How to Choose a Heart-Healthy Diet
Looking for an eating plan that’ll protect your ticker? These are the top diets for a healthy heart, with loads of recipes you’re going to love.
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My grandmother had her first heart attack before she was 50. I grew up watching my mom (who was an RN) badger her own mother about her sodium intake — and salt the meals she cooked for our family with a light hand. These days scientists know a lot more about the best foods for a heart-healthy diet, and it goes way beyond salt. If you want to lower your risk of heart disease, a little info about heart-healthy eating — and the right recipes — will go a long way.
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Risk factors for cardiovascular disease
You can’t change some risk factors for heart attack, stroke, and heart disease:
Gender (men have a higher risk)
Race and ethnicity (African-American, Mexican-American, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and some Asian-Americans face elevated risk)
Heredity (my grandmother’s heart attacks raise my risk)
But other factors can be managed by changing your diet. Focusing on a heart-healthy foods list can help lower your blood cholesterol levels (especially LDL, the “bad” kind), reduce high blood pressure, manage your blood sugar, and maintain a healthy weight — all of which contribute to your overall heart health.
Dietary ways to lower your risk for heart disease
What is the best heart-healthy diet, and how should you choose a heart-healthy diet? First step: Go for the heart-friendly eating plan you find easiest to live with. Luckily, all four of the following have been proven to help protect your heart health (and each comes with plenty of other health benefits, too, like weight loss and lower risk of diabetes). Each includes tons of healthy foods (that heart-healthy foods list) — meaning, good sources of lean protein, complex carbohydrates (and soluble fiber), healthy fats, and heart-friendly antioxidants, with relatively little added sugar, saturated fat, or trans fats.
Mediterranean diet: Unless you’ve been living off the grid the last 20 years, you know the Mediterranean diet consistently gets top scores from scientists, doctors, and the panel at US News & World Reports. The idea is simple: Eat the way they’ve been eating for hundreds of years in Mediterranean countries, with lots of olive oil, plenty of seafood, abundant fresh produce, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and an occasional glass of red wine.
DASH diet: “DASH” stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Developed with help from the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute, the DASH diet was created to help lower high blood pressure. It’s a low-sodium diet, but more sophisticated than the one my grandmother followed — it emphasizes foods that have plenty of calcium, potassium, magnesium, and fiber, which together help lower your BP.
Plant-centered diet: This may be the easiest way to lower your risk of heart disease — just focus on eating more plant-based foods. A recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association tracked participants for 32 years and found that eating a diet that centers around plants — and still includes some animal products — was associated with a 52% lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Flexitarian diet: Also known as a “semi-vegetarian” diet, this plan has been associated with lower BMI, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels compared to omnivores. Flexitarian eating goes one step further than a plant-centered plan. You’ll mostly eat plant-based foods, with animal products included but used even less frequently.
Whichever of those heart-healthy diet plans you choose, you’ve got virtually endless ways to follow them. Get started with these satisfying, easy recipes.
Recipes for the Mediterranean diet
If you can picture yourself eating a dish while gazing out over the azure Mediterranean, then it’s probably a good fit for this heart-healthy diet plan.
This is the kind of salad I make on Sunday and eat for lunch all week: whole-wheat couscous, tons of chopped fresh vegetables and herbs, kalamata olives, and feta cheese, all tossed with an easy dressing made from heart-healthy olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic.
On the Mediterranean diet, you’re recommended to eat fish at least twice a week. On a weeknight, I love a simple one-pot dinner with fresh cod (or another white fish) nestled in a simmering mix of anise-scented fennel, tomatoes, kale, and olives. Serve it with brown rice, quinoa, or another whole grain to catch the luscious juices.
Pasta Bolognese is my husband’s go-to when we’re trying out a new Italian restaurant. It’s so rich, I never make the authentic version at home. But this vegetarian version is ideal for a lazy Sunday. Crumbled up tofu takes on a pretty meaty quality when you simmer it with aromatic vegetables, mushrooms, and tomatoes — you wouldn’t necessarily realize you’re devouring plant-based protein.
I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to put a bunch of chopped vegetables and broth in the Instant Pot, push a few buttons, and have a hearty dinner ready in less than 30 minutes. Adding the zucchini, beans, pasta, and greens at the end makes everything taste super-fresh. Pro tip: Save the rinds when you grate Parmesan cheese, throw a chunk into the pot when you make soup like this, and toss it out before serving. It deepens the flavor but doesn’t add any fat.
