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 behind one in four deaths 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 cardiologist at Methodist Hospital, I research how diet relates to cardiovascular health and well-being. Here are some of the tips I share with people recovering from a heart condition, or working to lower their blood pressure or cholesterol.

The basics: Foods to eat for a healthy heart

Fresh food and minimally-processed food are the best things to keep your heart healthy. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains should be in each of your meals. Eat foods with monounsaturated oils (olives and nuts), too. These foods taste great and research has proven them healthy. In fact, a recent study on the Mediterranean diet showed the best results for people who added olive oil and walnuts to their diet.

To get started, try new fruit and vegetable dishes prepared at home. Find heart-healthy recipes on the PowerUp website.

Why does what you eat matter?

The whole cardiovascular system benefits from the energy in foods you eat. So it’s important to eat well. Many processed foods contain things your body doesn’t need. And your body will try to process or store those things, plus the things it doesn’t recognize. The inflammation and changes caused by making the body deal with this unnecessary stuff appear to contribute to heart disease risk.

Eating healthy can help you lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels. It 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 it’s still good to keep an eye out for foods that hide trans-fats. Avoid donuts, breakfast sandwiches, margarine, and store-bought cakes or cookies.
  • Other unhealthy oils: Replace unhealthy oils – like safflower oil, margarine and deep-fried foods – with olive oil. For snacks, stay away from chips, fries or buttered popcorn. Try unsalted nuts instead.

What’s all the hype around the Mediterranean diet?

In my research, I’ve seen better heart health and a longer life expectancy for people who eat a Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean way of eating favors olive oil, nuts, whole grains and vegetables. Fish and poultry are favored over red meats. The Mediterranean diet 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 be healthier. You’ll be more in-control of your health and able to choose healthy foods!

How to read a nutrition label:

  1. Start here. The nutrients listed on the label are based on one serving size.
  2. Learn how much energy is in one serving of this food.
  3. 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.
  4. Eat foods with more of the items in green.
  5. Read the ingredients. Does this food contain more than five ingredients? Does it contain unhealthy fats like sunflower oil?
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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 other tips:

  • Try oatmeal or whole grains. Skip donuts or pastries.
  • Make a lunchtime trip to the salad bar, 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.
  • Check out our list of helpful diet tips for lowering your blood pressure naturally.

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.

Download grocery store guide