Nuts (cashews) as example of heart-healthy food

Heart-healthy foods: plant-based and animal-based foods for the heart

Medically reviewed on June 27, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people every year than cancer, lower respiratory disease, and diabetes [1]. But a few simple steps can go a long way toward preventing it, starting with a consistent diet of heart-healthy foods.

One effective way to keep track of your cardiovascular health is through an at-home heart health test. These tests provide insights into important factors such as cholesterol levels, triglycerides, and other markers of heart health. By incorporating these tests into your routine, you can gain a better understanding of your heart health and make informed choices about your diet and lifestyle.

Healthy foods for your heart

The good news is that our bodies collect nutrients that naturally aid heart health. In fact, the body absorbs HDL, or "good cholesterol," through healthy foods. Diets for heart health involve plenty of organic foods and less processed food—the search for heart-healthy food starts in the soil.

Nutrients to Look For

It can be difficult, and often impossible, to restrict yourself to just a few foods for the rest of your life. So, while exploring the world of culinary fare, steer toward foods and food labels that contain the following nutrients and organic compounds helpful in boosting your heart health:

  • Fiber – The American Hospital Association cites fiber as a key nutrient in many foods linked to strong heart health, including whole grains, plant-based proteins, fruits, and vegetables [1].
  • Unsaturated fats – These healthy fats can stabilize cholesterol levels and heart rhythms. Increase your intake with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, often found in nuts, seeds, and avocados [2].
  • Omega-3 fatty acids – This unique class of polyunsaturated fat is immensely beneficial for fighting heart disease by reducing bad cholesterol. You can find it in fatty fish, flax seeds, and walnuts [2].

Keep reading to learn more about 10 of these foods and the benefits you can expect from incorporating them into your regular eating habits.

Plant-based foods

Studies show that a heavily plant-focused diet is linked to a drastically reduced risk of heart disease, making plant-based foods a staple of heart-healthy eating. Let’s take a look at some of them now.

Fruits and vegetables

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. You can prepare them in a variety of ways, but you should always remember to cook or wash them first to reduce the risk of foodborne illness [7].

Look for fruits high in fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients, like fresh or frozen berries [8]. They’re a filling, flavorful addition to cereal, oatmeal, and yogurt, or a solid snack choice on their own.

Low-calorie, nutrient-rich leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale also pack a punch when it comes to your heart health thanks to their strong anti-inflammatory properties [9]. Like berries, they’re a versatile option for meals and snacks.


lowered risk of heart disease is one of several benefits linked to a diet high in legumes like:

  • Beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils

They’re full of fiber, protein, and other nutrients shown to improve heart health like potassium, magnesium, and folate [10].


Though high in calories, nuts like walnuts, almonds, and pecans can help prevent heart disease by reducing your risk of blood clots, lowering heart disease-linked inflammation levels, and improving your arterial lining [11]. You can enjoy nuts on their own or mix them with fruit or yogurt. However, they may not do your heart health many favors when baked into sugary treats like cookies or pie.


Many of the same benefits associated with nuts apply to seeds. Nuts and seeds are both high in monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which are linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease [12]. You’ll typically get more nutritional value out of ground or milled seeds than whole seeds [14].

Whole grains

Oats, brown rice, quinoa, and other whole grains improve blood cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease [13]. Unlike refined grain products like white rice and wheat flour, whole grains contain dietary fiber and important nutrients for bodily functions like:

  • Thyroid regulation
  • Immune system maintenance

You should try to eat at least three ounces of 100% whole grain foods each day [14].


Vegetable oils are a heart-healthy alternative to cooking products high in trans fatty acids like butter and margarine [16]. You can use them for stir-frying, sautéing, or as dressing for a meal.

Studies link a daily intake of more than half a tablespoon of olive oil each day with a 21% lower risk of coronary heart disease and a 15% lower risk of developing any other type of cardiovascular disease. Vegetable, nut, and seed oils all carry similar heart health benefits [17].

Animal-based foods

A heart-healthy diet includes limited animal protein sources like fatty fish and lean cuts of skinless poultry and red meat. These are low in saturated fat, a contributor to increased heart disease risk when consumed excessively [18].


The heart health benefits of fish stem from the omega-3 fatty acids they contain, and fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and cod offer the highest concentration of them [19]. Grilling, broiling, or baking these fish are the best ways to retain their nutritional value.


Many people include poultry products like chicken and turkey in their standard diet, but often in the form of deep-fried wings, deli meat, and other unhealthy foods. Breast cuts are a lean choice, but if you’re cooking a whole chicken or turkey, remove as much skin and fat as you can. Then, bake, broil, or roast it for optimal benefits.

