It’s never too late to focus on a heart-healthy diet. Not only can this approach to eating help reduce your chance of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD), but it can also help improve your heart and overall health.

There are many reasons to eat with heart health in mind. Cardiovascular disease (CVD), which includes conditions like heart disease and stroke, is a leading cause of death around the world, accounting for as many as 17.9 million deaths annually.

CVD can significantly impact your quality of life, leading to experiences of fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, and major cardiac events like heart failure.

Diet and lifestyle changes are part of the gold standard of CVD prevention and treatment. What you eat is important to your heart health because it directly impacts the leading factors that contribute to CVD risk, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and excess abdominal fat.

When you eat a heart-healthy diet, you’re prioritizing foods that protect against these conditions and help reverse their effects in many circumstances.

You don’t have to follow a specific diet program to achieve heart-healthy eating. While some eating styles, like the Mediterranean diet, are known for their heart health benefits, you can create your own plan by following some simple guidelines.

First and foremost, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends managing calorie intake to make sure you’re not in a calorie surplus, which can lead to weight gain. Overweight and obesity increase the risk for CVD in a variety of ways, like promoting insulin resistance and increasing vascular resistance.

Balancing your calories can be done by tracking what you eat and making sure you hit the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise each week.

When it comes to food, you have a variety of choices to pick from.

Focus on eating:

  • whole grains and high fiber whole-grain products
  • a variety of fruits and vegetables, especially dark green, leafy vegetables
  • healthy proteins, such as nuts, seafood, legumes, or lean meats
  • dairy
  • whole foods (or those minimally processed)
  • liquid nontropical vegetable oils, like olive oil or avocado oil
  • foods high in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats (avocados, tofu, nuts, seeds, etc.)

Knowing what to eat is just one piece of a heart-healthy diet. Knowing what to cut back on, what to watch out for, and best practices for heart-healthy options are just as important as what foods to include.

Eat the rainbow

“Eat the rainbow” is a slogan intended to remind people to include a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables — not just the same veggie at every meal.

Fruits and vegetables, especially colorful ones, are a great source of vitamins, minerals, and bioactive compounds called phytonutrients. By mixing up your selection, you can ensure your body gets all of its micronutrient requirements.

Limit high sodium foods

High sodium foods are those containing lots of salt. While your body needs salt, too much of it can put you at risk for high blood pressure, stroke, heart enlargement, and heart failure, among many other health complications.

Eating a heart-healthy diet means monitoring your salt intake and avoiding foods high in sodium. The AHA recommends consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day.

The top 10 high sodium foods are:

  • bread/rolls
  • pizza
  • sandwiches
  • cold cuts and cured meats
  • soup
  • burritos/tacos
  • savory snacks (chips, crackers, pretzels, popcorn, snack mixes)
  • poultry
  • cheese
  • egg dishes/omelets

Limit alcohol

Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure. When your blood pressure is too high, it can damage your heart and blood vessels over time, increasing your risk for CVD.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends people assigned female at birth limit alcoholic beverages to 1 per day, and people assigned male at birth limit alcoholic beverages to 2 per day. However, cutting out alcohol entirely is even better.

Choose lean protein

Protein is essential to any diet. For heart health, lean protein options are preferred to high fat options.

Fatty animal protein, such as beef, lamb, and pork, is high in saturated fat, which can increase your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and contribute to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

Fatty meat is also higher in calories, which can lead to a caloric surplus and weight gain.

Limit ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods aren’t friendly to your heart for several reasons. They’re often high in saturated and trans fats, contain added sugars, are high in sodium, and tend not to be very nutrient-dense. By eating processed foods, you can consume a lot of calories without many other benefits.

Not all processed foods are bad for your heart. Reading labels closely can help you select the best products possible.

Reduce added sugars

Added sugars in food add calories with little to no nutritional benefit. They can contribute to weight gain and promote insulin resistance, increase the risk of atherosclerosis, contribute to inflammation, and raise blood pressure in some people.

The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend keeping added sugar (of any kind) to less than 10% of your daily total calories. The AHA recommends keeping it to less than 6% of daily calories.

