protein Foods. Accessed September 23, 2022.
Harvard Health Publishing. How much protein do you need every day? January 19, 2022.
Harvard Health Publishing. Protein sources that are best for your heart. August 1, 2015.
Better Health Channel (AUS). Protein. Reviewed January 13, 2022.
Zhang B, Xiong K, et al. Fish Consumption and Coronary Heart Disease: A Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2020 Jul 29;12(8):2278.
American Heart Association. Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Last reviewed November 1, 2021.
Harvard Health Publishing. Is mercury in fish dangerous? June 1, 2013.
Mayo Clinic. Beans and other legumes: Cooking tips. October 16, 2020.
American Heart Association. The Benefits of Beans and Legumes. Last reviewed April 26, 2018.
Harvard Health Publishing. Sodium studies blur the picture on what is heart healthy. August 15, 2014.
American Heart Association. Caffeine and Heart Disease. Last reviewed April 17, 2014.
Mayo Clinic. Does coffee offer health benefits? March 19, 2022.
Harvard Health Publishing. The sweet danger of sugar. January 6, 2022.
Harvard Health Publishing. Eating too much added sugar increases the risk of dying with heart disease. February 6, 2014.
Yang Q, Zhang Z, et al. Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(4):516–524. 
Harvard Health Publishing. The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between. April 12, 2022.
Nettleton JA, Brouwer IA, et al. Saturated Fat Consumption and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease and Ischemic Stroke: A Science Update. Ann Nutr Metab. 2017;70(1):26-33.
Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard researchers renew warnings about saturated fat and heart disease. January 13, 2017.
Cleveland Clinic. Do You Know Where Salt Is Hiding in Your Food? September 14, 2020.
American Heart Association. Get the Scoop on Sodium and Salt. Last reviewed April 16, 2018.
American Heart Association. How much sodium should I eat per day? Last reviewed November 1, 2021.

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