Meal Plans for the Mediterranean diet
You're ready to go in big, and you want more ideas for what foods are part of a heart-healthy diet. Check out these different approaches to a Mediterranean diet Meal Plan.
Recipes for the DASH diet
To meet the low-sodium focus of the DASH diet, all of these recipes have less than 500mg of sodium per serving. And they’re so delicious, you won’t miss the salt.
Thanks to fiber-filled whole grain (farro), lean protein (boneless, skinless poultry), heart-healthy pistachios, and very little added salt, this warm salad ticks all the DASH requirements. Leftovers make a perfect lunch, too.
Sometimes I can’t believe how much flavor you can get from just a handful of ingredients. This recipe is a perfect example of that: Put mild white fish in a baking dish, layer with sliced garlic and red onion, lightly season with a bit of salt and pepper and a hearty dose of paprika, pour extra-virgin olive oil and white wine over the top, and bake. Heaven.
A lean cut of pork like the tenderloin works well when you’re eating for cardiovascular health. Here, a simple dry rub — which includes just 1 teaspoon of salt for eight servings — adds a ton of flavor to a simple weeknight roast. Add a tray of veggies to the oven while the pork is in there, and you’ve got a complete dinner.
You don’t have to give up tacos when you’re following a heart-healthy diet plan. Instead of tons of red meat and full-fat dairy, fill them with chili powdered-sweet potatoes, heart-smart black beans, and avocado. Using flavor-packed cotija or feta cheese means you only need a little, and you can swap in reduced-fat Greek yogurt for the full-fat version.
Recipes for a plant-centered diet
One author of that JAHA study suggested filling 70% of your grocery bag with heart-healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes — use the rest for lean meats; canola, olive oil, or other heart-healthy vegetable oils; low-fat dairy products; and a treat or two. Each of these recipes meets that standard.
Just one-third of a pound of flavorful Italian sausage stretches into four servings, thanks to juicy tomatoes, garlic, red onion, and fresh herbs, plus a little bit each of seasoned breadcrumbs and umami-rich Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. And of course, that yummy concoction fills a scooped-out zucchini, a delicious plant-pased boat.
I’ve had plenty of egg roll bowls in my day, but I’d never tried the Filipino version — a lumpia bowl — until now. This one is jam-packed with vegetables like cabbage, sweet potato, bean sprouts, carrots, and string beans, with a single pound of ground beef making six servings (I use extra-lean). Fish sauce and a simple garlic vinegar dressing add the wow.
Tuna is a heart-healthy protein, since it offers some of the protective omega-3 fatty acids. Here, a six-ounce jar meets up with a can of white beans; plenty of fresh, crunchy vegetables; and a punchy, basil-and-shallot dressing. This is my idea of a perfect dinner salad.
I love a veggie burger as much as the next person, but sometimes I just crave beef. Which is why this clever technique rocks: Swap in finely chopped cremini mushrooms for half the ground beef. It adds a ton of umami flavor while shaving off half the saturated fat. And if you don’t want to tell your family, they’ll never guess.
Recipes for the Flexitarian diet
These next recipes work for whatever mood you’re in. Want a little meat or seafood? You got it. Fully vegan? That’s fine, too.
With just three ounces of indulgent prosciutto spread across six servings, this is a perfect example of Flexitarian cooking. Using leftover cooked farro (or quinoa) shaves a ton of time off this recipe — you can have it on the table in about 10 minutes.
Adding a ham hock to inexpensive, dried white beans creates a soup with tons of meaty flavor but very little actual meat. And using a slow cooker means this is a heart-healthy, Flexitarian soup that takes almost no work.
Gluten-free, nutty soba noodles make a gloriously slurpy base for a heart-friendly dinner. This recipe from a dietitian is Flexitarian because it calls for both shrimp and tofu — and you can absolutely go with all tofu, if you’re in the mood. The ginger-lemon-soy sauce is positively scrumptious.
You won’t believe how easy it is to make mashed chickpeas taste like tuna salad (the secret ingredient is seaweed, which gives it that briny essence). This uses much less mayo than a regular tuna salad, too. Skip the white bread for a truly heart-healthy experience, and serve on your favorite whole-grain bread.
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