Foods to eat for a healthy heart

What you eat can have a big impact on many of the issues that increase or decrease your risk of heart disease, such as blood pressure, weight and cholesterol levels.
Published 31 May 2018 | Updated 1 July 2024

Your diet can help improve heart health

For a healthy heart, it's a good idea to focus on eating protective wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, then add in smaller amounts of lean meats, chicken, fish and alternatives, plus reduced-fat dairy foods. Favour healthy fats and oils in spreads and cooking and keep your salt and sugar intake in check.

If you have existing heart-related conditions you should also incorporate any expert advice from your healthcare professional. For example, if you have high cholesterol levels you may be advised to decrease sources of saturated fat in your diet and increase your intake of foods that can actively help lower cholesterol.

Fish, chicken, lean meat and alternatives

Protein from fish, chicken, red meat and alternatives (such as eggs, legumes and nuts) is essential for good health but chances are you are eating more than you need (one-quarter of your plate is plenty). For heart health, regularly enjoy fish (without crumbs or batter), eggs and choose lean meat and chicken (trimmed of visible fat). Limit processed meat (such as sausages and deli meats) and aim for at least one meat-free meal a week.

❤️HERO: Oily Fish

Omega-3s are polyunsaturated essential fatty acids that are believed to reduce inflammation in the body (which can damage blood vessels) and may decrease triglycerides, lower blood pressure and reduce blood clotting.

Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines, followed by other fish and seafood, are the main sources of long-chain omega-3s in our diet, with eggs and lean red meat providing smaller amounts. Fortified foods are also available. In fish, omega-3s are categorised into two types – EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) – but levels differ widely due to canning methods, age and species of fish. Opt for a brand of canned fish that clearly lists the total omega-3 content (DHA plus EPA) on the label and has at least 500mg per serve.

Expert advice: A good rule of thumb is to aim for 2-3 serves of oily fish per week (baked, steamed or grilled is best).

❤️HERO: Nuts

Nuts have made a healthy comeback in recent years with research revealing that regular nut eaters can reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease. Nuts are rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fats, dietary fibre and phytonutrients that can help prevent ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol from becoming oxidised or ‘sticky’. In general, you can achieve an 8.3 per cent reduction in the risk of death from heart disease with each weekly serving of nuts.

Expert advice: Try incorporating a handful (30g) of healthy unsalted nuts as a snack or in meals and cooking every day.

Grain (cereal) foods

The evidence for the role of wholegrains in reducing coronary heart disease risk is compelling. Research has shown 2–4 serves of wholegrains a day can reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 40 per cent – equal to the effect of statin or cholesterol-lowering drugs. Wholegrains are those that have undergone minimal processing so they still contain all three important layers of the grain: the bran, germ and endosperm. Think brown rice, rolled oats and corn. They offer superior nutrition benefits, including higher dietary fibre and antioxidant activity, compared to refined grain foods (such as white flour and rice).

❤️HERO: Oats

Oats are rich in beta glucan soluble fibre that actively helps lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol by stopping it from circulating in your bloodstream. Oats also contain potent phytochemicals in the outer layer of the grain, which reduce heart disease risks such as damaging inflammation.

Expert advice: Try bircher muesli and porridge for breakfast, plus add rolled oats to healthy baking.

Fruit and vegetables

With dietary fibre to help you feel fuller for longer, eating plenty of veggies and a couple of pieces of fruit a day can help you reach a healthy weight and lower cholesterol. Due to their high phytonutrient content, fruit and veggies also offer high antioxidant activity, which can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease.

❤️HERO: Dark leafy greens

Spinach, kale, chard and other dark green veggies are rich sources of many vitamins and minerals, such as folate, which can help reduce high levels of homocysteine (an amino acid that can be a risk factor for heart disease). Veggies are also packed with fibre, which helps reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol.

Expert advice: Try for a wide variety of fruits and vegetables as each different colour offers different health benefits. Try to clock up at least five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruit a day.

Dairy and alternatives

While dairy foods can be a source of saturated fat (believed to raise ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol), recent research shows mixed relationships between dairy and heart health. Some studies are even indicating that eating cheese may offer heart-health protection. Certainly, you still need daily dairy for strong bones (so you can stay active in later life) but until results are more conclusive, Australian Dietary Guidelines still recommend choosing mostly reduced-fat dairy. So enjoy a minimum of 2-3 serves of dairy foods every day (mostly reduced-fat varieties) or seek out calcium and vitamin D fortified alternatives.

