Cook with Heart-Healthy Foods

You can protect your heart and blood vessels by:

  • Eating less unhealthy fats (trans fat, saturated fat and cholesterol) and by choosing the types of fats that help your cholesterol levels (unsaturated fats).
  • Maintaining a healthy weight by keeping portions in perspective and making healthy food choices.
  • Reducing your sodium intake, which can help many people with blood pressure control.

The ingredients you use and the way you cook can make a big difference. Below are some practical tips to remember for heart-healthy eating and cooking.

Choose the Right Fats – In Moderation!

This means limiting foods high in trans fat, saturated fat and cholesterol – like processed snacks and sweets, baked goods, fried foods, high-fat dairy products, solid fats, and high-fat meats.

Instead, choose lean protein foods and low-fat dairy products. Limit the amount of processed snacks and baked goods you buy and eat. Choose more nutritious fresh foods to include in your snacks and meals such as fresh vegetables, whole grains, nuts and fruit. When cooking, skip the butter and margarine and try healthy vegetable-based oils in moderation.

Read more about which foods contain healthy and unhealthy fats on our Fats page.

Include Those Omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of healthy fat that helps prevent the clogging of arteries. We recommend including fish (non-fried) in your meal plan at least twice a week – especially those high in omega-3 fatty acids. These "fatty" fish include salmon, albacore tuna, herring, rainbow trout, mackerel and sardines.

Other foods that provide omega-3 fatty acids include soybean products, walnuts, flaxseed and canola oil. It's also great if you can include some of these sources in your diet. Try mixing walnuts into your morning oatmeal or adding tofu to your stir-fry.

Choose a Healthy Cooking Method

You can cut down on the calories in your meals by broiling, microwaving, baking, roasting, steaming or grilling foods. Avoid frying foods in lots of oil, lard or butter.

It is okay to use some fat when cooking. Just make sure you use oil high in unsaturated fats and don't use too much. (Remember that all fats are dense in calories, so they will add up quickly.) Some ideas are olive, peanut, corn, vegetable, safflower, sunflower or flaxseed oil. Nonstick pans and cooking sprays also work well if you're trying to reduce calories in a dish.

Homemade and Fresh Is Best!

Restaurant food tends to be high in calories, sodium, and unhealthy fats – all things you want to watch if you're eating heart healthy. Try to cook at home as much as possible with fresh, healthy ingredients. You'll find that you have much more control over what goes into your food.

If you are looking for diabetes-friendly recipes to make at home, sign up for Recipes for Healthy Living. You'll receive with dozens of meal ideas, healthy tips and recipes each month.

Boost Flavor Without Unhealthy Fats and Salt

Look for recipes that use herbs and spices for flavor instead of salt, butter, lard, or other unhealthy fats. Try these tricks to season your food:

  • Squeeze fresh lemon juice or lime juice on steamed vegetables, broiled fish, rice, salads or pasta.
  • Try salt-free lemon pepper or mesquite seasoning on chicken.
  • Try a salt-free herbs and spices. Fresh herbs are also a great choice.
  • Use onion and garlic to liven up meats and vegetables.
  • Try marinating and grilling chicken or pork with barbecue sauce or with a homemade marinade.

Trim the Fat When Possible

Cut away visible fat from meat and poultry. Roast food on a rack to let the fat drip off. Make soups a day ahead so you can chill them and then remove the fat that has risen to the top.

Substitute Healthier Ingredients In Your Favorite Recipes

Instead of regular ground beef...
Try 90% lean ground beef or better yet, try lean ground turkey breast.
Why? Fewer calories, less saturated fat and less cholesterol.

Instead of sour cream on tacos or in dips...
Try non-fat plain yogurt (regular or Greek).
Why? Fewer calories and less saturated fat.

Instead of butter or margarine when cooking vegetables or protein foods...
Try trans-free margarine and oils like olive oil or vegetable oil.
Why? No trans fat, less saturated fat and more heart-healthy unsaturated fats.

Instead of butter or margarine when baking...
Try substituting half with applesauce.
Why? Fewer calories and less saturated fat.

Instead of cream, whole milk or 2% milk...
Try 1% milk or skim milk.
Why? Fewer calories and less saturated fat.

Instead of regular cheese...
Try reduced-fat cheese or use less.
Why? Fewer calories, less saturated fat and less cholesterol.

Instead of snack foods with hydrogenated oil, palm oil or coconut oil (crackers, chips, candy or baked goods)...
Try fruit with plain yogurt, fresh vegetables and hummus, a slice of whole wheat toast and natural peanut butter, nuts and dried fruit.
Why? Less sodium, less saturated fat and zero trans fat.

Instead of regular mayonnaise...
Try light mayonnaise or mustard on sandwiches. Try non-fat plain yogurt or a combination of non-fat plain yogurt and light mayonnaise if used in dressing, sauces and dips.
Why? Fewer calories.

Instead of bologna, salami or pastrami...
Try sliced low-sodium turkey or roast beef. Or better yet, cook fresh chicken or turkey on the weekend and use throughout the week for meals.
Why? Less total fat, less saturated fat and less sodium.

