A “cardiac diet”—a.k.a. a heart healthy diet—coupled with regular exercise, can help boost your heart health for years to come.
What is a Cardiac Diet?
“Cardiac diet” is an unofficial term for a heart healthy diet. This is a plan to eat plenty of nutrient-rich foods—fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean poultry and fish. And it also means avoiding saturated fats, trans fats, and excess sodium and sugar.
“Following a heart healthy—or cardiac—diet would be recommended to someone who has high blood pressure, high cholesterol or any other history of heart disease, or to someone who has a family history of heart disease,” explains Lauren Kelly, MS, RD, CDN and founder of Kelly Wellness in New York City.
But even if you don’t have a cardiovascular health concern, sticking to a cardiac diet is important, since it can reduce risk of heart disease in the future, says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
In fact, this is the way we all should be eating. By limiting junk foods and adding more nutritious ones, you’ll be fueling your body with what it needs to stay healthy and possibly improve your overall health.
“Following a cardiac diet can help you lose weight, lower your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels,” says Kelly. “It can even boost your energy because of your healthier food choices.” Results vary from person to person, explains Dr. Lichtenstein, since they depend on a variety of factors, including what you were eating before you went on a cardiac diet, your lifestyle choices (exercise and smoking) and other risk factors.
Heart Healthy Foods
When you’re following a cardiac diet, it’s important to eat plenty of heart healthy foods, including fruits and vegetables, and foods rich in fiber and Omega-3 fatty acids.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables and are undoubtedly healthful foods. They boost your immune system, providing the nutrients your body needs and help reduce inflammation. Plus, the more fruits and veggies you eat, the less junk you’re liable to eat. At mealtime, American Heart Association recommends filling half your plate with veggies and/or fruits.
The good news is that every vegetable and fruit is good for you, as long as you’re eating them without added salts and sugars. The more colors of the rainbow you consume, the greater variety of nutrients you’re getting.
“Vary your vegetables each day and try to pick more of the non-starchy options [like potatoes and sweet potatoes],” says Kelly. “I find that often the white or beige vegetables are forgotten about and viewed as not as nutritious, but these foods, such as onion, cauliflower, and mushrooms, are incredibly healthy.” She also recommends:
- Bok choy
- Bell peppers
You probably think of fiber as good for digestion, but it’s also an important component of a heart healthy diet. “One of the most important nutrients for heart health is soluble fiber,” explains Kelly. “Eating soluble fiber can help lower your cholesterol level and better manage blood sugar levels.” Aim for about 10 to 25 grams of soluble fiber per day; you can find it in:
- Ground flaxseed
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish and in some nuts and seeds. These good fats can reduce blood pressure, decrease triglyceride levels, slow the growth of plaque in the arteries and reduce the risk of arrhythmias. Your doctor may prescribe an Omega-3 supplement if you’re on a heart patient diet but you should also be eating Omega-3-rich foods such as:
- Ground flaxseed
- Hemp Seeds
- Chia seeds
Have High Cholesterol? Foods to Avoid
If you have high blood cholesterol or another cardiovascular health concern, there are certain foods you’ll want to avoid to keep your heart healthy.
One common misconception is that all high cholesterol foods should be avoided completely. “Cholesterol from your diet actually doesn’t affect your blood cholesterol levels like it was once thought,” says Christy Shatlock, MS, registered dietitian at bistroMD. “However, you do have to be careful because oftentimes foods high in cholesterol are also high in saturated fat, which needs to be limited on a heart healthy diet.” In other words, don’t indulge in bacon and whole milk. But go ahead and eat eggs, salmon and shrimp even though they have cholesterol, since they’re not high in saturated fat.
Instead of focusing on high cholesterol foods while on a cardiac diet, avoid trans fats and saturated fats and foods high in salt and sugar.
Trans Fats and Saturated Fats
“Overall, we are more concerned about trans fats raising our blood cholesterol [than we are concerned about high cholesterol foods],” explains Kelly. “It’s recommended you consume zero of this type of fat because it has been so strongly linked with heart disease.”
