Eating for Heart Health

Overview

Healthful eating can reduce your risk for:

  • Heart disease 
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke

Eating well can also help you:

  • Lose weight (if needed) and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Avoid other health problems, such as diabetes and some cancers.

A vital element of heart-healthy eating is to eat mostly plants and plant-based foods. This includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Reduce your use of animal-based foods. Avoid foods with unhealthy fats, or added salt or sugar. 

Learning to eat for heart health takes some work. You may need to try new ways of shopping and cooking. Reading labels and knowing what to buy or avoid is important. 

If you dine out, you may need to change how you order. Choose baked, roasted, or steamed foods instead of fried foods, for example.

We can help with support and resources as you make heart-healthy changes.

Keys to Heart-Healthy Eating

Your first important step to heart-healthy eating is deciding to change how and what you eat. 

You may have heard of heart-healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean diet or plant-based eating. These eating plans share some key recommendations:

  • Eat more whole (unprocessed) plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and peas (legumes).
  • Limit foods from animal sources, such as meat and dairy.
  • Limit fats, and choose healthy fats, such as olive oil and nuts.
  • Avoid foods high in fat, salt, or sugar, and sweetened drinks, such as sodas.
  • Limit fruit juice and alcoholic beverages.

It’s fine to ease into eating more plant-based foods. For example, start by making healthy choices for one daily meal, such as breakfast.

Explore your supermarket’s produce section or better yet, your local farmers’ market for fresh produce. Frozen vegetables and fruits are also good choices.

If you choose canned fruits and vegetables, read the labels:

  • Be sure they don’t contain added sodium (salt) or sugar. This is different than the natural sugar (fructose) in fruit.

  • Check for “dietary fiber” content. Good fiber sources will be “10 percent of daily value” (or higher).

Heart-Healthy Eating Plan

Eat these foods to help improve your heart health:

  • Colorful fruits and vegetables. Have both in every meal.
  • Whole grains such as oatmeal, brown rice, whole-wheat bread, corn tortillas. Have one or more with most meals. 
  • Beans, peas, or lentils, several times a week.
  • Fish, lean meat, or skinless poultry, in small portions.
  • Nonfat or low-fat milk and yogurt, or unsweetened plant milk, such as soy or almond.
  • Cheese, in small amounts. 
  • Nuts and seeds, daily in small amounts.
  • Healthy oils, such as olive and canola oil, daily in small amounts. 

Your plate will look like this:

  • 3/4 filled with whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and plant protein (beans, nuts, tofu). 
  • 1/4 filled with fish, meat, or low-fat dairy foods.

Plant-based foods naturally provide heart-healthy fiber. If you need to add fiber, or your doctor recommends doing so, follow these steps:

  • Start with 1 teaspoon of bran per meal. 
  • Increase slowly to 2 to 4 tablespoons of bran per day. Adding too much too soon may make you feel bloated or have gas.
  • Drink 6 to 8 cups of fluid daily (unless your doctor has told you not to). 

A high-fiber diet isn’t good for people with specific medical conditions. If you have problems with fiber, talk with your doctor about alternatives.

Plant-Based Foods Help Your Heart

Plant-based foods are good for you because they:

  • Are high in vitamins and nutrients that build your immune system and support normal body processes.
  • Contain phytochemicals that protect your body’s cells from damage that can cause health problems.

Also, plant foods are natural sources of fiber, which helps you:

  • Feel full, so you’re less likely to overeat.
  • Lower your cholesterol and control blood sugar.

Fiber is the part of plant foods that our bodies can't absorb or digest. It’s also called roughage or bulk. You need plenty of both insoluble and soluble fiber. 

Insoluble fiber is in fruits, grains, and vegetables. This type of fiber:

  • Stays intact as it passes through your digestive system, which helps keep your bowel movements regular.
  • Acts like a brush to keep your colon (large intestine) cleaned out and healthy.

Soluble fiber is in fruit, some vegetables, legumes, oats, and barley. It helps control blood sugar and reduce cholesterol.