Patient Education Materials — Protect Your Heart: Make Smart Food Choices
This two-page introduction to heart-healthy foods is in PDF format so you can download it, print it, and hand it out to patients.

You can also download the Spanish version.

  • Last Reviewed: September 22, 2014
  • Last Edited: September 22, 2014

- See more at:

Heart-Healthy Cooking: Oils 101

Keep this primer as a ready reference

October 1, 2014 / By Heart & Vascular Team
There are 7 important points you should know about cooking oils. Inforgraphic on HealthHub from Cleveland Clinic

Confused about which oils are heart-healthy and which aren’t? Health Hub asked for advice from James D. Perko, CEC, AAC, Executive Chef, for Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute and Center for Lifestyle Medicine, and dietitians Katherine Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD, and Julia Zumpano, RD, from the Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute’s Preventive Cardiology Program.

There are 7 important points you should know about cooking oils.

Remember that oil is a fat, and fat calories are still fat calories, no matter which type of oil you use. So, you should use the least amount of fat possible to prepare your foods while still getting the greatest amount of taste and health benefits.

Use this guide to oils as you fix your favorite recipes. You might find it helpful to hang it inside a cupboard door as a quick and easy reference.

Variety might not be best

Although having lots of different oils in the kitchen might seem like a good idea, James Perko says that idea can backfire. Over time, heat and light can impact oils’ taste and quality. It’s best to use one or two types of oil Store them in a cool, dark place and replace any that any smell bitter or “off.” (Store grapeseed and walnut oils in the refrigerator; they quickly become rancid. The cloudiness in refrigerated oils will clear once they return to room temperature.)

Know the smoke point

The smoke point is the temperature that causes oil to start smoking, which produces toxic fumes and harmful free radicals (the stuff we’re trying to avoid). Because of their chemical makeup, different oils have different smoke points. So some oils are better suited for cooking at higher temperatures than others. A good rule of thumb is that the more refined the oil, the higher the smoke point. Vegetable, peanut and sesame oils have the highest smoke points. Note: Smoke point relates only to fresh oil; oil that is used for cooking and then strained and re-used loses its integrity.

Oils with a high smoke point

These oils are best for searing and browning. Note: They can also be used for deep frying, but deep frying is unhealthy and we do not recommend it.

Oil % Mono % Poly % Sat Nutrition Notes
Almond 65 28 7 Distinctive nutty flavor.
Avocado 65 18 17 Sweet aroma.
Hazelnut 82 11 7 Bold, strong flavor.
Palm 38 10 52 High in saturated fat. Not recommended.
Sunflower 79 7 14 Seek out high-oleic versions, which are higher in monounsaturated fat.
“Light” olive/refined olive 78 8 14 The more refined the olive oil, the better its all-purpose cooking use. “Light” refers to color.


Medium-high smoke point

Best suited for baking, oven cooking or stir frying.

Oil % Mono % Poly % Sat Nutrition Notes
Canola 62 31 7 Contains low levels of omega-3.
Grapeseed 17 73 10 High in omega-6.
Macadamia nut 84 3 13 Bold flavor.
Light virgin olive 78 8 14 Best-pick oil.
Peanut 48 34 18 Great for stir frying.


Medium smoke point

These oils are best for light sautéing, sauces and low-heat baking.

Oil % Mono % Poly % Sat Nutrition Notes
Corn 25 62 13 High in omega-6. High-oleic (monounsaturated fat) versions coming soon.
Hemp 15 75 10 Good source of omega-3. Keep refrigerated.
Pumpkin seed 32 53 15 Contains omega-3.
Sesame 41 44 15 Rich, nutty flavor. Keep refrigerated.
Soybean 25 60 15 High in omega-6.
Virgin coconut* 6 2 92 High in saturated fat. Use in moderation.

*Virgin coconut oil contains lauric acid, a medium-chain triglyceride that raises good as well as bad cholesterol levels.

No-heat oils*

These oils are best for making dressings, dips or marinades.

Oil % Mono % Poly % Sat Nutrition Notes
Flaxseed 65 28 7 Excellent source of alfa-linolenic acid,
a form of omega-3.
Wheat Germ 65 18 17 Rich in omega-6. Keep refrigerated.
Walnut 24 67 9 Good source of omega-3.

*Toasted sesame and extra virgin olive oils also work well.

Use oils wisely

It is important to choose the right oil for the job. It is also important to use the right amount of oil. Cooking is one of those things that people learn from their parents and grandparents. And while Grandma’s recipe may call for throwing the battered fish into a pot of oil, you will actually get a healthier, more flavorful meal by using less oil and pan-searing.

Unsaturated fats are best. They help round out a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Limit animal fats/saturated fats and completely avoid trans-fats whenever possible.

Perko says the final message is, “Love the foods that love you back!”

Fats at a glance

“Bad” fats

Saturated fats – Bottom line is, the fewer the better. Less than 7 percent of your daily fat calories should come from saturated fats. Cut back on saturated fats by avoiding dairy items (milk, cheese, yogurt, etc) that are labeled “whole” and “2 percent.” Limit the amounts of red meat and other animal proteins you eat. You can do this by cutting back how often you eat them, how much of them you eat at a meal, or both.