She explains that while trans fats have been ‘banned’ from processed foods, they’re still present in some foods in small quantities. For example, a jar of peanut butter could say it has 0 grams of trans fat but really contain about 0.4 grams per serving. Several foods with “just a little” trans fat can add up to too much trans fat. So check the label and make sure the foods you’re eating don’t contain “partially hydrogenated oils.” This can include:
- Peanut butter
- Packaged cookies
- Packaged cakes
- Donuts and muffins
For a hearty healthy diet, avoid trans fat. This means choosing baked or roasted foods over fried ones. Also eat red meat about once or twice a week (or less), and select lean cuts, such as sirloin or filet mignon. Steer clear of:
- Fatty cuts of read meat (porterhouse, rib eye, prime rib)
- Any fried food
Saturated fats mostly come from meat and dairy products. Avoiding foods high in saturated fat—and choosing healthier options—can lower your cholesterol level and boost your lipid profile. Fatty beef is an example of a food with saturated fat. Also on the list is:
- Poultry with skin
- Cheese and other whole or reduced-fat dairy products
- Whole fat dairy
Too much salt in your diet is bad for your cardiovascular health. That’s because extra sodium increases blood volume in your blood vessels, raising blood pressure and making your heart work harder to pump it.
Eat 1,500 milligrams or less of sodium per day to keep blood pressure low. Your first step is keeping the saltshaker off the table. “Instead, use herbs and spices or a salt-substitute such as Mrs. Dash,” suggests Kelly. Read the label on any pre-made spice mixtures, since often the first ingredient is salt, and you want to stay away from that.” Also be careful of hidden salt in the foods you’re eating. Anything over 140 mg of sodium per serving is a no-no. And surprisingly, these foods may be high in sodium:
- Sweets (like cookies and cakes)
Sorry if you’ve got a sweet tooth—researchers say eating too much sugar is connected to a higher risk of dying from heart disease. Sadly, most of us eat too much. The average American eats about 22 teaspoons of sugar per day. However, the American Heart Association recommends women eat no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day (a.k.a. 24 grams or 100 calories) and men eat no more than 9 teaspoons a day (a.k.a. 36 grams or 150 calories).
To significantly reduce your sugar intake, avoid foods with added sugar, such as:
- Soft drinks
- Fruit drinks
- Cakes, cookies and pies
- Ice cream
- Sweetened yogurt and milk
- Sweet breads and waffles
“Look out for secret sources of sugar like breads, cereals, yogurts, condiments and sauces,” says Kelly. “Choose foods with less than 9 grams of sugar per serving.”
Creating a Heart Healthy Diet Plan
As you work with your doctor and/or nutritionist to create a heart healthy diet plan, you’ll learn ways to stick to the plan and create delicious meals you and your family can enjoy.
Dr. Lichtenstein recommends not only stocking your fridge and pantry with healthy foods but your freezer too. That’s because many fruits and vegetables spoil quickly. Raw lean meat may only be usable for a few days in the fridge. But frozen items can last for month. If you always have some foods that fit your cardiac diet in the freezer, you’ll be able to easily whip something up, even when you’re in a rush.
At breakfast, beware of the hidden sugars in many cereals and juices, and look for ways to incorporate lean protein, fiber and Omega-3s into your morning meal. Kelly suggests:
Healthy Omelet: 1 egg + 2 egg whites with ¼ to ½ an avocado and veggies with a few tbsp. hummus or ½ cup baked sweet potato
Tofu Scramble: Tofu (or egg) scramble with tomato, spinach, black beans, garlic a few slices of avocado with 1 slice of 100% whole wheat bread
Loaded Oatmeal: 1 cup cooked rolled gluten-free oats with cinnamon; mix in 1 tbsp almond butter and top with few chopped walnuts, ½ sliced small banana
Protein-Packed Rice Cake: Brown rice cake with 1-2 tbsp low sodium peanut or almond butter (with no “partially hydrogenated oils”) with 1 small sliced banana
Check out more heart-healthy recipes.
Many typical lunch foods—cold cuts, cured meats, pizza and soup—are high in sodium, so keep that in mind. You probably want to pack your own. These are a few delicious lunch ideas you’ll want to whip up:
Chicken Avocado Sandwich: 100% whole wheat bread with baked chicken, few slice of avocado, lettuce, tomato with side salad of veggies (i.e. beets, onion, carrots) and chickpeas or black beans with olive oil and vinegar
Homemade Rice or Quinoa Bowl: 1/2 to 2/3 cup brown rice or quinoa, ½ cup black beans or pinto beans, 1-2 cup of veggies (i.e. spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, string beans), topped with baked chicken, fish or tofu
Turkey Burger: Make a burger from ground lean turkey with scallion and red pepper and top with few slices of avocado (or 1 slice Swiss cheese), served in low sodium brown rice tortilla or steamed collard greens
Avocado Tuna Salad: Tuna salad made with ½ mashed avocado with sliced grapes and few chopped walnuts, lettuce and slice of tomato on 1 slice of whole grain bread or on bed of greens
Low Sodium Bean Soup or Chili: Low sodium chili or bean based soup, topped with few slices of avocado. “If this is your entire meal, can aim for less than or equal to 500 to 550 milligrams sodium for the soup.
