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An image of the Author and Top Nutrition Coaching nutritionist, Nicolette
Nicolette Star Maggiolo, RD, LDN

12 Heart-Healthy Diet Tips From a Dietitian

Dive into a heart-healthy lifestyle to help manage heart disease with 12 actionable diet tips from a registered dietitian.
An image of the Author and Top Nutrition Coaching nutritionist, Nicolette
Nicolette Star Maggiolo, RD, LDN

12 Heart-Healthy Diet Tips From a Dietitian

Dive into a heart-healthy lifestyle to help manage heart disease with 12 actionable diet tips from a registered dietitian.
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The American Heart Association reports that nearly half of adults in the United States live with a form of cardiovascular disease. This is both a staggering and daunting number, especially considering it’s the leading cause of death in both men and women.

However, it is possible to live with heart disease and make improvements to your quality of life. For example, a patient with coronary artery disease, which involves cholesterol plaque buildup in the arteries, might manage these plaque deposits through healthy lifestyle changes and medical treatments. Nonetheless, the primary goal should be to get a handle on your symptoms and reduce the risk of more adverse consequences due to cardiovascular disease.

In this comprehensive guide, I'll show you 12 heart-healthy diet tips to foster better daily habits. Leveraging my experience as an RD and LDN, my goal is to help you find realistic dietary strategies so you can live at your best.

Your Diet’s Role in Managing Heart Disease

A healthy diet is a crucial component of managing heart disease. The foods we consume can have a significant impact on our health. Diet is important for everyone, but it’s especially critical for those who suffer from heart disease.

There are many different diets that you can follow in order to help your heart and get your cardiovascular system the nutrients it needs, including the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and the ketogenic diet. The best thing to do is to find a diet that suits your lifestyle and personal health concerns and make sure you stay committed to it.

If you’re already suffering from heart disease or at high risk of it, following a diet that prioritizes heart health should be your top priority. Consider finding a nutritionist who specializes in cardiovascular clients to collaborate with you in building a custom diet plan that meets your unique needs and goals.

12 Tips to Foster a Heart-Healthy Diet

The following tips have been proven in various studies to help those with heart disease and make conditions more manageable. 

1. Try the Ornish Diet

Dean Ornish is the medical doctor who created the Ornish Diet and developed the cardiac rehabilitation program known as Ornish Lifestyle Medicine. The Ornish Diet is a plant-based diet featuring

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Legumes
  • Soy foods
  • Whole grains

You can also eat egg whites and nonfat dairy foods, such as yogurt and nonfat milk, permitted up to two servings. Ornish lifestyle medicine and the Ornish Diet were game-changing innovations in heart health. According to one promising study conducted by Ornish, some patients who made intensive lifestyle and dietary changes saw a regression of coronary atherosclerosis, essentially helping to “reverse” heart disease severity. 

However, since you’re cutting out 10% of fat, there’s a chance for a macronutrient imbalance, which is risky if you’re pre-diabetic or have diabetes. But combined with stress reduction, frequent exercise, and a shift to an overall healthy lifestyle, strict adherence to the Ornish Diet may help you manage cardiovascular disease if it’s the right diet for your lifestyle. If you’re interested, talk with your doctor or dietitian to learn about the Ornish diet and whether you should try it.  

2. Experiment with a Plant-Based Diet

Strictly eating plant-based foods and trying out a vegetarian diet or vegan diet doesn’t begin and end with the Ornish program. One 2014 study of nearly 200 patients showed that the 177 people who only ate plant-based foods experienced decreased symptoms of heart disease, while 22% saw signs of regression.

A vegan or vegetarian diet excluding processed foods, added oils, refined carbs, sugar, excess salt, avocado, nuts, and fruit juice has the likely potential to help patients manage their heart health. Additionally, plant-based diets may promote gut health, which allows you to better absorb nutrients and may contribute to recovering from heart disease. But since everyone has unique health needs, consulting your doctor or nutritionist is best to determine if you should try a plant-based diet. 

