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Keeping the heart healthy is essential for living a long, healthy life. As one of the most common chronic illnesses and the leading cause of death in the United States, it is important to take steps to prevent heart disease. Preventing heart disease doesn’t just mean visiting your cardiologist regularly–although that is an important step! There are many steps that you can take right now to take your health into your own hands to keep your heart pumping strong. 

A healthy diet and lifestyle can help you maintain your heart health by keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol levels low. Heart-healthy eating may be easier than you realize and the benefits are invaluable. This article will share all about heart disease and how to eat healthily to lower your risk of developing it. 

Heart Disease: Overview

As one of the most common types of chronic disease, heart disease affects millions of people. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, affecting about 20.1 million adults over the age of 20. 

Heart disease is an umbrella term for several different health conditions that involve the cardiovascular system. Examples of heart disease include: 

  • Blood vessel diseases
  • Irregular heartbeats or arrhythmias
  • Congenital heart defects, a heart disease that is present at birth
  • Heart muscle disease
  • Heart valve disease

How the Heart Functions

Heart disease can be better understood when you first understand how the heart functions. The heart is essentially one large muscle, divided into four chambers. It has two upper chambers and two lower chambers referred to as the atria and the ventricles. The muscular walls of the heart contract (just as any other muscle does) to pump blood throughout the body. 

In between the two atria and the two ventricles are valves that help to prevent the backflow of blood when the heart contracts. There are four heart valves: the aortic, mitral, pulmonary and tricuspid valves. The valves help to ensure that blood flows in the direction it is meant to flow, rather than flowing backward when the heart muscle contracts. 

The right side of the heart pumps blood to the lungs. Once it gets to the lungs, the blood picks up oxygen from the lungs and “drops off” CO2 to be excreted through the breath. This newly oxygenated blood then moves back to the left side of the heart where it is then pumped to the rest of the body. 

The heart also has its very own electrical conduction system. Electrical signals “go off” to signal the heart to beat and keep the heart beating regularly. 

Causes of Heart Disease

There are many different causes of heart disease. Heart conditions can be present at birth or they can develop over time and be related to lifestyle factors. There are several factors that influence how a healthy heart works, meaning there are many different ways in which heart health can be affected by disease. Heart disease causes vary depending on the condition.

  • Coronary artery disease is often caused by a buildup of plaque in the arteries. 
  • Heart arrhythmias can be secondary to other health conditions such as cardiomyopathy, coronary artery disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, congenital heart defect or a heart valve disease. Arrhythmias can also result from drug misuse, emotional stress, excessive caffeine usage and smoking. 
  • Congenital heart defects are present at birth. This type of heart condition results from the heart not developing properly in the womb. 
  • Cardiomyopathy is an enlarged or thickened heart muscle. The cause of this condition varies depending on the type of cardiomyopathy. 

Symptoms of Heart Disease

Symptoms of heart disease vary depending on the condition. If you haven’t yet been diagnosed with heart disease and you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, it may be time to visit your cardiologist who can help you determine a diagnosis. 

  • Chest pain
  • Fainting
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Abnormal swelling in the legs or stomach

Risk Factors

Risk factors that make you more likely to develop heart disease include:

  • Advanced age
  • Male gender
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Being a smoking
  • Eating an unhealthy diet
  • Living a sedentary lifestyle 
  • Poorly managed stress
  • Poor dental health
  • Being overweight 

How to Avoid Heart Disease

Adjusting your lifestyle can greatly reduce your risk of developing heart disease. Some ways to avoid heart disease include:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Limiting foods with saturated fats
  • Limiting alcohol
  • Exercising regularly
  • Quitting smoking

5 Foods & Ingredients For A Healthy Heart Diet Heart 

Your heart health is largely influenced by the lifestyle choices you make. Eating a heart-healthy diet can help you maintain your overall health. Some foods and ingredients that are recommended for heart health include plant-based foods, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, whole grains, healthy oils and lean meats. 

Plant-Based Foods

Plant-based foods are foods that do not come from any type of animal source so they include foods like:

  • Fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Legumes (like beans and lentils)
  • Nuts 
  • Whole grains and oats

Plant-based diets have been found to reduce the risk of heart disease. Some people choose to eat a fully plant-based diet while others choose to eat mostly plant-based. 

If you find that it is too difficult to restrict all animal products (this includes meats, dairy and eggs) then you may simply benefit from incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet in any way that you can. 

Fat-Free or Low-Fat Dairy Products

Doctors typically recommend low-fat or fat-free dairy products to reduce the risk of heart disease. However, one recent study found that full-fat dairy products had no effect on lipid profiles or blood pressure in individuals with metabolic syndrome. 

Always follow your doctor’s guidance when determining what types of dairy products are safest for you to consume. 