The way you prepare your dinner will help you stick to your heart-healthy diet. Select lean cuts of meat and trim fat (and remove poultry skin) before cooking. Broil meat instead of pan-frying it, and drain fat from foods before eating them.
You can also make some smart substitutions, such as using low-fat or fat-free cheese and milk, and cooking with liquid vegetable oil (olive, sunflower, canola) instead of solid fats, such as butter, lard and shortening.
Here are a few dinner ideas that are both tasty and cardiac-diet friendly:
Baked Chicken or Fish: Bake it with 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (or try avocado oil) and a few tablespoons of salsa; serve it with cooked vegetables (i.e. broccoli, asparagus, spinach) and whole grain starch (i.e. ½ cup cooked brown rice, whole wheat pasta, or bean-based pasta)
“Breaded” Baked Salmon: Coat salmon with olive oil, whole wheat bread crumbs, mustard and lemon; serve it with side of vegetable (i.e. broccoli, sautéed spinach with garlic) and a whole grain starch (i.e. sweet potato, quinoa)
Turkey Meatballs: Make your meatballs with one pound lean ground turkey, ½ cup quick oats, 1 egg, ½ tsp dried oregano and little pepper. When they’re done cooking, drizzle them with olive oil
Feta Chicken: Bake chicken, and serve it with a side of ½ cup baked butternut squash, ½ cup sautéed broccoli and ½ cup quinoa mixed together. Top with sprinkle of feta cheese
At snack time, skip the salty chips and crackers and instead go for low-salt options with plenty of fiber and protein to tide you over until your next meal.
These are a few ideas Kelly loves:
- 1 hard boiled egg with a piece of fruit
- Hummus with cut up fresh (or roasted) vegetables (i.e. carrots, peppers, broccoli)
- Slice of 100% whole wheat bread with almond or peanut butter and sliced banana
- Slice of 100% whole grain bread with ½ mashed avocado, topped with 1-2 tbsp ground flaxseed
- Plain Greek yogurt with 1 tbsp peanut/almond butter mixed in or topped with 10-15 nuts, ½ cup berries; can also add in 1 tbsp ground flaxseed, hemp seed or chia seed
And yes, you can occasionally indulge in dessert. Here are some heart-healthy dessert recipes we highly recommend.
Remember: a change in your diet might tough at first but it truly can change your health—and your life—for the better. And with a little practice, you’ll get the hang of sticking to your cardiac diet and enjoying your food.
“There’s so much flexibility with a heart healthy diet, so it can be customized to work for different people,” says Lichtenstein. After you recipes you enjoy and making them part of your meal plans, “it shouldn’t feel like a diet, it should just become your routine.”
- Email interview with Lauren Kelly, MS, RD, CDN and founder of Kelly Wellness in New York City
- Email interview with Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University
- Email interview with Christy Shatlock, MS, registered dietitian at bistroMD
- The American Heart Association's Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/The-American-Heart-Associations-Diet-and-Lifestyle-Recommendations_UCM_305855_Article.jsp#.WIlWkrbR90s
- Fresh, Frozen, or Canned Fruits and Vegetables: All Can Be Healthy Choices! Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/SimpleCookingandRecipes/Fresh-Frozen-or-Canned-Fruits-and-Vegetables-All-Can-Be-Healthy-Choices_UCM_459350_Article.jsp#.WIlcW7bR90s
- How to Eat More Fruit and Vegetables. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Eat-More-Fruits-and-Vegetables_UCM_320237_Article.jsp#.WIlcl7bR90s
- Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/HealthyDietGoals/Fish-and-Omega-3-Fatty-Acids_UCM_303248_Article.jsp#.WIlgULbR90s
- Sodium and Your Health. Retrieved from https://sodiumbreakup.heart.org/sodium_and_your_health
- Saturated Fats. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Saturated-Fats_UCM_301110_Article.jsp#.WIlcVLbR90s
- Added Sugars Add to Your Risk of Dying from Heart Disease. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Added-Sugars-Add-to-Your-Risk-of-Dying-from-Heart-Disease_UCM_460319_Article.jsp#.WIoT1LbR-uU
- Your Sodium-Controlled Diet. Retrieved from http://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/
- Cooking for Lower Cholesterol. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/PreventionTreatmentofHighCholesterol/Cooking-for-Lower-Cholesterol_UCM_305630_Article.jsp#.WIoJgLbR-uU