❤️HERO: Natural yoghurt

Natural yoghurt has no added sugar or flavourings and is a good source of calcium and protein. It also contains natural probiotics (friendly bacteria) that help balance gut health and is often easier for people with lactose intolerance to digest.

Expert advice: Use natural yoghurt as an alternative to sour cream in dips and on Mexican dishes and jacket potatoes. It also makes a healthy dessert when teamed with the natural sweetness of fresh fruit.

Healthy fats and oils

What’s a healthy oil? Unrefined polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils that come from plants are generally best, such as olive, sunflower, safflower, canola, linseed, soybean and nut oils. When it comes to spread on your bread, try swapping butter for alternatives such as avocado, peanut butter (without added sugar or salt) or tahini (sesame seed paste).

❤️HERO: Extra-virgin olive oil

Although scientists have known for a long time that olive is one of the healthiest oils when it comes to a healthy heart, research is now uncovering why. It appears the phenolic or antioxidant compounds in extra-virgin olive oil have anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting factors that may improve the health of your blood vessels.

Expert advice: Researchers recommend extra-virgin olive oil (the greener the better) as it does not go through as much processing and therefore retains more beneficial components.

❤️HERO: Plant-sterol margarine​

Plant sterols are naturally occurring plant compounds found in small amounts in nuts, seeds, legumes, vegetable oils, breads, cereals, fruits and vegetables (although in these margarines the plant sterols are commonly derived from pine oil). When eaten in the right amounts, plant sterols have been shown to lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol by up to 10-15 per cent when combined with a healthy lifestyle. This is because they block the body’s ability to absorb cholesterol from the intestines.

Expert advice: Use spreads made from plant sterols instead of butter on your toast, in sandwiches and in cooking. Additionally, speak to your health professional for specialist advice.

Confused about cholesterol?

It was once mistakenly believed that cholesterol found naturally in foods such as eggs and seafood was the main cause of high blood cholesterol levels. However, we now know that saturated fat is the main culprit.

Take eggs for example – the majority of fat in eggs is unsaturated and enriched varieties contain good levels of omega-3s. Therefore around 6 eggs a week is fine for most people.

The key to lowering cholesterol is to cut down on saturated fats in unhealthy takeaways, fatty meats (such as processed deli goods) and commercial cakes, biscuits and pastries, plus make the switch to healthier oils and spreads.

Cooking tips for a healthy heart

Maintaining a healthy heart involves more than just exercise; it begins with mindful choices in the kitchen. By reducing salt, added sugar, and unhealthy fats in our diet, we can significantly impact our cardiovascular wellbeing.

How to reduce your salt intake

  • Too much salt = High blood pressure caused by fluid retention.
  • Aim for less than 2,300mg of sodium per day (from all food, not just the salt shaker). 1 teaspoon = 2,000mg.
  • Use herbs and spices to enhance flavour instead of seasoning with salt.
  • Use reduced-salt products wherever possible (such as reduced-salt soy sauce and stocks).
  • If using canned vegetables or legumes, choose no-added-salt varieties or rinse in water before cooking to remove excess salt.
  • Opt for canned fish in spring-water instead of brine.

How to reduce your added sugar intake

  • Too much added sugar = Higher kilojoule intakes and may lead to weight gain.
  • Aim for less than 50g per day. 1 teaspoon = 4g.
  • Limit added sugar and sources of added sugar (such as honey, jams and syrups).
  • Choose foods with no added sugar where possible (such as yoghurts and fruit juices).
  • If using canned fruits, choose no-added-sugar options or fruit canned in water or natural juices. Reduce your intake of fruit canned in syrup.
  • If using dried fruit, you only need a small amount to add sweetness (aim for 30g).

How to reduce unhealthy fat and oil intake

  • Use non-stick baking paper or extra-virgin olive oil spray on baking trays, instead of greasing with butter.
  • Grill, steam, boil, poach, bake, stew or stir-fry – limit shallow or deep frying.
  • Roast meats on a rack to allow fat to drain away.
  • Skim fat off the top of stews and soups (it’s easier once they’ve cooled).
  • Trim all visible fat from meat and chicken.
  • Choose unrefined polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils and spreads. And use extra-virgin olive oil where possible.
  • Limit sources of saturated fat, such as butter, ghee, lard or palm/coconut oils.
  • Try swapping bottled salad dressings for natural flavourings, such as herbs, lemon juice, vinegar (balsamic, apple cider, red and white) or extra-virgin olive oil.
  • Garnish vegetables with unsalted nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, rather than butter, cream or cheese sauces.