10 Easy Tips for Eating a Heart-Healthy Diet, According to the American Heart Association
Pictured recipe: Mushroom & Tofu Stir-Fry
Overhauling the way you eat can feel pretty intimidating—that's why we're all about making small, sustainable changes to our diets, like setting simple nutrition goals or adding more veggies to our meals. In its 2021 dietary guidance statement, published Tuesday in the journal Circulation, the American Heart Association has a similar philosophy.
This year's statement from the AHA focuses on 10 heart-healthy ways to improve your diet, from cutting down on sugar to helping yourself to an extra serving of fruits and vegetables. Here are 10 easy tips to keep your heart at its healthiest.
1. Balance calorie intake with physical activity to maintain a healthy weight.
Getting active takes the first spot on the list—the AHA recommends balancing your diet and exercise to help maintain a healthy weight, which can be beneficial for your heart. To put this into practice, you don't need to strictly count your calories in and calories out each day. Instead, focus on regularly getting in movement that you enjoy (here's how much exercise you should aim for each week). That said, physical activity still counts even if you only have 10 minutes. If you struggle to get into a fitness routine, we have a few tips. And now that it's colder outside, we also have some recommendations from Health about ways you can burn calories at home.
2. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Choosing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables can help you get a range of nutrients from foods rather than from supplements. Pack your plate with produce, from leafy greens and crisp carrots to juicy berries and crunchy apples. (This is something that recipes like our Eat-the-Rainbow Chopped Salad can help with.) There are plenty of simple ways to eat more vegetables, like adding them to your breakfast and working them into snacks. If you do take supplements, you should know that it can be tricky to choose one that's right for you—here's one way to make sure you're getting your money's worth.
3. Choose whole grains.
This one is no surprise—whole grains are a key part of any eating pattern (including the Mediterranean diet), and research shows that they are the No. 1 food for a healthier heart. This is because they are packed with heart-healthy fiber and B vitamins compared to their refined counterparts. The MyPlate guidelines recommend making at least half of your grains whole, so enjoy some oats, quinoa, brown rice or other whole-grain products today.
4. Include lean and/or high-fiber protein.
New research this year noted that eating a plant-forward diet (that is, a diet that focuses on plant-based foods without cutting out animal products entirely) as a young adult can result in a lower risk for cardiovascular disease over time. When it comes to protein sources, the AHA recommends incorporating plant proteins, like nuts and legumes, alongside fish or seafood, low-fat dairy products and lean meat.
5. Choose healthy oils.
When you're whipping up dinner in the kitchen, the AHA recommends using healthy, plant-based liquid fats like olive oil and sunflower oil. They note to avoid the use of tropical plant oils, like palm and coconut oil, for your most heart-healthy diet. Olive oil can be pretty darn good for you—it's a big part of the Mediterranean diet and has anti-inflammatory effects that make it a healthy pantry staple.
6. Choose minimally processed foods as much as possible.
The main concerns with processed foods, according to an AHA media release, are the volume of salt, saturated fat and cholesterol they may contain. That said, we know that it might not be realistic to make all of your food from scratch. To help narrow it down, the AHA specifies that processed meats are especially worth avoiding or limiting. Processed meats include animal proteins that are preserved in some way, like smoked bacon or cured lunch meat. (Those meats can also take a toll on your cognitive health.)
7. Minimize intake of added sugars.
The added sugar in your diet could be coming from a lot of places, depending on what you love to eat. We have a few ideas for easy swaps that will help you trim down your sugar intake like making your own salad dressing and switching up your coffee order—and if you're up for it, try our 30-Day Slash Your Sugar Challenge, too. Cutting back on your sugar intake can have lots of other health benefits too—from improving your skin to reducing your risk for diabetes.
8. Limit your sodium intake.
We know a high amount of sodium can be hard on your heart. For this reason, the AHA suggests choosing or preparing foods with little or no salt. At restaurants, it may be hard to avoid, but at home you can always cut down on your salt intake in little ways, like rinsing canned foods and trying salt-free seasoning blends. (The AHA's tip to avoid processed foods will help you out with this one too.)
9. Limit alcohol consumption.
If you're not already a drinker, the AHA recommends not starting. But, of course, the occasional glass of wine or beer can fit into many healthy routines—the Mediterranean diet even encourages a moderate amount of red wine. That said, too much of a good thing can sometimes be not-so-good. See this guide for how much you should actually be drinking, according to a dietitian.
10. Try not to make exceptions
The AHA's last tip is simple: don't make exceptions, whether at home, on vacation or at a restaurant. They recommend that you apply this guidance no matter where food is prepared or consumed. The good news is that the statement focuses more on foods you should eat, like healthy proteins, fresh produce and whole grains, while the foods you should limit are far less of a focus. The AHA also recognizes that food and nutrition insecurity can mean that many people might not always have the healthiest options available to them—but the point is to choose the healthiest option whenever you can. Little changes over time can add up to big benefits for your heart health.
The best news of all is that eating heart-healthy meals can be a delicious endeavor. Just try out some of our easiest heart-healthy dinners, like Maple-Roasted Chicken Thighs with Sweet Potato Wedges and Brussels Sprouts or Slow-Cooker Braised Beef with Carrots & Turnips. No matter how rigorously you follow any particular diet, eating a mix of filling protein and nutrient-rich veggies will put you on the path to better health.