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8 Strategies for Maintaining a Heart-Healthy Diet

Posted on November 03, 2022
Article written by
Sarah Winfrey

Do you live with heart conditions like heart failure or atrial fibrillation? Has your doctor, cardiology team, or another health care professional told you to make changes to your diet, among additional lifestyle changes?

Sticking to a heart-healthy diet — especially if this means making big changes to what you eat — can be a challenge. As one MyHeartDiseaseTeam member shared, “Taking care of yourself means watching your diet, taking meds, and exercising. Watching your diet is hard to do.” It’s even more difficult when you have to make significant changes to how, when, where, and what you eat.

This article offers tips that can help you get started with your heart-healthy diet — and stick to it. Read on to learn how to keep eating well and keep your heart as healthy as possible.

How Can a Healthy Diet Help Your Heart?

A heart-healthy diet can have many benefits, especially when added to overall healthy lifestyle changes, including:

  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Reducing blood cholesterol levels
  • Preventing future cholesterol buildup in blood vessels
  • Helping with weight loss or maintaining a healthy weight
  • Managing other risk factors for heart problems

For optimal health, you should maintain a heart-healthy diet throughout your lifetime.

Heart-healthy diets are usually high in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, and they include a variety of fruits and vegetables — at least five per day.

Dos and Don’ts for a Heart-Healthy Diet

Heart-healthy diets are also usually low in:

  • Sodium
  • Trans fats and saturated fats
  • Sugar
  • Cholesterol
  • Alcohol
  • Added sugar, which is usually found in processed foods

Some specific healthy foods that meet these heart-healthy criteria include:

  • Legumes, like black beans and lentils, and nuts
  • Lean meats, such as skinless chicken
  • Other lean proteins, like tofu and eggs
  • Low-fat or fat-free dairy products
  • Fish, like mackerel and salmon
  • Vegetables

Your diet should also include healthy fats found in olive oil, avocado, nuts, and fish. The Mediterranean diet is one example of a heart-healthy diet.

1. Become a ‘Label Guru’

Food labels can tell you a lot if you know how to read them. Learn to look for information about saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars first, as these represent some of the most important ingredients to limit in a heart-healthy diet. If you are buying food without a label, like fresh meat or vegetables, you can find nutrition information online. You can even test your label-savviness with Johns Hopkins Medicine’s online food label quiz.

You may be surprised to find that some foods you routinely eat aren’t suitable for a heart-healthy diet. In these cases, you may be able to find healthy alternatives that suit your needs and taste buds.

2. Experiment With New and Exciting Flavors

Eating high quantities of sodium has been linked with high blood pressure. This, in turn, increases the risk of other cardiovascular problems, including stroke, heart attack, and heart failure.

If you use a lot of salt for flavor, it’s time to find healthier alternatives you love, such as herbs, spices, and fruits. Many stores sell herb mixes for people who can’t have salt, or you can make your own. Either way, when you find a mix you love, you can use it just like you use salt. Your meals will be tasty and flavorful while eliminating excess sodium. Many dishes also become more interesting when you mix unexpected flavors.

3. Have a Plan for Meals and Shopping Trips

When you plan ahead, you’re less likely to break your healthy eating habits. As one member wrote, “I’m making a diet grocery list. Got to stay on track!”

You can start by finding nutritious recipes you love, then figuring out what you need to make them. When you do this, you’ll have what you need to make satisfying meals. You’ll also be less likely to end up in a situation where you don’t have anything healthy to eat around the house. You can plan for snacks, too, so there’s no excuse for not grabbing something good for your heart.

4. Learn To Enjoy Your Favorite Foods in Moderation

You may not necessarily need to eliminate your favorite foods. Instead, learn to eat them occasionally, in moderation, and with reduced portion sizes. A dessert or a salty snack here and there will not ruin your overall efforts to eat a heart-healthy diet.

If you are craving certain foods you’ve been advised to avoid, try eating them after a full meal. You may find that a bite or two satisfies your cravings.

You can also look online for re-creations of your favorite foods that are lower in salt, fat, or sugar.

5. Keep Heart Health in Mind When Eating Out

It can be difficult to identify heart-healthy options when eating out. However, you should try to eat for your heart whenever you consume food — not just when you’re at home.

Look for menus online for the restaurants you’re planning to visit. Find meals that promote heart health and that also appeal to you. Look for healthier substitutes when available. A salad, for instance, can often take the place of a side order of chips. You can also practice portion control by limiting the serving size of your meals.

6. Try Tracking Your Meals on a Mobile App

You may want to consider planning or tracking your meals via a mobile app. There are several apps that can help you track the nutritional and caloric value of the foods you eat throughout the day.

Mobile apps can also help you find recipes, plan shopping trips, and more. There are many options available, and, with a little searching, you can find one that will fit your needs.

7. Recruit Family and Friends To Help You Out

You may find that it’s easier to change your diet when your friends and family are working with you to promote healthy eating habits. Explain your heart condition to the people you’re close to, then talk to them about the dietary changes you’re making.

If this will affect how or when you interact with them, let them know. For example, if you often go out to eat at restaurants with few heart-healthy dishes, you may ask to try somewhere with healthier options or pursue a nonfood-related activity.

You may feel lonely eating in way that’s different from the way people around you eat. “Having trouble keeping a social life now that I can’t drink and have a strict diet,” wrote one MyHeartDiseaseTeam member. “I wonder if my friends are avoiding me because they think I’ll be a downer.”

Getting your friends and family on your side will help you remain socially active and raise your sense of well-being while being heart-conscious.

Having other people on your side can also be inspirational. As one member wrote to another, “I really need to get my diet act together, and you have inspired me!”

If you can find this inspiration in your daily life, it will help you a lot.

8. Work With a Diet Expert

If you need to make major changes to your diet because of cardiovascular disease, consider working with a dietitian who focuses on heart-healthy eating. Ask your cardiologist or another health care provider for a referral. Also check with your health insurance company to see if this service is covered.

A professional can help you prioritize the changes you need to make, like swapping out processed grains for whole grains (complex carbohydrates like brown rice, whole-grain bread and cereals, and whole-wheat flour). They can then help you slowly incorporate them into your diet, so the change does not feel as drastic. They can also help you come up with food strategies for potentially difficult situations, like holiday parties, family gatherings, eating out, and more.

Find Your Heart-Healthy Team Today

If you or a loved one is living with heart disease and trying to eat a more heart-healthy diet, consider joining MyHeartDiseaseTeam today. Here, you will find a community of others who understand life with heart disease. You can ask questions, offer support and advice, and connect with more than 54,000 members from around the world.

How do you stick to a heart-healthy diet? What does sticking to a heart-healthy diet look like for you? Share your thoughts or tips in the comments below or by posting on MyHeartDiseaseTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Larry A. Weinrauch, MD, FACC, FACP, FAHA is an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School with a focus on cardiovascular disease and clinical outcomes research. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Sarah Winfrey is a writer at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about her here.

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