The Best Foods to Eat to Beat Heart Disease

by Matt McMillen Health Writer

An essential Rx for heart disease? Eat well. A healthy diet helps lower cholesterol, inflammation, blood pressure, and more, which in turn helps you achieve and maintain a healthy weight. It takes a variety of foods to meet all your nutritional needs, so that means you have lots of choices. Just make sure you follow an eating pattern focused on whole foods that are low-fat and plant-based. “That’s the magic recipe,” says Andrew Freeman, M.D., a cardiologist at National Jewish Health in Denver. Here are some top food choices to fill your plate.

leafy greens

Learn to Love Leafy Greens

Think spinach, kale, mustard greens, beet greens, and more. According to a review in Nutrients, most studies have found that leafy greens help the heart because these easy-to-prep vegetables are loaded with vitamins and minerals, as well as heart-healthy fiber. A diet change in leafy greens can include changes in vitamin K levels, which should be discussed with your doctor if you take blood thinners (warfarin). And, says Dr. Freeman, you may be surprised to learn they also boast a significant amount of protein. “You don’t have to eat meat and eggs to get your daily supply of protein,” he adds. That’s a good thing, because you should be limiting fatty foods—fattier cuts of meat included—in your fight against heart disease.

grilled scomber

Enjoy Net Gains With Omega-3-Rich Fish

Reel in the salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, and other oily fish twice each week to benefit your ticker. The oils they contain, called omega-3 fatty acids, appear to help slow the buildup of artery-clogging plaque—which can help protect you against heart attack and stroke, as well as heart failure and arrhythmia. Nicole Roach, R.D., a dietitian who specializes in cardiology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, particularly likes fresh salmon. She tells her patients to choose it over read meat. “It’s so versatile,” says Roach. “Serve it over a salad or make a salmon burger.”


Go Nuts (but Don’t Overdo It)

This is nature’s nearly perfect snack food, with so many to choose from and so many benefits: protein, fiber, heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants. In recent years, Harvard researchers have published studies showing that people who eat nuts on the regular have a 30% to 50% lower risk of heart attack or dying from heart disease. Roach says walnuts are a standout for antioxidants, but grab a handful of whichever are your favorites. (Just a handful! Though good for you, nuts do have a lot of calories, and it’s easy to over-indulge.)

olive oil

Sizzle With Healthy Cooking Oils

When you cook, you often need cooking oil, so pick oils that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—the good kind of fats that can help improve your cholesterol levels. A few recommendations from the American Heart Association: olive oil, corn oil, and canola oil. What do they have in common? They’re all liquid, plant-based fats. Saturated fats, like butter, and trans fats such as margarine, are better left on the store shelf, because both boost cholesterol. As with nuts, cooking oils contain a lot of calories, so go easy. “A little bit goes a long way,” says Roach.

oatmeal and bananas

Up Your Fiber Intake With Whole Grains

In addition to vitamins and minerals, many whole grains provide fiber, which lowers cholesterol, keeps you feeling full longer so that you don’t overeat, and helps control your blood sugar level—all good for your heart! Roach says women need 25 grams a day; men should get 35 grams. Oatmeal is an excellent choice. Skip sugar-packed flavored oatmeal. Instead, add a spoonful of peanut butter and banana slices to plain oatmeal. Swap your white bread for bread labeled 100% whole wheat. Want a snack? Popcorn’s a whole grain. Air pop it and season with a light hand, suggests Dr. Freeman.


Benefit in Many Ways From Beans

Roach calls beans a “two-fer”: They’re loaded with protein, which gives you an alternative to animal sources like meat and dairy that are less artery-friendly, plus they’ve got plenty of fiber to help you manage your cholesterol and weight. What’s more, they’re really versatile! Make your own veggie burgers with black beans. Add more substance to a salad by tossing in a handful of white, red, or pinto beans. Or, make bean soup on a cold day. Using canned beans? If you can’t find low-salt versions, drain and rinse the beans to remove some of the excess.


Embrace a Seedy Lifestyle

Another plant-based provider of protein and fiber, seeds come in many varieties—chia, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, and more. These small but mighty powerhouses are packed with healthy fats and may lower your cholesterol, a key element of your heart health improvement strategy. In fact, seeds may help save your life. According to a study in JAMA, people who ate the fewest seeds had a significantly higher risk of dying of heart disease. Sprinkle yours on salads, blend them into smoothies, or bake them into energy bars.


Be Bountiful With Berries

Colorful and sweet, berries are one of nature’s perfect foods and belong in any heart-healthy diet. Take blueberries, for example. In a review in Scientific Reports, researchers reported that numerous randomized controlled studies showed how eating berries may play a part in managing heart disease. Berries helped to lower bad cholesterol and blood pressure, body mass index, and blood sugar levels. Which berries? All berries, fresh or frozen, are deliciously nutritious, says Dr. Freeman. “They’re loaded with antioxidants and fiber.” That fiber slows the absorption of sugar, so you can enjoy them without worrying about unhealthy blood sugar spikes.


Consume Plenty of Cruciferous Vegetables

Eat your broccoli! And your cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. This family of vegetables ranks among the most heart-healthy. People who eat lots of these vegetables have healthier blood vessels, which could protect against heart attack and stroke, according to studies in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Don’t like broccoli? Maybe you’re cooking it wrong! Toss this veg with a little olive oil and roast on a sheet pan until slightly brown and crispy. “You don’t have to eat it like you did as a kid,” says Dr. Roach. “It’s not a punishment!”

Matt McMillen
Meet Our Writer
Matt McMillen

Matt McMillen has been a freelance health reporter since 2002. In that time he’s written about everything from acupuncture to the Zika virus. He covers breaking medical news and the latest medical studies, profiles celebrities, and crafts easy to digest overviews of medical conditions. His work has appeared, both online and in print, in The Washington Post, WebMD Magazine, Diabetes Forecast, AARP, and elsewhere.