6 Steps to a Heart-Healthy Diet

While everyone seems to agree that eating a heart-healthy diet is important for preventing cardiovascular disease, there has been a lot of confusion in recent years as to what, exactly, a heart-healthy diet really is. Should you eat a low-fat diet? A low-carb diet? Something else?

Salad with beans and grains
Harald Walker/Stocksy United

Guidelines for Heart-Healthy Eating

Despite the confusion, there is actually a growing consensus on what a heart-healthy diet looks like.

It is really quite simple:

  • Eat only enough calories to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Use whole-grain​​ breads and pastas.
  • Try to limit red meat, and use fish (preferable), chicken and legumes as primary protein sources.
  • Avoid trans fats
  • Avoid processed foods in general, and processed carbohydrates in particular.

If you follow these simple guidelines for a heart-healthy diet, a lot of the confusion should disappear.

What About Low-Carb and Low-Fat Diets?

Proponents of low-fat diets have been engaged in a long-running battle with proponents of low-carb diets, regarding which dietary approach is right and which is wrong. But if you look at the more recent recommendations from both camps, you will see that those recommendations seem to be converging.

Low-fat mavens have finally had to admit that some fats are actually good for you. In fact, official dietary guidelines no longer stress low-fat diets at all. Low-carb zealots have had to admit that some carbohydrates are healthy and desirable. 

And as a result, the dietary recommendations from proponents of the low-carb diets and the low-fat diets increasingly resemble each other — much more than either party would like to admit.

In fact, they look a lot like the six rules for healthy eating, listed above.

The Mediterranean Diet

Currently, the Mediterranean diet is the popular diet whose "heart-healthy" credentials are backed up by the most compelling clinical evidence. This diet, with a few variations, can be seen as a "compromise" between low-fat and low-carb viewpoints. It is a compromise that also looks a lot like the six guidelines we just reviewed.

The Mediterranean diet stresses fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish and seafood, plenty of legumes and nuts, limited red meat, and olive oil. 

Other Tips

In addition to the six general guidelines, there are a few other things you can do to improve your heart-healthy diet. These include:

  • Get plenty of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Eat nuts.
  • Use alcohol only in moderation.

You should also talk to your doctor about whether salt restriction might be beneficial to you.

What About Exercise?

Experts agree that to get the most benefit from a heart-healthy diet, you should maintain a reasonable weight and engage in regular exercise. While the ability to lose a lot of weight involves some things you cannot control easily (like genetics, and human physiology), whether or not you exercise regularly is almost entirely a matter of choice, dedication, and will-power. That is, it's under your control. It is fortunate, then, that being fit is probably even more important than being thin when it comes to heart health, and your health in general.

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Article Sources
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  1. Pallazola VA, Davis DM, Whelton SP, et al. A Clinician's Guide to Healthy Eating for Cardiovascular Disease PreventionMayo Clin Proc Innov Qual Outcomes. 2019;3(3):251–267. Published 2019 Aug 1. doi:10.1016/j.mayocpiqo.2019.05.001

  2. Scholl J. Traditional dietary recommendations for the prevention of cardiovascular disease: do they meet the needs of our patients?Cholesterol. 2012;2012:367898. doi:10.1155/2012/367898

  3. Lavie CJ, Arena R, Swift DL, et al. Exercise and the cardiovascular system: clinical science and cardiovascular outcomesCirc Res. 2015;117(2):207–219. doi:10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.117.305205

Additional Reading
  • Mitrou, PN, Kipnis, V, Thiebaut, AC, et al. Mediterranean Dietary Pattern And Prediction Of All-Cause Mortality In A Us Population: Results From the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study. Arch Intern Med 2007; 167:2461.
  • Sofi F, Cesari F, Abbate R, et al. Adherence to Mediterranean diet and Health Status: Meta-Analysis. BMJ 2008; 337:a1344.
  • Widmer RJ, Flammer AJ, Lerman LO, Lerman A. The Mediterranean Diet, Its Components, And Cardiovascular Disease. Am J Med 2015; 128:229.