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The WHY and HOW to Eat for Heart Health

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

by Emma Mattison – NASM, CPT, CNC, and Functional Aging Specialist

*Disclosure: I only recommend products I would use myself, and all opinions expressed here are our own. This post may contain affiliate links that, at no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission. Read the full privacy policy here.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. However, it is widely considered one of the most preventable causes of death if one consciously tries to incorporate a "heart-healthy diet" alongside regular exercise. In this article, I will outline the fundamental aspects of nutrition recommended to help keep your heart happy – and working for you.

What Exactly is a Heart Healthy Diet?

A heart-healthy diet is an eating plan that can help you minimize your diet's adverse effects on your heart. The overall goal is to decrease the amount of sodium and unhealthy fats in your diet by increasing the amount of nutrient-rich foods you consume daily. Unlike many diets, a heart-healthy diet tells you what you can eat rather than what you cannot.

You might have heard of a heart-healthy diet called the DASH or cardiac diet (NHLBI, 2021).

Why Heart Health?

According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, affecting men, women, and all racial and ethnic groups. It is estimated that it costs the US 363 billion dollars annually in health care services, medication, and loss of productivity (CDC, 2022). It is worth being aware of what you can do for yourself to maintain heart health. It could save you lots in medical bills and allow you to continue to do the things you love!

Behavioral risk factors of an unhealthy heart include an unhealthy diet, inadequate physical activity, smoking, and alcohol consumption (Adhikari, 2018; CDC, 2022). The effects of these risk factors are high blood pressure, diabetes, being overweight, obesity, and high cholesterol. The good news is that these risk factors can partly be managed by healthy lifestyle choices – such as eating a healthy diet and daily physical activity.

This article will focus on how food can help manage heart health.

How Does Eating for Heart Health Help My Fitness Goals?

Eating for heart health is about providing our bodies with what it needs for maximum efficiency. By giving ourselves more of what we need and less of what we don't, we set our hearts up for success and our whole bodies. Think of it like a car. It runs efficiently when we give our car the fuel and oil it needs. If we don't give it enough or put the wrong type in, it will slow down and not perform how we would like it to.

Read on to learn what foods our bodies rely on – and why – for maximum well-being.

How Do I Implement a Healthy Heart Diet?

One of the main tips the American Heart Association offers for maintaining heart health is to eat an overall "healthy" dietary pattern. Below are a few tips on how to do this.

  • Choose Foods Prepared with Little or No Salt

Too much sodium in our diets wreaks havoc on our bodies by raising blood pressure. High blood pressure can damage arteries and cause them to be blocked, preventing blood flow to the heart and oxygen to the brain.

Skipping the added table salt can help decrease sodium intake, but most of our salt intake comes from packaged and processed foods. Choose fresh fruits and veggies whenever possible, and choose packaged foods with "no added salt" or "low sodium."

If you're debating what salt to consider, I recommend Himalayan pink salt and use the brand personally in the image below. To compare, in 1/4 tsp of pink salt, there is only 420 mg of sodium. Sea salt contains around 500 mg of sodium per 1/4 tsp. In regular salt? There are about 575 mg or more. Please still be mindful of how much salt you add, even if you use Himalayan pink salt! I used to dump Himalayan pink salt into my recipes, passing it off as some magical salt-less seasoning. A "dash" of salt to taste becomes nearly a tablespoon. Regarding it, no matter what salt you use, be mindful of how much you are using!

Most Americans consume too much daily sodium, upwards of 3,400 mg. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends less than 2,300 mg of sodium daily (FDA 2022). For reference, this is about one teaspoon of salt. An ideal limit of sodium per day is 1500 mg, according to the American Heart Association (AHA, 2021). Since sodium occurs naturally in foods, most don't need to worry about not consuming enough salt.

  • Choose Foods with Little or No Added Sugars

Compared to foods with natural sugars, added sugars provide no nutritional value. They instead provide extra calories that our bodies don’t need. Our bodies take the excess sugars and combine them with fatty acids to make a lipid called triglycerides. In moderation, triglycerides are necessary to provide us with energy, and we also get triglycerides naturally from our diets. However, having too many triglycerides in our body causes our artery walls to thicken, also known as atherosclerosis.

This can be prevented or managed by choosing more foods with little or no added sugars. Fresh fruits and vegetables and non-processed whole-grain products are great examples.