Examples of dairy foods include:

  • Yogurt
  • Milk
  • Cheese

All foods are best enjoyed in moderation and dairy is no exception. Always choose high-quality dairy products that are organic and come from pasture-raised cows. 

Whole Grains

Whole grain products are made with unprocessed grains. When choosing wheat-based products, such as bread, picking a whole-grain option is usually the healthiest choice. Eating whole grains daily may reduce your risk of heart disease. Some examples of whole-grain foods include:

  • Whole grain bread
  • Whole grain pasta
  • Oatmeal
  • Brown or wild rice
  • Whole grain cereal

When purchasing whole grain items that have a list of different ingredients, always check to see if whole wheat or whole grain is listed as the first ingredient. 100% whole grain products are ideal.

Cooking Oils with Less Saturated Fat

Saturated fats can raise bad cholesterol levels, so it is important to use oils that are low in saturated fats such as:

  • Olive oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Avocado oil

Use cooking oils in moderation and avoid deep-frying foods. All oils have a maximum temperature they can reach before they smoke or break down, pay attention to these temperature recommendations when cooking and avoid using oil that has reached its smoke point.

A recent UCF Health study found that sesame oil extracts could significantly reduce heart disease risk. Sesame oil is not recommended as a cooking oil because it has a low smoke point. However, you can incorporate it into your diet by adding a tablespoon to soup or sauces. 

Lean Meats

Lean meats are better for heart health since they are lower in saturated fat and provide the body with omega-3 fatty acids. Examples of lean meats include:

  • Lean cuts of beef
  • Poultry such as chicken and turkey
  • Fish such as salmon, cod and tilapia

What Not to Eat to Maintain Heart Health

While there are plenty of healthy foods that should be added to your diet to improve your heart health there are also some foods that should be avoided. To maintain heart health, you should eat a diet that is low in trans fats and saturated fats. 

Some foods to avoid for heart health include:

  • Deli meats
  • Hot dogs
  • Fried foods
  • Processed and packaged baked goods
  • Refrigerated doughs such as biscuits and rolls
  • Foods that are highly processed or high in sodium
  • High-sugar foods such as cookies and candy
  • Potato chips

What about caffeine?

Patients often wonder if caffeine is bad for heart health or if it is safe to enjoy. Experts state that drinking a moderate amount of caffeine in the form of coffee or tea daily is safe for most individuals. Other sources of caffeine on the other hand (such as energy drinks) may not be considered as safe. Because energy drinks contain such high amounts of caffeine, they can trigger a fast heart rate and even cause heart arrhythmias.

If you do have certain heart disease risk factors, your doctor may advise you to cut out caffeine altogether. Always follow your doctor’s guidance when determining what to keep in your diet and what to cut out. 

How to Structure a Heart-Healthy Diet

Depending on your unique situation, your doctor may recommend that you make certain dietary restrictions in order to maintain your health. Two diets that are often recommended for heart health are the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet. 

Mediterranean Diet

Doctors often recommend the Mediterranean diet as one of the best diets for heart health. The Mediterranean diet has been found to lower the risk of heart disease, support healthy blood sugar levels and even support brain function. 

The Mediterranean diet involves eating largely plant-based foods with other foods factored in, in moderation. This diet can be easy to follow since it doesn’t technically require to restrict particular foods but recommends that certain foods are eaten rarely. 

If you want to follow the Mediterranean diet you should mainly eat vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, potatoes, legumes, whole grains, herbs, spices, fish, seafood and olive oil. In moderation, you can eat poultry, eggs and dairy products. Rarely (about once a month or less) you can have red meat, sugary beverages, added sugar, processed meats, refined grains and any other highly processed foods. 

An example day of eating the Mediterranean diet would be as follows:

  • Breakfast: Whole grain oatmeal with fruit
  • Snack: Almonds and dried fruit
  • Lunch: A tuna sandwich on whole grain bread with a side salad
  • Snack: Olives and cheese
  • Dinner: Cod filet with cooked vegetables and quinoa


Another diet that is often recommended for heart health is the DASH diet. The DASH diet is intended to help lower high blood pressure. The DASH diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet. It recommends eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. You can also include low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts and vegetable oils. 

While eating the DASH diet, it is recommended that you limit foods that are high in saturated fat such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy products and certain oils such as coconut oil and palm oil. You are also instructed to limit sugary beverages and sweets. This diet is low in saturated and trans fats, low in sodium and high in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber and protein. 


Taking steps to maintain your heart health may be one of the most important decisions you ever make. Whether you have cardiac risk factors or not, you should be taking steps to keep your heart healthy. The cardiology and lifestyle medicine team at UCF Health place a strong emphasis on preventative medicine and uses cutting-edge research to guide treatment. Find out more about how our cardiac and lifestyle medicine specialists can help you.