Try these tips to be sure you get enough fiber:

  • Eat the peels, skins, and seeds of fruits and vegetables when appropriate.

  • Start your day with a high-fiber cereal such as oatmeal or bran cereal.

  • Eat 1 to 2 tablespoons of seeds daily. Toss sunflower or pumpkin seeds on salad, or add chia seeds to yogurt or ground flaxseed to oatmeal. 

Fats and Heart Health

We need small amounts of “good” fats to be healthy. Some experts say that people can get enough by eating plant foods, since they contain some fat.

Some studies show that small amounts of specific “good” fats provide extra health benefits. Several studies compared the Mediterranean diet with a conventional low-fat diet.

People on the Mediterranean diet had lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other serious illnesses. For example, one study found that people on the Mediterranean diet were 72 percent less likely to die of heart disease or have a heart attack, than people on the low-fat diet.

The best sources of “good” fats are:

  • Olive oil and canola oil.
  • Avocados, peanuts, and almonds. Other nuts and seeds are also beneficial.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids in salmon and trout. Eat up to 12 ounces a week.
  • Walnuts, chia and flax seeds, and soy are plant-based sources of omega-3s.

Other vegetable oils are also fine, though not as highly beneficial. 

Omega-3 supplements and other products are useful for some people. Talk with your care team about your health and heart risks before using supplements. 

Fats to Avoid

It’s important to avoid specific types of fats that can raise your risk for heart problems. These fats can increase:

  • Cholesterol levels in the blood
  • Inflammation levels in the body

Both factors increase your risk of artery plaque buildup. If your arteries become narrow or blocked (coronary artery disease), you’re more likely to have a heart attack, stroke, or other health problems. 

Limit or avoid foods that include these fats:

Saturated fats
  • Pastries, pies, and bakery items
  • Palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil
  • Heavily marbled meats
  • Meats high in fat, such as sausage, cold cuts, hot dogs, bacon
  • Chicken fat and skin
  • Butter and dairy products with whole milk, such as cheese, cream, whole milk, and ice cream
  • Chips
  • Cookies, pastries
  • Fried foods
  • Fast food
  • Crackers
  • Stick margarine
  • Regular shortening
Read the ingredient labels on packaged foods to check whether they contain saturated or trans fats.

Salt and Sodium

Most people get too much salt from table salt and sodium in foods and seasoning. This can cause your body to:

  • Hold on to too much fluid.
  • Work harder to get rid of the extra fluid.
  • Develop high blood pressure. 

Limit your sodium to about 2,300 mg a day. Some heart patients need to reduce their sodium intake further.

Try these tips:

  • Don’t add salt at the table.
  • Flavor with seasonings other than salt when cooking. 
  • Skip cured, smoked, or pickled foods, which are usually high-sodium.
  • Cut back on processed and packaged foods. Soups and seasoning packets are high-sodium.
  • Skip high-salt snacks, fast foods, and most restaurant foods. 

Check food labels for the words sodium-free, or low or reduced sodium. Canned foods with these labels are fine. Avoid other canned foods, because many are high-sodium. 

Some medicines contain sodium. Check the labels. Ask us or your pharmacist if you’re unsure.


If you have an emergency medical condition, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital. An emergency medical condition is any of the following:
(1) a medical condition that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity (including severe pain) such that you could reasonably expect the absence of immediate medical attention to result in serious jeopardy to your health or body functions or organs; (2) active labor when there isn't enough time for safe transfer to a Plan hospital (or designated hospital) before delivery, or if transfer poses a threat to your (or your unborn child's) health and safety, or (3) a mental disorder that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity such that either you are an immediate danger to yourself or others, or you are not immediately able to provide for, or use, food, shelter, or clothing, due to the mental disorder.

This information is not intended to diagnose health problems or to take the place of specific medical advice or care you receive from your physician or other health care professional. If you have persistent health problems, or if you have additional questions, please consult with your doctor. If you have questions or need more information about your medication, please speak to your pharmacist. Kaiser Permanente does not endorse the medications or products mentioned. Any trade names listed are for easy identification only.