Food labels must state "added sugars," so check out the label when purchasing packaged foods. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to 6% of daily calories. (AHA, 2021). This equates to 25 mg or six teaspoons of added sugar for women. For men, this is 36mg or approximately nine teaspoons. These guidelines are stricter than others to slow obesity and heart disease rates. You don't need any of your carbohydrates to come from added sugars, so the less, the better.

If you've got a rotten sweet tooth, I can recommend these added sugar-less sweeteners to the left. I use stevia in all my teas, oatmeals, and liquid-based items. I have even used it to bake with some success!

  • Eat a Wide Variety of Fruits and Vegetables

Many fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamin C and vitamin A, both antioxidants.

It can slow down or reduce plaque buildup from cholesterol in our bloodstream. They are also loaded with fiber, which helps slow digestion and the rate at which sugars enter your bloodstream. By choosing fruits and vegetables with meals, you load up on nutrients and fiber, leaving less room for non-nutrient-dense foods!

Cantaloupe, citrus fruits – such as grapefruit and oranges – broccoli, and red cabbage are lovely natural sources of vitamin C. Vitamin A is found in leafy greens as well as orange and yellow vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots, and squash. Overall, aim to eat a variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables.

  • Choose High Fiber Foods

Unlike refined grains, whole grains are a great source of dietary fiber. Likewise, certain vegetables are excellent sources of fiber as well! Fiber helps reduce LDL cholesterol, often called the "bad" cholesterol in our blood. While cholesterol is necessary for our bodies to build cells and hormones, too much will cause a build-up in the arteries, slowing blood flow and potentially leading to heart attack or stroke. When we consume fiber from the foods we eat, it forms a gel-like substance in our digestive system. This traps cholesterol and stops our body from reabsorbing it into the bloodstream. Opt for unprocessed whole grains and rice whenever possible.

  • Choose Lean Proteins

We get protein in our diets from animal meats and bi-products – including dairy and

eggs – and plant products – such as soy, legumes, nuts, and beans. The nutrients in lean protein can help lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and help maintain a healthy weight. Examples of lean proteins include turkey, fish, nuts, seeds, and soy.

Fish is an excellent choice for protein and heart health because it is filled with omega-3 fatty acids, which further help reduce the risk of heart failure and coronary heart disease (USDA 2020). The USDA recommends eating 2, 3.5 oz servings of fish per week. For easy reference, a serving of fish is about the size of the palm of your hand!

While higher-fat sources of protein are rich sources of iron, zinc, and vitamin B12, some studies have suggested that choosing lean proteins over higher-fat sources, most of the time, can help prevent heart disease. Higher-fat protein sources, like red meat, butter, and cheese, have saturated fats, which can elevate LDL cholesterol when consumed too often.

How Do I Get Started?

If eating for heart health is on your "heart," it's always a good time to start. It is easy to get overwhelmed with information, but small changes add up over time. Pick one or two tips at a time and implement them into your lifestyle, and then add a few more when you are ready. Always consult your doctor or dietitian with questions or concerns regarding your health and diet.


Interested in Changing Your Life?

Suppose you are 45+, ready for a change in your life. In that case, whether you are looking to improve your health through diet and exercise, lose weight, get your balance and mobility back, feel stronger once again, or move freely, quickly, and pain-free, I offer online personal training & nutrition coaching, and other programs (Online Tai Chi is coming soon!)

For nutrition, I offer custom 7-day meal plans alongside my personal training, including a GROCERY LIST and meal prep guide. Everything you need to take the power of your health into your own hands!

The first step in getting started is to book a free 30 min call with me to chat about your goals and share your health and training history!

You can also email me at


About the Author

Hi! I'm Emma Mattison. I'm a NASM-certified personal trainer, nutrition coach, stretch & flexibility coach, pranayama breathwork guide, holistic nerd, and lover of birds & music! I specialize in functional fitness for older adults and those with conditions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. Scientific literature is fun to me, and I aim to make it understandable and fun for you!

I am driven to share the knowledge I find fascinating & transformative with my clients and the world. Everyone has the power to take their health into their own hands!

My love for fitness and true health discovery started with helping my best friend – who I can now call my husband! Today, I couldn't do any of this as smoothly and enjoyably as I do now without him! Check out our YouTube, MyZeniverse! He literally edits and films everything. As we speak, he's editing the next YouTube video next to me right now! Check it out, and give it a like if it's helpful! 😊😊




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