How to Follow a Heart-Healthy Diet: What to Eat and What to Avoid

We don’t consume individual foods in isolation. We don’t eat single ingredients, solitary nutrients or food groups exclusively. At least I don’t.

For example, we would never define our diet solely by how many cups of whole wheat flour we eat, the milligrams of sodium we consume or a specific number of fruit servings.

Because it’s SO MUCH MORE than that.

We put foods together in various combinations each and every day (think breakfast, lunch, and dinner). And these combinations form a long-term eating pattern. An eating pattern that evolves throughout our life and defines the way we build meals for ourselves and our families. An eating pattern that, if inclusive of nutrient-dense and nourishing foods, can actually shape our long-term heath in a positive way.


What is a Healthy Eating Pattern?

The 2015-2020 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) define a healthy eating pattern as the totality of all foods and beverages you consume which meet your nutritional needs without exceeding set limits for calories, added sugar, sodium (salt), and saturated fat.

This means three things:

  • Get the Nutrients You Need with Variety
    • Eat a variety of foods across all food groups (Fruits, Vegetables, Dairy, Whole Grains, Protein)
    • Eat a variety of foods within each food group (i.e., dark leafy greens, red tomatoes, orange carrots, yellow bell peppers for Vegetables)
    • Choose foods in all forms (fresh, canned, dried, frozen, 100% juice)
  • Keep a Healthy Body Weight with Appropriate Serving Sizes
    • Food group targets that support a healthy body weight vary depending on age, sex, height, weight and activity level
    • Don’t measure every morsel; simply aim for the following number of food group servings each day
  • Lower Your Risk for Health Problems
    • Limit nutrients of concern – added sugar, sodium and saturated fat – to help prevent and reduce the risk of chronic disease  

Heart healthy eating pattern guidelines


How Was This Healthy Eating Pattern Developed?

The components of the above DGA healthy eating pattern were developed by integrating findings from systematic reviews of scientific research. In other words, a group of experts reviewed extensive amounts of nutrition science research before landing on these recommendations.

Experts reviewed research that:

  • Analyzed the relationship between diet and health outcomes (i.e., how do single foods, beverages and nutrients affect short- and long-term health)
  • Examined food modeling patterns (i.e., how well various combinations and amounts of foods from all food groups could meet our nutritional needs while limiting nutrients of concern (added sugar, sodium and saturated fat))
  • Assessed the current dietary intake of the U.S. population as a way to identify areas of concern in public health

Ok, but…

Why is a Healthy Eating Pattern Important for Heart Health?

What you eat and drink matters. Eating a healthy diet is one of the best ways to fight heart disease because nutrient dense foods help us control our weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

What you put into your body for optimal heart health is a topic that scientists have been interested in for decades. And extensive research shows that a healthy eating patterns is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Further evidence also indicates that a healthy eating pattern is associated with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancers (such as colorectal and postmenopausal breast cancers), overweight and obesity.

List of foods to eat when following a heart healthy eating pattern

What Foods Should I Eat as Part of a Heart-Healthy Eating Pattern?

As previously mentioned, an eating pattern is not one specific food or diet and therefore, there is MORE THAN ONE way to achieve a healthy combination. A healthy eating plan includes the following food groups, but it can easily be adapted and individualized to meet socio-cultural and personal preferences.


Mostly WholeAll Forms2 ½ Servings per day
Choose whole sources for at least half of your fruits (i.e., a whole apple vs. apple juice) Choose fresh, canned, frozen dried, 100% juice without added sugar Serving = 1 cup raw or cooked; ½ cup dried; 1 cup 100% juice


ColorfulAll Forms2 1/2 Servings per day
Choose a variety of colorful vegetables (i.e., dark greens, red tomatoes, orange carrots, yellow peppers) Choose fresh, frozen, canned, dried, cooked, raw, 100% juice Serving = 1 cup raw or cooked; 2 cups leafy salad greens, ½ cup dried, 1 cup 100% juice


Mostly Whole6 Servings per day
Choose whole grains, which contain the entire grain kernel (endosperm, bran and germ) for at least half of your grains (i.e., whole wheat vs. white bread) Serving = 1-ounce slice, ½ cup cooked (1 ounce dry) pasta, rice or cereal; 1 cup ready-to-eat cereal


