What Is a Heart-Healthy Diet?

A heart-healthy diet limits saturated fat, trans fat and dietary cholesterol. Find out what foods to add to your routine with these tips.
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A heart-healthy diet is one of the best weapons to help fight heart disease. The diet promotes selecting foods from a variety of food groups, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein, nuts, legumes and vegetable-based oils. Foods to limit include those that are high in calories but low in nutrients, like cakes, doughnuts and sugary beverages. Foods with saturated fat, trans fat and a large amount of sodium should also be eaten sparingly.

Nutrients to Limit

Saturated and trans fat

According to the American Heart Association, saturated fats should be limited and replaced with better fats, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are found in foods like olive oil and avocados, while polyunsaturated are found in sunflower seeds and most vegetable oils. If you need to lower your blood cholesterol, then saturated fat should account for no more than 5 to 6 percent of total calories. If you are eating 2,000 calories per day, that’s 13 grams of saturated fat. Saturated fat is most abundantly found in fatty cuts of meat and in the skin on poultry. Using leaner varieties of these foods and eating less by limiting your servings to approximately 6 ounces daily will help limit the amount of saturated fat you consume.

Trans fats are found in foods made with hydrogenated oils. They show up in commercially baked goods, processed snack foods, stick margarine, shortening and many fried foods. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have called for food companies to cut trans fat out of food products in the next few years. Meanwhile, read food labels carefully and avoid foods that contain hydrogenated fat or partially hydrogenated oil.


Sodium is another nutrient that should be limited. According to the American Heart Association, to lower blood pressure, you should be taking in no more than 2,400 milligrams of sodium per day. If you want to lower blood pressure even more, cut back to 1,500 milligrams. Most added salt is consumed when dining out or from processed food. This means eating out less often and choosing processed foods with less sodium (like low-sodium soy sauce).

Added sugar and alcohol

The American Heart Association also recommends cutting back on added sugar and alcohol. They recommend women eat no more than 100 calories per day, or 6 teaspoons, of added sugar. Men should limit added sugar to no more than 150 calories per day, or 9 teaspoons. Too much alcohol can also contribute to heart disease. It’s recommended than men consume no more than two drinks per day and that women consume no more than one drink per day. One drink is defined as 5 fluid ounces of wine, 12 fluid ounces of beer, or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof liquor like rum or vodka.

What About Cholesterol?

In the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the recommendations for daily amounts of cholesterol were removed, because the science behind them was very poor. This doesn’t mean you can consume loads of foods that are high in cholesterol, though. Foods that are high in cholesterol tend to also be high in saturated fat, which should be limited.

Foods to Include

Whole grains

Whole grains like 100 percent whole-wheat bread, oatmeal and brown rice contain protein, fiber and other nutrients that are lost during the refining process. Whole grains have also been shown to help prevent chronic diseases like heart disease. Soluble fiber, found in oats, has been shown to help lower LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol. When following a heart-healthy diet, choose whole grains whenever possible, making at least half your daily grains whole.

Fatty fish

The American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish containing Omega-3 fats at least twice a week. These fish include salmon, tuna, trout and herring.

There really isn't a downside to consuming a heart-healthy diet. The foods can all be part of an overall healthy eating plan. If you have any questions about following a heart-healthy diet, consult your medical doctor or a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). You can find a RDN in your area on the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics website www.eatright.org, and many RDNs now take insurance.

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