The advice to follow a heart-healthy diet is so common in the nutrition world that it has the risk of becoming cliche. Especially in competition with more recent, trendier diets like keto, intermittent fasting, or a juice cleanse, the tried and true essentials of a “heart-healthy diet” can seem kind of…basic. 

“Heart-healthy nutritional principles are the foundation of every diet or eating pattern that consistently lands at the top of doctor-recommended lists,” says Patrick Dunn, MPH, RN, LDN, vice president of dietetics for CoreLife Healthcare. “That is because sticking to the basics really is best, especially when it comes to making a long-term lifestyle change.” 

In fact, the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and the vegetarian diet all earned 5 out of 5 stars in Forbes 2022 ranking of top diets for heart health

So what are the major components of a heart healthy diet? 

“It all comes down to managing the big three: fats, sodium, and carbohydrates,” says Dunn. 

Let’s take a closer look at each.


If you grew up in the toxic diet culture of the 1980s and 90s, you probably had a fear of fats with a stronger hold than that blue jug of hair gel in your teenage bathroom. Fortunately for our health (and our hairstyles) we have learned from our mistakes and know that many fats are a vital part of a balanced diet. 


  • Trans fats, typically found in processed foods, stick margarine and shortening. Avoid “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” on the label. Trans fats increase LDL (bad) cholesterol.


  • Saturated fat, typically found in animal protein. If you eat animal products, choose leaner varieties such as skinless poultry, lean beef, and low or no-fat dairy. Dunn also suggests adding more plant-based protein to your diet, such as beans, legumes, and tofu. “There are tons of delicious vegan and vegetarian recipes online, and limiting saturated fat can lower unhealthy cholesterol levels.”


  • Unsaturated fats, included poly- and monounsaturated fats. These healthy fats can help lower cholesterol and include tasty options like fish, nuts, seeds, nut butters, hummus, avocado, and liquid oils such as corn, canola, olive, soybean, and safflower. 

Following the fat-fearing 90s came the carb-avoiding 2000s, with diets swinging between extremes like a professional trapeze artist. But, as with fats we have also (thankfully) realized that pastas and breads are not as scary as we once thought. 


  • Refined carbohydrates, like those found in table sugar, sweets, sodas, white bread, and snacks with added sugar. These simple sugars can increase triglyceride levels, which is associated with coronary artery disease.  


  • Soluble fiber, found in plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, beans or legumes, potatoes, oats, and whole grain breads and pastas. These foods help absorb water and lower bad cholesterol. 


  • Fiber supplements, which may help you incorporate more fiber into your diet if you have trouble doing so with foods alone. 

Wars have been fought over salt – that tasty seasoning that boosts the flavor of foods. While sodium is critical for body functioning, as with most things, too much of a good thing can be very dangerous – especially if you have high blood pressure. Generally, adults should limit sodium intake to less than 2300 milligrams per day. 


  • Processed foods. To improve and preserve flavor, these foods often have a ton of added sodium. Instead, prepare fresh foods where you can see and control the salt added. When shopping, look at nutrition labels and select foods that are “sodium-free”  or reduced or low-sodium. 


  • Added salt in your diet. Taste before you sprinkle, and leave the salt out of recipes if you can. You can also look for salt-free seasoning alternatives and talk to a registered dietitian about ways to flavor foods without using salt. 


  • Alternative ways to add “punch” to your foods, such as lemon juice, herbs, pepper, or a few drops of hot sauce. 

“Focusing on what you eat is a vital first step in preventing, managing, or even reversing the impact of cardiovascular disease,” says Dunn. “Other ways to improve your heart health include increasing your physical activity and achieving or maintaining a healthy weight.” 

Speaking with a registered dietitian is a great way to understand exactly how your diet impacts your heart health and get personalized guidance on developing a heart-healthy eating plan. The collaborative care team at CoreLife can help you get started, combining medical, nutrition, exercise, and behavioral health care in one convenient location. To learn more or get started, call 800-905-3261.