The importance of heart-healthy foods


When it comes to your heart, what you eat matters. Heart-healthy eating involves consuming vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, lean meats, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, soy products, legumes, and vegetable oils (except coconut and palm oils). Also, it limits sodium, saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and alcohol.

Your doctor may recommend the heart-healthy Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan because it has been proven to lower blood pressure and bad LDL cholesterol in the blood.

Follow these tips for heart-healthy eating:

  1. Eat less saturated and trans fat. Stay away from fatty meats, fried foods, cakes, and cookies.
  2. Cut down on sodium (salt). Look for the low-sodium or “no salt added” types of canned soups, vegetables, snack foods, and lunch meats.
  3. Get more fiber. Eat vegetables, fruits, and whole grains to add fiber to your diet.

Make a shopping list

Take this list with you the next time you go food shopping.

Vegetables and Fruits

Eat a variety of vegetables and fruits. Buy vegetables and fruits that are in season, frozen, or canned.
  • Fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, cabbage, and broccoli
  • Leafy greens for salads, like spinach and kale
  • Canned vegetables low in sodium (salt)
  • Frozen vegetables without added butter or sauces
  • Fresh fruits such as apples, oranges, bananas, pears, and peaches
  • Canned fruit in 100% juice, not syrup
  • Frozen or dried fruit (unsweetened)

Dairy Products

Look for fat-free or low-fat milk products. Or choose soy milk with added calcium.
  • Fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk
  • Fat-free or low-fat yogurt (choose options with less added sugar)
  • Cheese (3 grams of fat or less per serving)
  • Fat-free or low-fat soymilk with calcium

Breads, Cereals, and Grains

For products with more than one ingredient, make sure whole wheat or another whole grain is listed first.
  • 100% whole-wheat bread
  • Whole-grain breakfast cereals like oatmeal
  • Whole grains such as brown or wild rice, barley, and bulgur
  • Whole-wheat or whole-grain pasta

Meat, Beans, Eggs, and Nuts

Choose lean cuts of meat and other foods with protein.
  • Seafood, including fish and shellfish
  • Chicken and turkey breast without skin
  • Pork: leg, shoulder, tenderloin
  • Beef: round, sirloin, tenderloin, extra lean ground beef (at least 93% lean)
  • Beans, lentils, and peas
  • Eggs and egg substitutes
  • Unsalted nuts and seeds

Fats and Oils

Cut back on saturated fat and look for products with no trans fats.
  • Margarine and spreads (soft, tub, or liquid) with no trans fats
  • Vegetable oil (canola, olive, peanut, or sesame)
  • Non-stick cooking spray
  • Light mayonnaise
  • Salad dressings that are oil based instead of creamy

How much should you eat?

You should eat the right amount of calories for your body, which will vary based on your sex, age, and physical activity level. Find out your daily calorie needs or goals with the Body Weight Planner. 

Nutrients to limit

A heart-healthy diet limits sodium, saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and alcohol.


Adults and children over the age of 14 should eat less than 2,300 mg of sodium a day.

Children younger than 14 may need to eat even less sodium each day based on their sex and age.

If you have high blood pressure, you may need to restrict your sodium intake even more. Talk to your doctor or health care provider about what amount of sodium is right for you or your child.

Try these shopping and cooking tips to help you choose and prepare foods that are lower in sodium.
  • Read food labels and choose products that have less sodium for the same serving size.
  • Choose low-sodium, reduced sodium, or no-salt added products.
  • Choose fresh, frozen, or no-salt-added foods instead of pre-seasoned, sauce-marinated, brined, or processed meats, poultry, and vegetables.
  • Eat at home more often so you can cook food from scratch, which will allow you to control the amount of sodium in your meals.
  • When cooking, limit your use of premade sauces, mixes, and “instant” products such as rice, noodles, and ready-made pasta.
  • Flavor foods with herbs and spices instead of salt.
  • For more ways to control sodium intake, visit Living With the DASH Eating Plan.

Saturated and trans fats

When you follow a heart-healthy eating plan, you should:
  • Eat less than 10 percent of your daily calories from saturated fats found naturally in foods that come from animals and some plants.
  • Limit intake of trans fats to as low as possible by limiting foods that contain high amounts of trans fats.
The following are examples of foods that are high in saturated or trans fats.
  • Saturated fats are found in high amounts in fatty cuts of meat, poultry with skin, whole-milk dairy foods, butter, lard, and coconut and palm oils.
  • trans fats are found in high amounts in foods made with partially hydrogenated oils, such as some desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, stick margarines, and coffee creamers.
To help you limit your intake of saturated fats and trans fats:
  • Read the nutrition labels and replace foods high in saturated fats with leaner, lower-fat animal products or vegetable oils, such as olive or canola oil instead of butter. Foods that are higher in saturated fats, such as fatty meats and high-fat dairy products, tend to be higher in dietary cholesterol that should also be limited.
  • Read the nutrition labels and choose foods that do not contain trans fats. Some trans fats naturally occur in very small amounts in dairy products and meats. Foods containing these very low levels of natural trans fats do not need to be eliminated from your diet because they have other important nutrients.

Added sugars

When you follow a heart-healthy eating plan, you should limit the amount of calories you consume each day from added sugars. Because added sugars do not provide essential nutrients and are extra calories, limiting them can help you choose nutrient-rich foods and stay within your daily calorie limit.

Some foods, such as fruit, contain natural sugars. Added sugars do not occur naturally in foods, but instead are used to sweeten foods and drinks. Some examples of added sugars include brown sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, raw sugar, and sucrose.

In the United States, sweetened drinks, snacks, and sweets are the major sources of added sugars. Sweetened drinks account for about half of all added sugars consumed.

The following are examples of foods and drinks with added sugars.
  • Sweetened drinks include soft drinks or sodas, fruit drinks, sweetened coffee and tea, energy drinks, alcoholic drinks, and favored waters.
  • Snacks and sweets include grain-based desserts such as cakes, pies, cookies, brownies, doughnuts; dairy desserts such as ice cream, frozen desserts, and pudding; candies; sugars; jams; syrups; and sweet toppings.
To help you reduce the amount of added sugars in your diet:
  • Choose unsweetened or whole fruits for snacks or dessert.
  • Choose drinks without added sugar such as water, low-fat or fat-free milk, or 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice.
  • Limit intake of sweetened drinks, snacks and desserts by eating them less often and in smaller amounts.


If you drink alcohol, you should limit your intake. Men should have no more than two alcoholic drinks per day. Women should have no more than one alcoholic drink per day.

One drink is:
  • 12 ounces of regular beer (5 percent alcohol)
  • 5 ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol)
  • 1½ ounces of 80-proof liquor (40 percent alcohol)
Talk to your doctor about how much alcohol you drink. Your doctor may recommend that you reduce the amount of alcohol you drink or that you stop drinking alcohol. Too much alcohol can:
  • Raise your blood pressure and levels of triglyceride fats in your blood.
  • Add calories to your daily diet and possibly cause you to gain weight.
  • Worsen heart failure in some patients.
  • Contribute to heart failure in some people with cardiomyopathy.
If you do not drink, you should not start drinking. You should not drink if you are pregnant, under the age of 21, taking certain medicines, or have certain medical conditions including heart failure. It is important for people with heart failure to take in the correct amounts and types of liquids because too much liquid can worsen heart failure.

Remember that alcoholic drinks do contain calories and contribute to your daily calorie limits. The amount of calories will vary by the type of alcoholic drink. 

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