Focus on healthy fats

Healthy fats are those that lower your LDL levels, reduce inflammation in the body, and support brain health. Also known as unsaturated fats, healthy fats include monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.

Avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, fatty fish, and seafood are common examples of heart-healthy fats. One of the most important benefits these foods provide is omega-3 fatty acids, a type of essential polyunsaturated fat.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends getting between 20% and 35% of your daily calories from healthy fats and less than 10% from saturated fats.

As a general rule, saturated fats and trans fats should be limited in a heart-healthy diet.

Each heart-healthy diet category has plenty of choices to pick from, but some great options to start with include:

Whole grains and whole-grain products

  • oatmeal
  • barley
  • brown rice
  • quinoa
  • whole grain cereals (with little to no added sugar)
  • whole grain pasta
  • whole wheat bread

Fruits and vegetables

  • kale
  • spinach
  • romaine lettuce
  • arugula
  • broccoli
  • Swiss chard
  • berries
  • carrots
  • oranges
  • bananas
  • apples
  • bell peppers

Healthy protein

  • tofu
  • lean poultry
  • bison
  • venison
  • trout
  • mackerel
  • salmon
  • edamame
  • lentils
  • beans
  • walnuts
  • almonds


  • milk
  • cottage cheese
  • Greek yogurt
  • cheese
  • kefir

Liquid nontropical vegetable oils

  • olive oil
  • flaxseed oil
  • sunflower oil
  • canola oil
  • avocado oil

Foods high in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats

  • olives
  • almonds
  • avocados
  • hemp seeds
  • walnuts
  • chia seeds

Diet is notoriously challenging to change. It’s natural to want to eat the foods you’ve come to enjoy, even when they might not be the best for your heart. The following steps can help you switch to a heart-healthy diet without feeling like you’ve turned your world upside down.

Start small

You don’t have to make big, sweeping changes right away. It’s OK to ease yourself into a heart-healthy diet by making small adjustments first. Instead of eating sugary cereal or donuts for breakfast, for instance, try eating oatmeal with fruits and nuts.

Try new foods — and recipes

With so many heart-healthy food choices, there’s bound to be something you’ll really enjoy. Try new foods and try new recipes. Many traditional dishes that might not be heart-healthy can be made with ingredient substitutions that allow them to be included in your new meal plan.

Ask someone to cook with you

It’s OK if you’re not a professional chef or don’t enjoy cooking. Ask a friend or family member who does enjoy cooking to help you prepare some heart-healthy meals to try.

Cooking with a loved one lets you learn hands-on so you can prepare the dish for yourself in the future. If you’re really unsure where to start, a registered dietitian (RDN) can help you plan out enticing meals to try.

Set achievable goals

Setting an achievable goal gives you something to aim for even when you’re starting out slowly. Over time, all your small goals will snowball into a sustainable diet.

An example of an achievable goal might be to add a colorful fruit or vegetable to at least one of your meals each day, which could eventually turn into regularly including colorful fruits and vegetables in all of your meals.

Learn about heart-healthy eating

Learning about heart health and heart-healthy eating can be motivational and can help you feel in control of your wellness journey. When you have in-depth knowledge about why you’re eating for your heart health, staying on track feels more like a priority and less like an inconvenience.

Feeling motivated? You can start your heart-healthy diet journey right now by:

  • purging your snack pantry of sugary, saturated/trans fat desserts
  • planning a heart-healthy choice for your next meal
  • grabbing a handful of seeds, nuts, or berries if you’re looking for a snack
  • practicing reading food labels in your home
  • drinking some water instead of a sugary beverage
  • starting a food journal or downloading a tracking app on your phone

Incorporating foods that support heart health and lower your risk for CVD is just one part of a heart-healthy eating plan. Avoiding certain foods, like saturated fats, and optimizing your food choices (like “eating the rainbow) are also important.

It’s OK to start this journey gradually. Any positive change is a step in the right direction. Setting small, attainable goals, learning about heart health, and getting creative with your food choices can help this dietary change be a positive experience.