3. Add Healthy Fats to Your Diet

Of course, if heart disease is an issue for you, trans fats and saturated fats aren’t wise dietary options. Yet, one particular shortcoming of Ornish’s approach is a lack of healthy fats. To that point, evidence continues to grow that healthy fats may help those with coronary artery disease.

Healthy fat is known to lower bad (LDL) cholesterols while increasing good (HDL) cholesterol, and results suggest these fats may play a role in managing heart disease. Deciphering between bad fats and good fats (like you’d find in many plant-based options) can be confusing initially, but prioritizing good fats is a welcome update to Ornish's method.

4. Not a Vegetarian? Consider Sticking to Lean Meat

Since high blood pressure (BP) and heart disease are closely intertwined, it makes sense that incredibly low BP can support your heart. Leaner meats increase your HDL cholesterol levels, but it's essential to cut out processed meats entirely.

Also, eating lean red meat may regulate high blood pressure and, in turn, help combat heart disease. Depending on your area, this may be an expensive dietary choice, but if you can afford it, enjoy the suggested daily servings of lean meat to help prevent high blood pressure and potentially manage heart disease symptoms. 

5. Choose Whole Milk Over Low-Fat Dairy Products

People who consume more dairy fat (found in yogurt, cheese, and whole milk) aren’t as likely to experience heart disease as those who consume less dairy fat, according to a study. Full-fat milk may lower blood pressure, which can prevent further heart damage.

Thus, full-fat dairy in moderation could be better than low-fat or nonfat dairy products when living with heart disease. This approach will also make you feel full without an excess of calories, but drinking too much full-fat milk can have negative effects for some, such as indigestion.

6. Follow the Mediterranean Diet

The American Heart Association suggests the Step 1 diet, which is high in carbs and allows up to 30% of energy from fat. Alternatively, those adhering to the Mediterranean Diet experienced between 50% and 70% decreased recurrent heart disease risk than those following the Step 1 diet.

This diet is plant-based but, unlike Ornish’s nutritional guidelines, suggests treating carbs as treats. Comparatively, Ornish recommends having two “bad carb” servings daily, but the Mediterranean approach also calls for more fats than Ornish's diet.

It’s important to note that the high caloric intake of the Mediterranean diet can cause weight gain for some, so be sure to stay active. If it's right for your lifestyle and your medical team agrees, the Mediterranean diet offers well-rounded plant-based nutrition to potentially improve heart health and mitigate symptoms. 

7. Incorporate More Whole Grains

You may help regulate your blood pressure and boost your heart health by replacing refined grain products (e.g., refined white flour, white bread) with whole grains (e.g., whole-wheat flour, kasha). Incorporating whole grains into your diet is rooted in heart health, but it can also be made adventurous with barley, farro, oats, or quinoa.

Such healthy foods are high in dietary fiber and will make you feel full, contributing to improved digestion and maintaining a healthy weight, which are also ideal for heart health. Depending on your body, these carbs could contribute to weight gain, but getting the appropriate amount of whole grains might be integral to your heart-healthy diet.

8. Don't Neglect Your Dietary Cholesterol Intake

Medical News Today points out how the American Heart Association has changed its stance on dietary cholesterol over the years. The AHA now acknowledges that high HDL levels in foods such as fatty dairy and eggs appear to protect against heart disease.

Additionally, dietary cholesterol is filling, offering you more bang for your buck with calories, but too much HDL can lead to heart disease and poor health. By incorporating the appropriate amount of HDL cholesterol (45 mg/dL for males and 55 mg/dl for females), you may manage and possibly lower the likelihood of developing heart disease (in combination with healthy lifestyle habits). 

9. Limit Your LDL (Or "Bad") Cholesterol Intake

“Bad” LDL cholesterol causes an increase of plaque in your arteries, potentially leading to heart disease issues like coronary artery disease. You’ll want to avoid fatty red meat, as well as fried foods, baked goods, and processed meat. 

This strategy isn't always easy; foods with good cholesterols typically contain bad cholesterols, too, so finding balance might be tricky at first. But if those with heart disease keep LDL levels below 70 mg/dl, they may mitigate the condition. Those at a higher risk of heart disease should keep their daily LDL intake under 100 mg/dL.

