Eat Your Heart Out: A Beginner’s Guide to the Heart-Healthy Diet

By Kara Hochreiter, MS, RDN, LD

February marks American Heart Month, which is more than fitting given the abundance of heart-shaped paraphernalia lining store shelves this time of year. In honor of this month-long celebration, AHN’s Registered Dietitian is here to share simple steps that you can take today to keep your ticker in tip-top shape for years to come.

The Heart of the Matter

Heart disease – also referred to as cardiovascular disease – is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. An estimated 92 million Americans (roughly 29% of the population) currently live with some form of heart disease, while nearly one in two Americans are at risk.

Despite its widespread prevalence, heart disease is considered largely preventable through diet and lifestyle choices. Taking small steps to adopt healthier lifestyle habits now can help prevent or delay the onset or progression of heart disease in the future.

The Heart-Healthy Diet

Regardless of what the media may lead you to believe, there is no one single food that can prevent – or cure – heart disease. However, there are certain foods that have been shown to be especially beneficial for cardiovascular health. Including these foods as part of a well-balanced diet may help to improve your overall health and reduce your risk for heart disease.

  • Oatmeal. Oats contain a soluble fiber called beta-glucan. In the digestive tract, beta-glucan binds to excess cholesterol and helps remove it from the body before it enters the bloodstream. This, in turn, helps to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, while leaving “good” HDL cholesterol levels intact.

Tip: Add oats to baked goods – such as breads, muffins, cookies, or granola – or combine equal parts oats, milk, and Greek yogurt and refrigerate overnight for an easy grab-and-go breakfast. In the morning, add your favorite toppings (fruit, nuts, nut butter, etc.) and enjoy warm or cold.

  • Leafy Green Vegetables. Leafy green vegetables – such as kale, spinach, broccoli, and cabbage – are great sources of vitamin K. In the body, vitamin K helps to reduce blood pressure, improve arterial function, and promote proper blood clotting. Studies have found that higher intakes of leafy greens tend to be associated with lower risk of heart disease.

Tip: Add shredded cabbage to tacos, mix cooked broccoli into pasta, or blend spinach or kale into smoothies for a refreshing alternative to leafy green salads.

  • Salmon (or other “fatty” fish). “Fatty” fish – such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines – contain high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids. Unlike saturated fats, these heart-healthy unsaturated fats actually help reduce triglyceride levels, lower blood pressure, decrease chronic inflammation, and prevent the formation of harmful plaque and blood clots. For this reason, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends consuming at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fatty fish per week.

Tip: Canned salmon is an easy and affordable way to get your omega-3 fix. Use salmon in place of canned tuna for a sandwich filling or combine with egg, breadcrumbs, onion, and seasonings and cook on the stovetop or grill for a healthy and delicious salmon burger.

  • Olive Oil. As its name suggests, olive oil is made using the natural oils extracted from olives. Unlike solid fats – such as butter, shortening, coconut oil, and lard – olive oil is low in saturated fats and high in monounsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fatty acids, such as oleic acid, help to reduce inflammation throughout the body (especially in the heart!) and may protect against red blood cell damage that could otherwise lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Tip: Use olive oil in place of butter when cooking or drizzle a mixture of extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar on salads to enhance the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and minerals.

  • Avocados. Like olive oil, avocados are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Not to mention, this versatile fruit is loaded with dietary fiber, antioxidants, and more than 20 different vitamins and minerals. In fact, one-half of a medium avocado contains more potassium than a medium banana. This is great news, given that high intakes of potassium are associated with decreased blood pressure and lower risk for heart attacks and strokes.

Tip: Mash avocado on toast, add to salads, or spread sandwiches to add flavor, texture, and healthy fats to your meals. And be sure to check out the recipe linked in this post for a sweet way to use up your ripe avocados.

  • Legumes. High in protein and fiber, yet low in saturated fat, legumes offer a healthy and affordable alternative to animal proteins. This class of vegetables – which includes pantry staples like beans, lentils, peas and soybeans – is filled with heart-healthy nutrients such as folate, potassium, iron, magnesium, and antioxidants. Together, these nutrients help to lower blood pressure, stabilize blood sugar, and reduce cholesterol levels.

Tip: Go meatless one day each week by replacing meat with your favorite legumes. Rinse canned beans in a colander to remove excess salt before adding to soups, salads, pastas, burritos, dips, and more.

  • Dark Chocolate. Sweet tooths, rejoice! When consumed in moderation, dark chocolate can be a tasty addition to a heart-healthy diet. In addition to its high antioxidant content, dark chocolate contains powerful plant chemicals, called flavonoids, which have been shown to help lower blood pressure and improve blood vessel circulation. To get the greatest nutritional bang for your buck, choose chocolates that contain at least 70% cocoa.

Tip: Satisfy your sweet tooth cravings with a square of dark chocolate or whip up a batch of 3-ingredient Dark Chocolate Truffles using the recipe linked in this post!

  • Nuts. Rich in protein, fiber, and healthy fats, nuts are nothing short of a nutritional powerhouse. In fact, studies suggest that eating a small handful of nuts each day may help to lower cholesterol, protect against inflammation, and even assist with weight loss efforts. However, keep in mind that nuts are relatively high in calories, so it is best to keep portion sizes in check.

Tip: Pair a small handful of nuts with a piece of fruit for a satisfying mid-morning snack, stir a spoonful of nut butter into your morning oatmeal, or add chopped nuts to salads or baked goods for extra flavor and crunch.

  • Berries. Naturally sweet and bursting with flavor, berries get their vibrant colors from antioxidants and polyphenols, which help to protect against chronic diseases and certain forms of cancer. Studies also suggest that these low-calorie and high-fiber fruits may help to lower the risk of heart attacks and reduce common risk factors for heart disease by lowering elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Tip: Stir fresh or frozen berries into yogurt or oatmeal or spread a layer of mashed berries on whole-wheat toast for a lower-sugar alternative to jam. Whip up a refreshing fruit smoothie by blending ½-cup frozen berries with ½ frozen banana, ½-cup Greek yogurt, and 1-cup milk.

  • Eggs. Contrary to popular belief, the dietary cholesterol found in many foods – such as eggs – actually has little effect on blood cholesterol levels. In fact, emerging research suggests that eggs may actually help to raise “good” HDL cholesterol levels. However, as is the case with most foods, it is best to practice moderation; the American Heart Association (AHA) suggests limiting eggs to an average of one per day.

Tip: Mix hard-boiled eggs with mashed avocado for a mayo-free egg salad or scramble eggs with leftover vegetables for a veggie-filled omelet.

The Bottom Line

When combined with regular exercise, a heart-healthy diet can help to lower cholesterol levels, control blood pressure, regulate blood sugar, and maintain a healthy weight. In general, aim to include a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins with meals and snacks to keep your heart strong and prevent food boredom. Finally, keep in mind that diet and exercise are just two factors that influence cardiovascular health; getting enough sleep, properly managing stress, and abstaining from smoking also play a critical role in reducing the risk for heart disease.