Diet and Nutrition

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: March 2024

One of the best ways to support your heart is through a well-balanced diet. What you eat can greatly affect your cardiovascular health, either positively or negatively.1

For people with cardiovascular disease (CVD), making changes to diet and nutrition can play a big role in managing their condition and improving their overall heart health. Ways that dietary changes can benefit those with CVD include:1

  • Lowering “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels
  • Managing blood pressure
  • Helping with weight management
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Controlling blood sugar

Here are some key diet and nutrition habits to follow for those who have CVD – or for anyone who wants to improve their heart health!

Choose lean meat and low-fat protein

Proteins are essential for your body to function well. Not all proteins are created equal. To keep your heart healthy, opt for lean sources of protein. Excellent sources of lean protein include:1-3

  • Fish like salmon, tuna, and trout, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids (known to reduce the risk of heart disease)
  • Eggs
  • Skinless poultry
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Tofu

Avoid or limit red meat, particularly processed meats like sausages and bacon. These processed meats are high in saturated fats that can clog arteries and lead to plaque buildup and high LDL cholesterol.1,2

Embrace heart-healthy fats

Fats get a bad reputation, but not all fats are bad. In fact, our bodies need healthy fats to perform various functions. Heart-healthy fats are unsaturated fats. These fats help lower “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels and increase “good” (HDL) cholesterol. Healthy fats can be found in:1,2

  • Olive oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • Cholesterol-lowering margarine (Smart Balance, Promise Activ)
  • Avocados
  • Nuts and seeds

On the other hand, saturated and trans fats can contribute to plaque buildup in the arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease. Limit these fats, which are found in:1,2

  • Butter
  • Lard
  • Coconut oil
  • Full-fat dairy
  • Fatty cuts of meats
  • Processed, packaged, and fried foods

Prioritize whole grains

Whole grains are a rich source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals that play an important role in heart health. Foods high in soluble fiber, like oats, barley, fruits, and vegetables, can help lower LDL cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber acts as a sponge, absorbing cholesterol and aiding its elimination from the body.1-3

The fiber in whole grains helps lower cholesterol levels and maintains healthy blood pressure. Choose whole grains like:1-3

  • Brown rice
  • Barley
  • Oatmeal
  • Quinoa
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Whole grain pasta

Processed and refined grains lack the essential nutrients found in whole grains and can contribute to weight gain. So, avoid refined grains such as:1-3

  • White bread
  • White rice
  • White pasta
  • White flour
  • Sugary cereals
  • Cornbread
  • Muffins
  • Biscuits
  • Packaged foods like crackers, buttery popcorn, etc.

Reduce salt intake

Too much salt in your diet can lead to high blood pressure, increasing your risk of CVD. By lowering your salt intake, you can help lower your blood pressure.1,2

Choose fresh, whole foods over processed ones, as many processed foods are loaded with hidden salts. To reduce salt intake:1,2

  • Avoid packaged, processed, canned, and frozen foods that have a lot of sodium
  • Choose reduced-salt versions of condiments, soups, and beans
  • Flavor your meals with herbs, spices, and other salt alternatives
  • Limit the use of table salt

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), healthy adults should have no more than 2,300 mg of salt each day. That equals about 1 teaspoon. But the AHA also states that most adults ideally should have no more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day.2

Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian to understand how much sodium is right for you.2

Keep sugar in check

Too much sugar can lead to health problems like obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. All of these are risk factors for CVD. Avoid foods with refined sugars and high-fructose corn syrup, which are commonly found in:1,3,4

  • Processed and packaged foods
  • Candies
  • Sugary beverages like sodas and sweet tea
  • Baked goods like brownies, cookies, cakes, and pies

Instead, focus on sugars naturally found in whole foods like fruits, which provide essential nutrients and fiber. Refined sugars are added to all sorts of packaged foods, so be sure to read food labels carefully. These added sugars are often listed in the ingredients label as corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, or fructose.1,4

Limit alcohol

If you drink alcohol and have CVD or risk factors for CVD, talk with your doctor. They may recommend that you drastically cut back or avoid alcohol altogether.1,5

This is because alcohol can raise blood pressure, cause irregular heart rhythms, and increase triglyceride levels. All of these raise your risk of heart complications. Not only that, but alcohol contains empty calories and added sugars that can lead to weight gain.1,5

Alcohol can also interfere with certain medicines you may be taking for your CVD. Again, talk with your doctor about whether drinking alcohol in moderation is right for you.5

Be mindful of portion size

Portion size is a very important factor in maintaining a healthy weight. You can be eating healthy foods, but if your portion sizes are too large even healthy foods can lead to unhealthy weight gain. Be mindful of portion sizes to prevent overeating and unnecessary calorie intake.1,2

Here are some tips for healthy portion control:2

  • Drink a full glass of water before each meal.
  • Use smaller plates or bowls to keep your servings smaller.
  • Tune in to your hunger and fullness cues, and stop eating when you are full.
  • Resist the temptation to mindlessly eat or snack when you are not truly hungry.
  • Eat less high-calorie foods, and eat more low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods like whole fruits and vegetables.

MyPlate Plan offers helpful tools and information on portion control, serving sizes, and more.

Reach out for support

It can be hard to make certain diet changes. Try not to make sweeping changes overnight. Trying to completely overhaul your diet all at once can lead to burnout and frustration. Instead, start slow and build from there. That could mean:6

  • Drinking more water so you stay more hydrated and less apt to mindlessly snack
  • Swapping out beef for a lean protein like chicken
  • Adding more vegetables to each meal boosts fiber and nutrient intake and helps you feel full longer

Consider working with a nutritionist or registered dietitian. These professionals can be incredibly helpful in making a healthy, sustainable meal plan that meets your personal health needs and goals.

These dietary changes should be made in combination with medical treatment and other healthy lifestyle habits like getting enough sleep and managing stress. Together, these methods can improve the quality of life for people with CVD.

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