Easy Steps for Adopting a Heart-Healthy Diet

ByTrinity Health WPVI logo
Monday, November 14, 2022

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. and one in five people will die from a heart-related condition.

Your diet plays an important role in the development of heart disease. Along with quitting smoking and being more active, eating healthier is the best thing you can do to improve your heart health. And the younger you start, the better.

"Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, begins in your teens," says Dr. Toni Anne A. De Venecia, a cardiologist at St. Mary Comprehensive Cardiology.

"Many people ignore their diet until they develop cardiovascular symptoms later in life. Adopting a heart healthy diet when you are young can help you live longer and healthier."

Easy Steps for Adopting a Heart Healthy Diet

Making changes to your diet can be challenging, says Dr. De Venecia. It's easier when you break those changes into several simple steps.

Try these strategies to make your diet more heart healthy:

Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals. Most are low in calories and packed with dietary fiber.

Research shows that the nutrients in fruits and vegetables help reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol and prevent cardiovascular disease.

Choose Whole Grain Carbohydrates

Whole grains are rich in fiber and other nutrients that can improve your heart health. Good sources of whole grains include:

  • Barley
  • Brown rice
  • Oatmeal
  • Quinoa
  • Whole wheat flour

When shopping, look for products made with 100% whole wheat or whole grain flour. Some foods say they are whole wheat, but only have a fraction of whole grains.

Carbohydrates to avoid include foods such as white bread, white rice, pasta, crackers, sweets and baked goods.

Limit Unhealthy Fats

Unhealthy fats, including saturated and trans fats, are strongly linked to coronary artery disease. You'll find saturated fats in animal-based foods, such as meat, full-fat dairy, eggs, coconut and palm oils. Trans fats are common in fried foods, processed foods and margarine.

Some fats, such as monounsaturated fats, can lower your heart disease risk. Foods that contain monounsaturated fats include nuts, seeds, avocados and olive, canola and vegetable oils. Dr. De Venecia recommends swapping these healthy fats for unhealthy ones.

Other tips to reduce "bad" fats in your diet include:

  • Avoid foods with "partially hydrogenated oils" in the ingredient list
  • Choose lean meat, fish and low-fat dairy products
  • Limit the number of eggs you eat to three per week
  • Substitute meat with tofu or legumes such as beans, chickpeas or lentils

Reduce Salt

Excess salt (sodium) in your diet can increase your blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, and less than 1,500 milligrams a day if you can.

Most canned and processed foods have high levels of sodium. "Salt is everywhere," says Dr. De Venecia. "It's important to look for low-salt items when you shop. Also, try substituting herbs and spices for salt or using low-sodium seasonings to add flavor to your food."

Watch Your Calories

Excess weight can increase your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. "Even when you eat healthy foods, it's important not to overeat," says Dr. De Venecia. "Knowing what and how much to eat is a skill everyone should learn."

A good resource for learning the food groups and appropriate portion sizes is MyPlate.

Proven Heart Healthy Diet Plans

Most popular diet plans focus on weight loss rather than heart health.

Two diets that have proven heart health benefits include the Mediterranean and DASH (dietary approaches to stop hypertension) diets. These diets may also reduce your risk of other diseases such as diabetes, stroke, cancer and even depression.

Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes foods people traditionally eat in Greece, including:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Fish, seafood and poultry in moderation
  • Legumes
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Olive oil
  • Whole grains

Foods to limit include anything processed as well as red meat, sweets and refined carbohydrates. "The Mediterranean diet has a range of flavorful foods you can eat and is relatively easy to adopt and maintain," says Dr. De Venecia.


Doctors developed the DASH diet in the 1990s to treat high blood pressure without medication. It is similar to the Mediterranean diet but also emphasizes lowering salt intake.

The main theme of the DASH diet is natural, unprocessed foods.

Heart Healthy Diet Tips

Maintaining a heart healthy diet requires patience and persistence. Whether you're just starting out or need a little help getting back on track, Dr. De Venecia offers some suggestions:

  • Cook from scratch: Restaurant meals and ready-to-eat foods often have high salt, high fat or both. When you prepare your own food, you have more control over what you eat.
  • Plan your meals: Meal planning takes the decision out what to eat and prevents you from resorting to processed foods or a last-minute fast-food run.
  • Shop smart: Being a savvy shopper means reading labels and avoiding processed foods. Be sure to eat before you go - shopping on an empty stomach can lead to impulse purchases.
  • Treat yourself (once in a while): Everyone has cravings. If you long for a food, it's okay to occasionally treat yourself.

What are Examples of Heart-Healthy Superfoods?

Superfoods are packed with heart healthy nutrients. Dr. De Venecia recommends maximizing the following superfoods in your diet:

  • Avocados
  • Beans and chickpeas
  • Berries such as blueberries, strawberries and blackberries
  • Fish, such as salmon, cod and canned, light tuna
  • Leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale
  • Olive oil and garlic
  • Seeds, such as chia, flax and hemp seeds
  • Tomatoes
  • Whole grains

Toni Anne A. De Venecia, MD, is board certified in cardiovascular disease by the American Board of Internal Medicine. She received her medical degree from the University of Santo Tomas Faculty of Medicine and Surgery and completed both her residency and fellowship at Albert Einstein Medical Center here in Philadelphia. To request an appointment with Dr. De Venecia, please call her office at 215-750-7818.