Eat your heart out: Food for better heart health


In this article: 

  • A heart-healthy diet is foundational to lowering your risk of heart disease and events like heart attacks and stroke. The foods you eat can help lower blood pressure, cholesterol and other risk factors while providing numerous other benefits. 

  • The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet encourages healthy food sources like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats and proteins while limiting red meat, salt and sugars.  

  • Foods like dark chocolate, avocados, whole grains and nuts can help lower your bad (LDL) cholesterol while increasing your good (HDL) cholesterol.  

If you or a loved one are experiencing chest discomfort, shortness of breath, pain or any other signs of distress, please call 911. Talk to your doctor before making any major changes to your lifestyle, medications or activity levels. 

You are what you eat, and eating a healthy diet can help power strong, fit hearts for you and your loved ones. A heart-healthy diet has numerous benefits, including: 

  • Helping you to achieve and maintain a healthy weight 

  • Improving blood pressure 

  • Increasing energy 

  • Improving focus and concentration 

  • Lowering blood sugar 

  • Lowering cholesterol 

  • Preventing heart disease and stroke 

  • Reducing risk of depression 

  • Reducing unhealthy cravings 

“A heart-healthy diet is the foundation for all of our patients to reduce their risk for cardiovascular diseases and events like stroke and heart attacks. Certain foods can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure,” says Providence cardiologist Jason S. Bensch, M.D. “These foods can be an important addition to a heart-healthy diet.” 

Ready to eat your heart out? Here’s how. 

Incorporating the DASH diet 

When it comes to a heart-healthy eating framework, many providers recommend the DASH diet. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. This diet emphasizes healthy food sources while limiting red meat, sodium (salt), sweets, added sugars and sugary beverages.  

These healthy food sources include a balance of carbohydrates, proteins and (healthy) fats. When it comes to energy-supplying carbohydrates, Dr. Bensch recommends sticking to whole-grain breads and pastas, brown rice, barley, oats, cereals and quinoa. These foods are also great sources of fiber. Protein, which helps to build strong muscles, comes in many forms, but healthy sources include eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, lean meat, fish, nuts and beans. Finally, fats, which your body needs to help absorb some vitamins, include avocados, fish, nuts and many plant-based oils. Incorporating monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids can help lower high cholesterol. 

What are the best ways to incorporate carbohydrates, proteins and fats into your diet? The American Heart Association recommends: 

  • Fruits and vegetables (4.5 cups per day or more): These foods are high in fiber, low in fat and full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Incorporate colorful fruits and veggies, including leafy greens. 

  • Oily fish (2, 2.5-oz servings per week): Many fish are rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which can reduce inflammation and lower the risk of heart disease, cancer and arthritis. 

  • Whole grains (3, 1-oz servings per day): These grains are high in fiber and linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and other health problems. 

  • Sodium (less than 1,500 mg per day): A low-sodium diet can help lower blood pressure. 

  • Added sugars (no more than 25 g per day for women or 36 g per day for men): Excess sugar increases your risk of developing heart disease and high blood pressure. 

  • Nuts, legumes and seeds (4 servings per week): These foods are good sources of protein, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals. 

  • Processed meats (no more than 2 servings per week): These products are associated with an increased risk of many illnesses including high blood pressure, heart disease, and bowel and stomach cancer.  

  • Saturated fat (less than 7% of your daily caloric intake): Eating too much saturated fat can raise your cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. Look out for fats that are solid at room temperature such as butter, lard, coconut oil and palm oil, as well as red meat and chicken with skin. 

Foods that help lower your cholesterol 

What you eat directly impacts your cholesterol — and maintaining healthy cholesterol numbers is an important piece of your overall heart health. Good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol are both found in many of the foods we eat every day. High LDL cholesterol can lead to atherosclerosis (plaque buildup) on the walls of your blood vessels. Eventually, these vessels narrow, limiting blood flow, which may lead to a heart attack or stroke.  

“Atherosclerosis increases your risk of heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease, and maintaining healthy levels of LDL-cholesterol is one of the best ways to reduce your risk over time,” says Dr. Bensch. 

The first step in lowering your cholesterol is reducing your dietary cholesterol by eating less meat, reducing saturated fats and limiting fats from dairy products. Consider eating plant-based proteins like beans, lentils or other legumes, avoiding processed meats and fast food, and sticking to low-fat dairy. Taking these actions can help you cut down on LDL cholesterol.  

However, cutting back on LDLs is just one part of eating to lower cholesterol. You can support your heart health by incorporating foods that can raise your HDL cholesterol or that actively lower your LDL cholesterol. Here are some tasty foods you can think about adding to your plate: 

  • Avocados 

  • Dark chocolate 

  • Fatty fish 

  • Nuts 

  • Olive and canola oils 

  • Raspberries 

  • Tea 

  • Whole grains and other high-fiber foods 

How to make a heart-healthy diet part of your routine 

There is more to maintaining a heart-healthy diet than eating the right foods for your heart. Here are some other things to consider that can help you stay on track: 

  • Cook at home: Use mealtimes to learn new cooking skills and eat meals with family or friends. 

  • Eat for the planet: Incorporate plant-based meals and snacks, buy fresh foods with reduced packaging, and shop locally and in-season. 

  • Eat the rainbow: Consume a variety of foods from all food groups. And don’t forget colorful fruits and veggies! 

  • Forage for flavor: Herbs are a great way to add flavor to food without using salt — and they can bring surprising health benefits.  

  • Maintain a budget: Plan meals and snacks ahead of time to avoid impulses, shop sales and learn about community resources to support healthy habits. 

  • Prepare mindfully: Keep a stock of heart-healthy recipes on hand, modify recipes to cut down on salt and saturated fats like butter, and consider steaming, baking or grilling foods instead of frying. 

  • Seek help from a registered or licensed dietitian: If you need more help finding and sticking to a heart-healthy diet, a clinical dietician can help you achieve your goals. 

Be sure to consult your physician prior to making any significant changes to your diet. 

Schedule an appointment today 

Keep your heart healthy with regular wellness visits and screenings. Find a physician or schedule an appointment today at

Related resources 

Heart Matters on Apple Podcasts 

8 ways to start lowering your blood pressure today 

How food can become your “fuel for the future” 

Eating healthier: Be kind to yourself when making diet changes 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Heart & Vascular Team is committed to bringing you many years of expertise and experience to help you understand how to prevent, treat and recover from cardiovascular diseases and conditions. From tips to eating better to exercise and everything in between, our clinical experts know how to help you help your heart.

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