You can make lifestyle changes that improve your heart health, including eating a diet filled with heart healthy foods
As a starting point, your heart healthy foods list should include fatty fish that provide omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), whole grains, leafy greens, extra-virgin olive oil, berries, nuts, seeds
Foods that are harmful for the heart include saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, added sugars
Did you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death for people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States? In fact, one person dies every 36 seconds in the U.S. from cardiovascular disease.1
Fortunately, you can make lifestyle changes that improve your heart health, including not smoking, eating a diet filled with heart healthy foods, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, managing blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and controlling high blood pressure.
Foods That Are Good for Your Heart
When it comes to eating a nutritious diet, it might help to have a go-to heart healthy foods list that can help you make better choices. Problem solved! Whether you’re trying to incorporate good-for-you foods into your meal plan, ordering take-out, or doing your weekly grocery shopping, here's a quick run-down of foods that are good for your heart as well as a few that are harmful for the heart.
Fatty Fish and Fish Oil
When it comes to heart healthy foods, fatty fish should be at the top of your list. The American Heart Association suggests eating two servings of fatty fish per week to get the recommended amount of Omega-3 fatty acids.2 Why? Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and can help support heart health.3, † Fatty fish include albacore tuna, herring, lake trout, mackerel, salmon, and sardines. Because different types of fish contain variable amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids, be sure to eat a variety of fish. Not a fan of eating fish? Consider taking a supplement such as a fish oil supplement or krill oil supplement.
Part of a heart healthy diet should include eating a variety of whole grains such as barley, brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur, farro, millet, oats, quinoa, rye, spelt, and whole wheat. As a good source of soluble fiber, whole grains keep fats from building up in the body (potentially causing artery-clogging plaque) and slightly decrease cholesterol production in the liver.4 Whole grains are linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and other health problems.5 The recently updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that at least half of all the grains you eat should be whole grains.6
Another group of food good for heart health includes leafy green vegetables such as collard greens, kale, romaine lettuce, and spinach. Rich in a variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, leafy greens are full of dietary nitrates, which studies have shown to lower blood pressure, decrease arterial stiffness and improve cell function in blood vessels.7
When you make heart healthy meals, you’ll want to reach for extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) whether you’re cooking a stir fry or preparing a salad dressing. Loaded with monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants, EVOO can help decrease “bad” LDL cholesterol and prevent cell damage caused by free radicals.4
When it comes to fruits good for the heart, choose colorful berries, including blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries. Rich in Vitamin C, folate, manganese, potassium, and soluble fiber, berries are also bursting with phytonutrients. Produced by plants, phytonutrients are linked to promoting health and possibly protecting against heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and other chronic health conditions.8
Nutrient-dense, fiber-rich, and protein-packed, nuts make great heart healthy snacks. Plus, they’re easy to sprinkle on salads, toss into stir-fries, or even add (as nut butters) into smoothies. Try almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, and pistachios. Walnuts, in particular, contain a high amount of Omega-3 fatty acids, the same heart-healthy fat found in oily fish.9
Another addition to your heart healthy diet plan? Seeds, like pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds. In particular, flaxseeds and chia seeds provide good sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)—the unsaturated fatty acids that convert to Omega-3s (EPA and DHA) typically found in fatty fish.10 Like nuts, you can use seeds to top off salads and entrees, bake into breads, or stir into desserts and smoothies.
Foods Bad For The Heart
Now that you know the best foods for heart health, what about foods that are harmful for the heart? Are there foods to avoid if you’re concerned about heart health? The following “foods” are basically ingredients you’ll find in other foods—namely, packaged, processed, convenience foods. Here’s a list of foods bad for the heart, from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services:11
Saturated fats. Often found in bacon, baked goods, fried chicken, hamburgers, ice cream, pizza
Trans fats. Primarily found in commercially manufactured foods (think cookies, chips, fried foods, and margarine)
Cholesterol. Found in foods made from animals (think bacon, cheese, eggs, ice cream, and whole milk)
Sodium. Found in salt, but most commonly found in breads, cheese, condiments (i.e., ketchup and mustard), hot dogs, lunch meats, and pizza
Added sugars. Found in fruit and dairy products, which naturally contain sugar. Avoid or limit foods that contain added sugars, such as cake, candy, ice cream, sodas, and sports drinks. Note: sugars often go by many different names, including corn syrup, honey, molasses, and ingredients ending in -ose (like lactose and dextrose)
The best advice? Check nutrition labels to see what’s actually in the foods you buy. Steer clear of bad-for-you foods and opt for healthy foods instead.
The Bottom Line
If you’re hoping to improve your cardiovascular health, you can set a good foundation by eating heart healthy foods. The above list is not all encompassing, but it’s a great starting point! If you’re concerned about not getting adequate amounts of key heart-healthy nutrients, talk to your doctor and ask about supplements to support heart health such as Nature Made’s Fish Oil, Krill Oil, Triple Omega, and Flaxseed Oil.†
Continue to check back on the Nature Made blog for the latest science-backed articles to help you take ownership of your health.
Lisa Beach is a seasoned journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Eating Well, Parents, AARP’s Disrupt Aging, Optimum Wellness, and dozens more. She also writes for a variety of health/wellness-focused brands. Check out her writer’s website at www.LisaBeachWrites.com.
Lynn is a Registered Dietitian (R.D.) and is a member of the Medical and Scientific Communications team at Pharmavite. She has over 20 years of experience in integrative and functional nutrition and has given lectures to health professionals and consumers on nutrition, dietary supplements and related health issues. Lynn frequently conducts employee trainings on various nutrition topics in addition to educating retail partners on vitamins, minerals and supplements. Lynn has previous clinical dietitian expertise in both acute and long-term care, as well as nutrition counseling for weight management, diabetes, and sports nutrition. Lynn earned a bachelor’s of science in Nutrition with a minor in Kinesiology/Exercise Science from The Pennsylvania State University. She earned a M.S. degree in Human Nutrition from Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Lynn is an active member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Sports Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutritionists, Dietitians in Functional Medicine, and holds a certification in Integrative and Functional Nutrition through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.