10. Be Mindful of Portion Size

According to the Mayo Clinic, portion sizes are almost as crucial to heart health as what you’re eating. It’s wise to use smaller bowls and limit your number of servings per meal to ensure you aren’t overloading on unhealthy foods. Even if you’re indulging in a less healthy treat, controlling your portion can offset harm. It's also important to understand and learn your ideal portion sizes based on factors such as age and height.

11. Carefully Manage Your Sodium Intake

If you regularly consume high levels of salt, you might manage heart disease by controlling your sodium intake. Consuming too much salt increases your blood pressure and, with it, your risk of heart disease. Although the ideal daily sodium intake for healthy adults is less than 2,300 mg, it’s best to try not to go over 1,500 per day. You don’t need to eliminate salt, even if you have heart disease—you merely need to moderate your consumption.

And while it's convenient to heat up a frozen dinner or hit the drive-through, high-sodium meals can make it harder on your body and cardiovascular system. Provided you don’t have time to prepare fresh-food meals, seek canned and frozen options with lower sodium content. 

12. Commit to Quitting Smoking 

If you’re a smoker, we need to start with a disclaimer. It's hard to manage or prevent something like coronary heart disease (or any other heart disease) if you don’t quit smoking.

You can make other dietary and lifestyle changes to bolster heart health. However, living smoke-free is a non-negotiable facet of a lifestyle focused on heart health. Quitting smoking has near-immediate cardiovascular improvements, and your body can only grow healthier the longer you go without it. While it's a challenging lifestyle change, it's among the best decisions you can make for your heart and overall wellness.

How Top Nutrition Coaching Helps You Build Heart-Healthy Habits

Few things make you confront your mortality like a heart disease diagnosis. It’s a sobering revelation that can make even the strongest of us feel helpless. With Top Nutrition Coaching at your side, you’ll have the support and help that makes you feel empowered in facing your heart disease.

We’ll offer the knowledge, guidance, and education to help you manage your heart disease diagnosis with a personalized diet plan. What’s more? We bring our high level of nutritional expertise to you wherever you are. 

Getting matched with one of our heart health nutritionists is a simple matter of filling out our quiz and leaving the rest to us. We want you to become the healthiest version of yourself in the most practical, convenient way possible. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

If you want to learn more about how you can foster heart-healthy habits, check out these frequently asked questions below. 

How can I make my heart stronger?

Everyone’s heart function and overall health vary, but generally, you can make your heart stronger by regularly engaging in aerobic exercises, such as walking or swimming. You can also collaborate with a registered dietitian or your doctor to adopt a heart-healthy diet fit for your lifestyle. 

How to avoid heart attacks?

You can lower your risk for heart disease and attacks by maintaining a balanced diet, exercising frequently, and managing stress levels. If you’re a smoker, you can lower your risk by quitting and limiting your exposure to secondhand smoke. Stay informed about your risk factors, especially if you have a family history of heart disease. 

Which exercise is best for the heart?

Any moderate to high-intensity aerobic exercise, including walking, running, swimming, and cycling, is highly beneficial for heart health. For most adults, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week. 

How do you know if you have an unhealthy heart? 

Signs of an unhealthy heart can include shortness of breath, chest pains, palpitations, dizziness, and excessive sweating, among other symptoms. Swelling in the legs and shoulder and arm pain can also indicate heart issues. If you’re concerned about your heart health, it’s essential to consult a doctor for a professional assessment. 

Can blocked arteries be reversed with diets? 

While certain diets can help reduce the risk of an artery blockage, it’s challenging to reverse existing blockages solely through dieting. Lifestyle changes, including a balanced diet, regular exercise, and prescribed medications, can help manage plaque buildup, but it’s best to consult a healthcare professional to determine the best course of action.

Written by
An image of the Author and Top Nutrition Coaching nutritionist, Nicolette
Nicolette Star Maggiolo, RD, LDN
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