Both Animal and PlantLean6 ½ Servings per day
Choose a variety of high-quality animal (meat and seafood*) and plant (beans, legumes, unsalted nuts and seeds) proteinsFor animal protein, choose lean cuts. Lean is defined as 3 ounces cooked (3 ½ ounces uncooked) of meat or poultry with less than 10 grams of total fat; 4 ½ grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol.Serving = 1 egg; ¼ cup beans, peas or tofu; 1 ounce cooked lean meat, poultry or seafood; ½ oz nuts or seeds; 1 Tbsp peanut butter
Lean BeefLean ChickenLean Pork/Lamb
Cuts with “round” and “loin” in the name (i.e., tenderloin, top loin, sirloin tip, ground round); 90-95% lean ground beefSkinless, white meat (i.e., breast, tenders, wings)Cuts with “loin” it the name (i.e., pork center loin, pork tenderloin; lamb tenderloin)

*Seafood: Aim to get 15 servings of protein each week from seafood for omega-3 fatty acids, which are associated with reduced cardiac deaths among individuals with and without preexisting heart disease. Individuals who regularly consumer MORE than the recommended amounts of seafood should choose focus on options that are relatively low in methyl mercury.


Unsaturated Plant-Based5 Servings per day
Choose oils extracted from plants (i.e., canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, sunflower, avocado, flaxseed), which are high in mono and polyunsaturated fats over oils from tropical plants (i.e., coconut, palm kernel and palm oils), which are high in saturated fat. Servings = 5 teaspoons (3 tsp = 1 Tbsp)
List of foods to avoid eating when following a heart healthy eating pattern

What Foods Should I Avoid as Part of a Heart Healthy Eating Pattern?

A healthy eating plan limits the following food groups, which increase heart disease risk.

Saturated and Trans Fat

Strong and consistent evidence shows that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular events (i.e., heart attacks) and cardiovascular disease-related deaths.

Less than 5-6% saturated fatLower intake of foods high saturated fatAvoid trans fat
Aim for less than 5-6% of calories per day from saturated fat (<11-13 g/day)Fatty or processed animal products (butter, lard, full-fat dairy, beef fat (tallow), poultry with skin, and certain cuts of pork, lamb and beef), baked goods, fried foods, tropical oils (i.e., palm oil, palm kernel oil, coconut oil), coconut milk Partially hydrogenated oils found in processed foods. Due to its LDL (bad) cholesterol raising effects, studies show an association between increased intake of trans fats and increased risk of heart disease.


Added sugars* contribute zero nutrients, but many added calories that can lead to extra pounds and obesity, thereby increasing the risk for heart disease.

5-7.5% of calories per day from added sugarLower intake of foods high in added sugar
Men: No more than 150 calories per day from added sugar (150 calories = 36 grams = 9 teaspoons)
Women: No more than 100 calories per day from added sugar (100 calories = 25 grams = 6 teaspoons)
Regular soft drinks, sugars, candy, cakes, muffins, cookies, pies, fruit drinks (fruitades and fruit punch), dairy desserts (ice cream), milk products (sweetened yogurt or milk), refined grains (sugar cereals and breads)

*What is considered “added” sugar?

Sugar (cane, brown coconut), syrup (maple syrup, molasses, honey, brown rice syrup, agave nectar, high fructose corn syrup, cane juice, fruit juice concentrate), most ingredients ending in the letters “ose” (like fructose and dextrose)


High blood pressure is a surrogate indicator for cardiovascular disease risk. Strong evidence indicates reductions in sodium intake can lower blood pressure among people with prehypertension and hypertension.

< 1,500 mg per dayLower intake of foods high in sodium
Aim to eat no more than 1,500 milligrams per day from sodium (1,500 mg = 3 ¾ grams = ¾ teaspoons) Canned goods, deli meats, processed foods, packaged foods, restaurant foods, frozen dinners


Drinking too much alcohol can raise triglycerides and lead to high blood pressure, heart failure and an increased calorie intake, which can contribute to obesity. When drinking alcohol, do so in moderation:

MenWomenOne Drink = 0.6 oz pure alcohol
No more than 2 drinks per dayNo more than 1 drink per day12 oz beer (5% alcohol)
4 oz wine (12% alcohol)
1.5 oz 80 proof distilled spirit (40% alcohol)

Food group and nutrient limits were identified using the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and were based on a 2,000-calorie Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 DietaryGuidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at

U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service. A Guide to Federal Food Labeling Requirements for Meat, Poultry, and Egg Products. August 2007. Available at

American Heart Association. Added Sugars. April 2018. Available at

American Heart Association. Alcohol and Heart Health. August 2014. Available at

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