Cardiac Diet: The Road to Wellness Starts Here

If you’re a heart patient, remember that diet, exercise, and your doctor’s advice are vital to a longer, healthier life. Here, we review the keys to a good cardiac diet.

shopping bag filled with healthy food

Heart-healthy foods avoid saturated fat from sources like red meat. Instead, a cardiac diet should concentrate on fruits, vegetables, leafy greens and plant-based protein from sources like beans and legumes.

© George Tsartsianidis |

If you’re in relatively good health but you’ve been told to eat better for an improved cardiovascular system, you may wonder just what a good cardiac diet entails. Fortunately, an eating plan that promotes good heart health can be simple and include plenty of foods you enjoy. The key is often minimizing or eliminating the parts of your diet that can worsen the health of your heart and blood vessels.

A heart patient diet may be more stringent, with tighter recommendations on sodium intake and weight loss, for example. But in general, what’s right for someone with a heart condition is going to be appropriate for someone trying to avoid becoming a heart patient.

Eat a Variety of Foods

To make sure your cardiac diet provides the nutrients your body needs, make sure it includes a wide range of healthy foods. One way to think about it is in terms of colors. Eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables: red peppers, leafy greens, oranges, and orange sweet potatoes, for example. Different-colored fruits and veggies provide assorted antioxidants, the substances that fight off disease-causing free radicals.

Along with a variety of fruits and vegetables (try to eat four to five servings of each daily), a well-rounded cardiac diet includes whole grains, lean proteins (fish, poultry, low-fat or non-fat dairy products, or vegetarian sources such as beans, nuts, quinoa, soy milk).

Choose the Right Fats

Healthy fats, such as the unsaturated fats found in olive oil, fish, nuts, seeds, and avocados, are good for the heart. A heart patient diet should definitely include these items because they can help lower your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Just be careful if you’re counting calories, as these foods can bump up your calorie intake in a hurry.

But a good cardiac diet should not include much saturated fat, such as that found in red meat or in processed foods.

Some research suggests that the amount of saturated fat in the diet may not be a significant predictor of heart disease. But this unhealthy fat is still a source of dietary cholesterol, and it should be consumed in moderation if at all. Foods high in saturated fat also tend to be high in calories, so there are two reasons to keep them to a minimum in your diet.

Saturated Fats and Cholesterol

The issue of dietary cholesterol has actually been debated significantly in recent years. Most of the cholesterol in your body is manufactured by the liver, but some cholesterol comes from what you eat.

For a long time, foods high in cholesterol, such as eggs, were viewed as bad for the heart. (It should be noted, however, that almost all the cholesterol in an egg is in the yolk, so egg whites are basically cholesterol-free.)

Recent research, however, has underscored the degree to which your genetics play a role in your cholesterol profile. If your parents had high LDL levels, chances are you will too, regardless of how healthy you eat.

That shouldn’t be viewed as a green light to eat as much high-cholesterol food as you want. Dietary cholesterol can still play a small part in your LDL levels, so why give your LDL count any help?

Even worse than saturated fats are trans fats. They’ve been shown to raise LDL and lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. Trans fats are being phased out of many foods and restaurants, as governments seek to improve public health by banning them or otherwise discouraging their use.

Trans fats, often labeled as “partially hydrogenated oil,” help preserve the shelf life of baked goods and other products. But they have no nutritional benefits while posing obvious health risks.

Portion Control

Many people looking for a good cardiac diet also need to lose weight. And one of the staples of weight control is portion control. Smaller servings reduce your caloric intake, but they do so without you having to make major changes in the specific foods you eat.

You can practice portion control by simply splitting meals with your spouse or partner. Instead of having a whole sandwich, have half. Skip desserts during the week. Drink a glass or two of water before you eat a meal, so you’ll be less hungry and will eat less food. These simple ideas can help you cut down on the amount of food you consume.

Get Some Nutrition Counseling

If you’ve gone through cardiac rehabilitation, you’ve probably learned a few things about what makes a good heart patient diet. Part of cardiac rehab is learning what you should eat, how to exercise safely and how to make other heart-healthy lifestyle decisions.

If you aren’t a heart patient, you can still benefit from the advice of a dietitian familiar with a healthy cardiac diet. Your doctor can prescribe the services of a dietitian to help you plan meals and learn what foods to avoid and what to include in a diet that’s good for your heart and your overall health.

Originally published in May 2016 and updated.

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Jay Roland

Jay Roland has been executive editor of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind, Mood & Memory since 2017. Previously, he held the same position with Cleveland Clinic’s Heart Advisor, since 2007. In … Read More

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