Lean red meat

If you’re following a heart-healthy diet, red meat consumption should be kept infrequent. Red meats like beef, pork, and lamb contain more saturated fats than poultry and fish, but leaner cuts pose a reduced risk of heart disease than fattier ones.

Tenderloin, sirloin, and shoulder cuts are common lean cuts to look for. When possible, avoid cuts with marbling and take steps to remove fat when you prepare red meat [20].

Foods to avoid

Where heart-healthy food is rooted in land and sea, unhealthy foods for your heart are just the opposite. To keep your heart in good shape, avoid food from factories, boxes, and bags. Additionally, do your best to steer clear of red meat and full-fat dairy, as they often contain high levels of bad cholesterol.

Consider consuming these foods in low moderation to maintain a heart-healthy diet.

  • Red meat, cured meat, and bacon
  • Full-fat dairy products like whole milk, butter, and cheese
  • Fried foods and fast food
  • Packaged snacks, like potato chips and crackers
  • Processed sweets, like cookies and cakes
  • White bread, pasta, and pizza

There’s no need to deprive yourself completely of a birthday cake or your favorite thin-crust pizza every once in a while. In fact, whole-grain bread and cakes are becoming more widespread as consumers pay closer attention to health. The most essential part is consuming higher-risk foods in moderation and increasing your intake of nutritious, heart-healthy foods. Additionally, understanding how foods cause inflammation can help guide your dietary choices. To identify which foods might cause inflammation, consider using an at-home food sensitivity test to determine how your body reacts to different foods.

Other factors that impact heart health

The heart is at the center of your body’s functions. As such, it can be vulnerable to both internal and external threats. When these threats manifest, they can sometimes lead to serious health problems. Understanding their direct impact on the heart is the key to taking care of it.

Lifestyle habits that negatively impact heart health

Lifestyle habits are almost always a choice. Reducing or eliminating these habits is an excellent place to start when considering ways to lead a more heart-healthy lifestyle.

Here are some factors that may negatively impact your heart health:

  • Stress – Stress is one of the primary causes of long-term heart conditions. It can increase blood pressure, raising the risk of heart problems. It can also lead to other unhealthy habits like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption [21].
  • Smoking – Smoking imposes multiple harmful health risks. It causes blockages in arteries and blood vessels, restricting blood flow to the heart and other vital organs [22].
  • Lack of exercise – A sedentary lifestyle is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Regular exercise can help lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, and maintain healthy blood flow [23]. Explore some of the [best workouts for heart health]( that you can do in the comfort of your home.

Health conditions that increase the risk of heart disease

Certain pre-existing or long-term health conditions can also increase your risk of heart disease. While some conditions may be genetic and unavoidable, a healthy lifestyle and diet can help mitigate the risks.

Here are some common health conditions that can impact your heart health:

  • High cholesterol – High levels of LDL ("bad cholesterol") in the blood can cause blockages that impede blood flow to and from the heart [24]. If you're concerned about your cholesterol levels, it's essential to understand the symptoms of high cholesterol.
  • High blood pressure – Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure can damage artery walls, restricting healthy blood flow [25].
  • Diabetes – This condition affects blood glucose or insulin levels. Elevated blood sugar can damage blood vessels and heart nerves [26].
  • Obesity – Obesity can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, with excess fat accumulating in blood vessels, affecting heart health [26].

If you have—or suspect you have—any of the health conditions listed above, a heart health test can help detect high cholesterol, blood pressure, or insulin levels. Speak with your healthcare provider to develop a healthcare plan that addresses your symptoms and reduces your risks.

Maintain your heart health with Everlywell

Want to track how your eating habits are affecting your cardiovascular health? Our At-Home Heart Health Test helps you measure your heart disease risk factors from the comfort of your home with comprehensive, easy-to-understand results.

With a personalized, physician-reviewed report, a live webinar where you can learn more about your results from a healthcare professional, and additional resources, you’ll have the insights you need to take meaningful steps toward better heart health.

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  4. Protein foods from animal sources, incident cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality: a substitution analysis. National Library of Medicine. URL. Medical Citation URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
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  17. Olive oil may lower heart disease risk.American Heart Association. Medical Citation URL. Accessed June 27, 2022.
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  20. Cuts of beef: A guide to the leanest selections. Mayo Clinic. Medical Citation URL. Accessed June 27, 2022.
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Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT is most fulfilled when guiding others towards making stepwise, sustainable changes that add up to big results over time. Jordan works with a wide variety of individuals, ranging in age from children to the elderly, with an assortment of concerns and clinical conditions, and has written for publications such as Innerbody. She helps individuals optimize overall health and/or manage disease states using personalized medical nutrition therapy techniques.
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