Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2009;79(7):online

See related article on diets for cardiovascular disease.

What is a “heart-healthy” diet?

Eating too much food high in saturated fats or simple sugars can lead to heart disease. But eating certain foods can lower your risk. A “heart-healthy” diet limits the amount of foods that put you at risk for heart disease and allows you to eat plenty of the foods that keep your heart healthy.

Are there other benefits?

A heart-healthy diet should lower the “bad” cholesterol (called LDL) and triglycerides in your blood, and help raise your “good” cholesterol (called HDL). It will also help you control your weight and may lower your risk of cancer.

Who should eat a heart-healthy diet?

Anyone older than two years can eat a heart-healthy diet. The earlier you start this diet, the lower your chances of getting heart disease. The earlier you start eating healthy foods, the better your chances of having good eating habits throughout your life.

What foods are part of a heart-healthy diet?

It is best to eat a variety of foods. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, lean meats, fish, and low-fat dairy products are best.

The best foods are those that are colorful and high in fiber. Foods that are dark red, blue, orange, or green (such as raspberries, blueberries, carrots, cantaloupe, spinach, and peas) are the best foods. Limit the amount of white foods you eat, such as rice, white bread, and potatoes.

Eating oily fish at least twice per week can help lower your risk of heart disease. Pregnant women and young children should not eat shark, swordfish, mackerel, or tilefish.

What foods should I avoid?

Check your food labels and avoid foods with trans-fats. You should also limit the amount of saturated fat you eat. Processed foods, fried foods, and marbled meats (such as ribeye steaks) are high in these unhealthy fats.

It is also important to limit foods that are high in salt (sodium). These include most processed foods, cold cuts, pickles, and cured foods. Try to keep your daily sodium intake under 2,000 mg. Use sea salt or spices to give your foods flavor.

Can I drink alcohol or soda?

If you choose to drink alcohol, it is important to drink in moderation and to drink with meals. A moderate amount means no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men. One drink is 5 oz of wine, 1 oz of liquor, or 12 oz of beer.

It is best to avoid sweetened drinks, such as soda and juice, because the extra sugar can make you gain weight. Water is a healthier option.

What can I do when I eat out?

Try to eat the same foods you normally would at home. Avoid fried or fatty foods. Pick dishes that have lots of fruits and vegetables and that are colorful. Try to eat only the same amount that you would at home. Order a salad instead of high-fat appetizers or bread. Many restaurants now label certain foods as heart-healthy or lower in fat. Try to order these foods.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

American Academy of Family Physicians

American Heart Association

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