Things to eat for a healthy heart


February 2020

By: Katy Ellefson, RD, LD, CD
Community Health Specialist and Outpatient Dietitian
Amery Hospital & Clinic

Eating healthy does more than help to keep you in shape. It can have a positive impact on your entire body. Did you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.? That makes a good diet important to living an active and long life. Want to improve your health? Start by eating heart-friendly food!

As a dietitian at Amery Hospital & Clinic, I help patients meet their nutrition goals, which can vary widely from person to person. If you’re looking to maintain or improve your heart health or overall general health, there are many tips below that research has shown will help. Keep in mind that most people do best with one to two small, achievable goals at a time. Changing habits, especially dietary habits, is tough and takes time. Be gracious with yourself as you work to create new, lasting changes for a healthier lifestyle.

When I reflect on my own journey of health, the way I cook and the foods I love have changed gradually over the past decade with a lot of experimenting to find what works for me, my goals, and values. Having been born and raised in Polk County, I understand that meat, potatoes, bread and butter, and a large glass of milk are staples at the dinner table. Some of the eating tips and points below may seem completely foreign and unrealistic, but approaching dietary changes with curiosity, an open mind, and a sense of adventure can help take the pressure off and keeps the process exciting!

The basics: Foods to eat for a healthy heart

Eating a diet that is primarily plant-based with minimally-processed food is the best way to keep your heart healthy. Food to include every day include vegetables, fruits, beans and other legumes, whole grains, olive oil and nuts. These foods taste great and research has consistently proven them healthy. In fact, a large study showed the best results in reducing heart disease is when people followed a Mediterranean diet and also added olive oil and walnuts to their diet.

To get started, try adding vegetables to dishes you already love to prepare and eat at home. Find heart-healthy recipes on the PowerUp website.

Why does what you eat matter?

Most people want to live a long, healthy life and have good quality of life. What we choose to eat has a major impact on our quality of life, in terms of our health and the health of our local and global environment.

Eating healthy can help you maintain good blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It can also lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels if they are high, which can help prevent heart disease.

What foods should you avoid for a healthy heart?

  • Tobacco: I know it’s not technically a food, but it’s so important I had to list it. Avoiding tobacco is heart-health goal number one.
  • Partially hydrogenated oils (trans-fats): It’s become a lot easier to avoid trans-fat with the recent FDA ban. But until the final distribution cut-off date of January 2021, it’s still good to keep an eye out for foods that hide trans-fats, such as donuts, store-bought cakes or cookies and margarine.
  • Limit refined carbohydrates: These include refined grains like white bread, many packaged snacks, crackers, cereals, and also sugary beverages and sweet desserts.
  • Other unhealthy fats: Limit saturated fats, such as butter, margarine, cream cheese, lard and deep-fried foods. Aim to include more unsaturated fats, like olive or canola oil, nuts and seeds, avocados, and olives.

What’s all the hype around the Mediterranean diet?

Research supports the use of the Mediterranean diet as a healthy eating pattern for the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, increasing lifespan, and healthy aging. The Mediterranean way of eating is primarily plant-based. It is rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and legumes, olive oil, and nuts. Animal proteins, such as poultry, eggs, and dairy are eaten in small quantities, with fish and seafood being the preferred animal protein. Red meat is limited to a few times per month. The Mediterranean diet pattern is well studied and has great published outcomes. Simply put, it’s great for your heart.

But it’s not just about food. Remember that exercise and stress reduction are an important part of heart health. A heart-healthy diet combined with lifestyle changes like regular exercise have been associated with as much as a 75 percent reduction in the risk of coronary artery disease.

Eating for heart-health means reading nutrition labels

They’re not always fun to read, but understanding what’s on a nutrition label will help you make better food choices. You’ll be more in-control of your health when you know what to look for.

How to read a nutrition label:Start here. The nutrients listed on the label are based on one serving size.
  1. Learn how much energy is in one serving of this food.
  2. Limit foods with high amounts of the items in red. Look for fewer than 2 g of saturated fat, less than 250 mg of sodium, and little to no sugar.
  3. Eat foods with more of the items in green.
  4. Read the ingredients. Does this food contain more than five ingredients? Does it contain unhealthy saturated fats like butter?

Heart-healthy eating tips

If you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure or cholesterol, you’ll need to eat carefully. The same is true if you have heart disease. Use a heart-healthy food list when you grocery shop. Learn how to read nutrition labels, so you can understand what’s in the food you’re eating.

Here are a couple of other tips:
  • Try oatmeal or whole grains. Skip donuts or pastries.
  • Make a lunchtime trip to the salad bar and top with beans or nuts, instead of eating hot dogs or deli meat.
  • Try fish or poultry without skin instead of steak or red meat.
  • Eat unsalted nuts instead of chips, fries or buttered popcorn.
  • Drink water and other calorie-free beverages. Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages.

Heart-healthy numbers to keep in mind:
  • Dietary fiber: Eat 25-30 grams (g) of dietary fiber each day. Choosing whole grains, fruits and veggies will help you get there!
  • Sugar: Limit the amount of added sugar you eat or drink. Fruit doesn’t count. Eat 25 grams (g) or less of added sugar each day.
  • Salt (sodium): Limit to 1500-2000 milligrams (mg) each day. Choose fresh foods whenever possible – they’re naturally low in salt! Avoid processed foods.

Get prepared with a heart-healthy grocery list

Don’t go to the grocery store unprepared! Download a heart-healthy grocery list at

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