The cardiac diet emphasizes foods such as vegetables, whole grains, and oily fish. These foods are beneficial for heart health. The diet also limits processed foods that are high in sugar and salt, as these increase the risk of heart disease.
This article will cover some foods to eat and avoid and give an example of a cardiac diet meal plan.
It will also discuss healthful food options at restaurants, offer tips on how to stick with the diet, and suggest some other lifestyle changes to make.
One 2019 review indicated that the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, the Mediterranean diet, and vegetarian diets have the most evidence for cardiovascular disease prevention.
The American Heart Association (AHA) say that the following foods are beneficial for heart health:
Fruits and vegetables
The phrase “eat the rainbow” is a useful way for people to remember to consume a variety of different colored fruits and vegetables each day. The different types of antioxidants that plant foods contain can help protect the heart.
Fruits and vegetables are also a good source of fiber, which is essential for heart health.
Experts suggest eating 4–5 servings (2.5 cups) of vegetables per day.
People should try to focus on eating non-starchy vegetables and limiting the portion sizes of starchy vegetables, including potatoes and squash.
Oily fish contains omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties and are good for the heart.
The AHA suggest eating 2 servings of fish, particularly fatty fish, per week. A serving is 3.5 ounces cooked or a three-quarter cup of flaked fish.
Fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- lake trout
- albacore tuna
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advise children and pregnant or breastfeeding women to avoid larger fish such as shark, swordfish, and marlin. This is due to potential mercury contamination.
Limiting refined grains and opting for whole grains instead helps protect against cardiovascular disease.
Whole grains contain more beneficial fiber than refined grains. People can include whole grain bread, pasta, and rice as part of a healthful diet.
Nuts, seeds, and legumes
The best diets for cardiovascular health include 2–3 cups of nuts, seeds, and legumes daily.
However, although they are nutritious, nuts and seeds are also very energy-dense. For this reason, a person should consume them in accordance with their desired calorie intake.
A person can try adding the following to their diet:
- Nuts: These include walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, and cashews.
- Seeds: These include sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and chia seeds.
- Legumes: These include garbanzo beans, lentils, black beans, kidney beans, adzuki beans, and fava beans.
Low fat dairy foods
However, they say that most of the evidence suggests that people should consume less saturated fat in their diet. A person can consume less saturated fat by choosing skimmed milk and low fat dairy products.
There are several foods a person should try to limit when following the cardiac diet. These are:
Red and processed meat
Red meat is a source of saturated fat. According to several studies, replacing red or processed meat with plant protein may lower the risk of heart disease.
Plant proteins include nuts, legumes, whole grains, and soy products.
Sugar sweetened foods and beverages
Many processed foods and beverages contain added sugars — especially sodas and energy drinks.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting calories from added sugars to no more than 10% each day. If following a 2,000-calorie diet, this equates to 200 calories, or 12 teaspoons of sugar, per day.
Avoiding excess sugar can help a person maintain a moderate weight and prevent heart disease.
Processed foods often contain long lists of ingredients, many of which are not beneficial for a healthy heart. For example, many processed foods contain:
- high sugar
- high salt
- trans fats
- saturated fat
- additives and food colorings
If possible, try to cook meals from scratch using whole foods. This is a more healthful option.
Refined carbohydrates lack fiber and can potentially cause a blood sugar imbalance. Over time, consuming a lot of refined carbs can lead to insulin resistance and weight gain, which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Some refined carbs to limit include:
- white bread, pasta, and rice
- cakes, biscuits, and pastries
- many breakfast cereals
- pizza dough
- sweet desserts
- white flour
People who consume alcohol should try to do so in moderation. This means consuming no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men.
Some people believe that a moderate intake of red wine can help protect the heart because it contains resveratrol. However, the evidence for this is weak, according to Harvard University.
Consuming too much salt (sodium) may give rise to high blood pressure and increase cardiovascular risk.
The AHA say that reducing sodium intake by 1,000 milligrams per day can reduce blood pressure.
Many processed foods contain added salt, so a person can monitor their intake by reading the labels and choosing whole foods instead, when possible.
The cardiac diet aims to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by encouraging people to eat healthful, anti-inflammatory foods.
The basic principles of this diet are:
- Eat whole foods and avoid processed foods.
- Include a wide variety of vegetables and fruits.
- Limit red and processed meat.
- Limit full fat dairy products.
- Eat a few portions of oily fish per week.
- Include healthful fats, such as olive oil and avocados.
- Add nuts, seeds, and legumes.
- Limit alcohol and added sugar intake.
People can make a start with the cardiac diet using the following meal plan:
- Breakfast: Try overnight oats topped with flaked almonds and blueberries. Serve with a spoonful of low fat yogurt.
- Lunch: Try a salmon and avocado salad, including green leaves, peppers, red onion, tomatoes, cucumber, and a squeeze of lemon.
- Dinner: Prepare a vegetarian bean chili. Serve with brown rice and a green salad.
- Snack options: Opt for hummus and carrot sticks, apple slices and a spoonful of nut butter, or a boiled egg with oatcakes.
Some people may find that altering their eating habits is challenging at first.
So, try making gradual changes, maybe two per week, and sticking to them. This is preferable to making many changes all at once and then giving up quickly.
Keeping a food journal or having a diet buddy can often help people stay motivated. Also, planning a special treat at the end of a month of perseverance is a good way for someone to reward themselves.
Another tip is to add herbs and spices (instead of salt or dressings) to meals to boost their flavor.
Good options to eat at restaurants include:
- skinless poultry
- fish (particularly oily fish)
- vegetarian options that omit high fat cheese sauces
- dishes based on legumes, such as chilli or lentil dishes, served with brown rice
- salads with avocado, olives, or olive oil dressings
People should try to avoid high sugar and high fat sauces and dressings. They should also aim to limit their alcohol intake when dining out.
Some other tips for a healthy heart include:
- exercising regularly
- avoiding long periods of sitting
- quitting smoking
- relieving stress through activities such as mindfulness or yoga
- planning grocery shopping and batch cooking
- being mindful of portion sizes
Creating and sticking to the cardiac diet is a process. If a person is used to eating refined carbs and processed foods frequently, they may find it difficult to stick to a more healthful diet. Trying the tips above may help.
Over time, adhering to the cardiac diet should result in a person being able to maintain a moderate weight. This has numerous health benefits, including reducing the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Whole grains, vegetables, and oily fish are excellent staple foods to include in the cardiac diet.
While following this diet, a person should focus on plant-based foods and items that are low in saturated fat. People should try to avoid processed foods, sugar, and saturated fats, including red meat and dairy.
It can be helpful for people to plan their diet and be mindful of their choices when dining out.
Getting daily exercise is also beneficial for heart health.