The Worst & Best Things to Eat for Your Heart, According to a Dietitian
Pictured recipe: Roasted Salmon with Spicy Cranberry Relish
What you eat and what you don't eat plays a pretty large role in your heart health. Of course, genetics and other lifestyle factors are important too. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide—and in the U.S. it accounts for about 1 of every 3 deaths. Deaths from heart disease have been declining over the past four decades, but the decline has stalled in the last few years.
Here we outline what you should eat more of and what you should be limiting for your heart health.
The Worst Foods for Your Heart
Americans on average take in 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day. That's a third more than the dietary guidelines daily recommended limit of 2,300 mg (about 1 teaspoon salt) and more than double the 1,500 mg suggestion for adults age 51 and older and for anyone who is salt-sensitive (e.g., people who are African-American, those with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease)—which is about half the U.S. population. (The American Heart Association's recommendations differ, though: they advise everyone to cap their sodium at 1,500 mg each day.)
Cutting your sodium intake can help lower high blood pressure, and also reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. Consuming too much sodium has also been linked with kidney stones, gastric cancer, osteoporosis, and asthma.
One of the easiest ways to cut back on your salt intake is to not add it if you can't taste it. In other words, don't add salt to boiling water for pasta or potatoes, but add it to a dish at the end of cooking, when its impact will be strongest.
Another way to slash your sodium intake is to replace sodium-laden processed foods with fresh foods. Other tricks: look for "low sodium" or "no-salt-added" labels on packaged foods, from tuna to crackers to canned beans. And be sure you're not getting tricked by these sneaky sources of sodium.
2. Saturated Fat
Butter. Full-fat sour cream. Regular mayonnaise. These foods—as well as fatty cuts of meats—are high in saturated fats. And although how much you need to limit fat seems to have relaxed ever-so-slightly in more recent years, and conflicting research has been published on the association between eating saturated fat and risk of heart disease, if you have high cholesterol, you should still be cautious about how much saturated fat you eat. That's because saturated fat elevates "bad" LDL cholesterol, which leads to plaque buildup in arteries. The American Heart Association says to limit saturated fats to 5 to 6 percent of your total calories if you have high LDL cholesterol. Everyone else should cap their saturated fat at 10 percent of your daily calories. So, for example, if you're eating a 2,000-calorie diet, that's 11 to 13 grams a day, or 22 grams, respectively.
3. Added Sugars
Most of us eat too much added sugar—and if we make that a regular habit, it's bad news for our hearts—and also our overall health. Sugar can stoke inflammation in your body, which can raise your risk for developing heart disease and diabetes(and having diabetes automatically ups your risk for heart disease). But also, research suggests that when we eat a lot of added sugars, we're more likely to less healthy diets and get fewer vitamins and minerals compared to people who eat less sugar. In other words, you could be missing out on heart-healthy nutrients!
That said, a little bit of added sugar each day is fine. Experts recommend you cap your intake at 5 percent of your daily calories from added sugars. For someone eating a 2000 calorie a day diet, it's about 100 calories, or 25 grams, or five teaspoons. At most you shouldn't go above 10 percent of your calories from added sugars (learn more about how many grams of sugar you should eat a day).
These recommendations apply only to added sugars, though, which deliver calories but no nutritional value, and not to sugars that occur naturally in healthful foods (fructose in fruit, lactose in dairy). It's fairly easy to keep track of sugars you add to foods yourself. Added sugars in processed foods, however, are more difficult to track—and, unfortunately, they lurk in 74 percent of all processed foods. "Sugars" on Nutrition Facts panels include natural and added sugars. Check the ingredient list for sugar and all its aliases: corn sweetener or syrup, honey, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, malt sugar and syrup and sugar molecules ending in "ose" (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose). In general, the closer sugars are to the top of the list, the more the food contains.
4. Trans fat
One of the easiest to limit (or avoid) in your diet—and it's quite harmful to your heart health—is trans fat. Trans fat raises your "bad" LDL cholesterol, possibly even more than saturated fats, according to research. Trans fat also lowers your "good" HDL cholesterol.
"Trans fats should be avoided," says Donna Arnett, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky and Past President of the American Heart Association. "Trans fats have been removed from some common foods, such as French fries, but there can be trans fats in highly processed foods still as they help to extend the shelf life of the product."
When in doubt, read the label, Arnett advises. Even if a package claims "zero trans fat," the amount per serving may be less than 0.5 g and could have been rounded down to zero, so the only way to be sure you're getting a product without trans fat is to read ingredient lists. If you see "partially hydrogenated oil" in the ingredient lists, the food contains trans fat.
5. Processed meats
Think: bacon, sausage, salami, ham, hot dogs—essentially any meat that is preserved by smoking, curing, salting, or adding any other preservative. Research shows that regularly eating processed meats raises your risk of dying from a cardiovascular condition. In one study, choosing processed meat over plant-based protein, upped risk of cardiovascular disease by 34 percent.
The Best Foods to Eat for Your Heart
Pictured recipe: Grilled Eggplant & Tomato Pasta
Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, and lean protein—preferably in the form of fish and seafood—is what the research shows is your best bet to lower your risk of developing, or dying from, heart disease.
- Whole grains
- Fish and seafood
In other words, something quite similar to the Mediterranean diet. And, in fact, research shows the Mediterranean way of eating is beneficial for your heart health. Go vegetarian and that'll lower your risk even further. Check out our list of top 15 heart-healthy foods for more specifics.
"Think of building a colorful plate of vegetables, and also eating fruits and whole grains, as well as healthy fats—such as nuts, avocados, and olive oil—in moderation," says Arnett, who also is the lead author of the 2019 American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association Guideline on the Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease, which was published in the journal Circulation. All of those foods, as well as the nutrients like fiber, omega-3 fats, and disease-fighting phytochemicals that those foods are chock full of are oh-so-good for your heart and what you ought to focus on more in your diet. Learn more about how to get started eating a Mediterranean diet.
What you eat, and what you don't, is simply one piece of the puzzle. Not smoking (or using tobacco in any form), getting regular physical activity, and aiming to be at a healthy body weight, are crucial lifestyle elements to improving your heart's health—sometimes even more so than what you eat.