Trans fats –  Eliminate all trans fats from your diet by staying away from foods that contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. (Read the ingredient list!) Shortening and stick margarine contain trans fat.

“Good” fats

Monounsaturated fats –Eat plenty of olives, avocados and nuts. Use olive oil for cooking and canola oil for baking.

Polyunsaturated fats – You probably get enough omega-6 in your diet, so focus on having more foods packed with omega-3 (salmon, walnuts, etc).


Top 11 Heart-Healthy Foods

By Kerri-Ann Jennings, MS, RD, Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on April 27, 2015

Many foods can help keep your heart at its best. Some help lower your blood pressure. Others keep your cholesterol in line. So add these items to your shopping cart:

  1. Salmon

This ocean-going fish is a top choice because it’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids. “Omega-3s have an anti-clotting effect, so they keep your blood flowing,” says Rachel Johnson, PhD, RD,  Bickford Professor of Nutrition at the University of Vermont. They also help lower your triglycerides (a type of fat that can lead to heart disease).

Aim for at least two servings of oily fish each week, says the American Heart Association. A serving is 3.5 ounces.  That’s a little bit bigger than a computer mouse.

Other options: Tuna, trout, sardines, and mackerel.

  1. Walnuts.

Nibbling on 5 ounces of nuts each week may cut your risk of heart disease in half. Walnuts have lots of “good” fats. When you use these monounsaturated fats in place of saturated fats (such as butter), you cut your “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise your “good” HDL cholesterol.

Walnuts are also a good source of omega-3 fats. (They don’t have the same kind of omega-3s as fish, though.)

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Sauté spinach in about a tsp of olive oil. Take less than 1 minute with a little salt, pepper and... Read More

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Other options: Almonds, cashews, pistachios, flaxseed, and chia seeds.

  1. Raspberries

These berries are loaded with polyphenols -- antioxidants that mop up damage-causing free radicals in your body. They also deliver fiber and vitamin C, which are both linked to a lower risk of stroke.

Other options: Any berries -- strawberries, blueberries, blackberries -- are great choices. Fruits and vegetables in general are excellent choices because of their nutrients and fiber.

  1. Fat-Free or Low-fat Milk or Yogurt

“Dairy products are high in potassium, and that has a blood-pressure-lowering effect,” Johnson says. When you choose low-fat or fat-free dairy, you get little to no saturated fat, the kind of fat that can raise your cholesterol.

Other options: Most fruits and vegetables also have some potassium, Johnson says. Bananas, oranges, and potatoes are especially good sources.

  1. Chickpeas

Chickpeas and other legumes (lentils, other kinds of beans) are a top-notch source of soluble fiber -- the kind of fiber that can lower your “bad” LDL cholesterol. If you buy canned beans, look for low-sodium or no-salt-added varieties (sodium can raise your blood pressure). Rinse them in water to wash off any added salt.


Other options: Eggplant, okra, apples, and pears are also good choices for soluble fiber.

  1. Oatmeal

Oats have a type of fiber (called beta-glucan) that lowers your LDL cholesterol. One and a half cups of cooked oatmeal or a little over a cup of cooked barley gives you the amount of beta-glucan you need daily to help lower your cholesterol.

Other options: You can also find beta-glucan in barley, shiitake mushrooms, and seaweed.

  1. Olive oil

A cornerstone of the traditional Mediterranean diet, olive oil is a great pick when you need to limit saturated fat (found in meat, whole milk, and butter). Fats from animal products, and trans fats (“partially hydrogenated oils”) raise your “bad” cholesterol and can make fat build up inside your arteries.

Other options:  Canola oil and safflower oil.

  1. Dark Chocolate

Cacao, the plant from which chocolate is made, is rich in flavanols, which can help lower your blood pressure and prevent blood clots. It also acts as an antioxidant, which can keep “bad” cholesterol from sticking to your artery walls.

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Choose dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) to get more flavanols and less sugar, Johnson says. (Sugar raises your risk of heart disease.)

Other options: Think beyond the bar. Choose natural cocoa powder over Dutch-processed to get more flavanols. (Check the label to make sure you don’t get too much sugar.) For a totally unsweetened take, try cacao nibs. Add them to your granola.

  1. Avocados

These fruitsget their creamy texture from “good” (monounsaturated) fats, which lower your “bad” cholesterol.

“They also seem to have an anti-inflammatory effect, so you don’t get chronic inflammation that makes atherosclerosis -- the hardening of artery walls -- worse,” Johnson says.

Use mashed avocado as a spread in place of butter, or add cubes of it to salad, or over black bean chili. As delicious as they are, avocados are high in calories, so keep your portions modest.

Other options: Nuts and sunflower oil.

10. Unsalted almond butter

Nut butters are great on whole-grain toast instead of butter. They’re a wonderful source of monounsaturated fatty acids. Use unsalted, natural options to avoid added salt, sugar, and hydrogenated fats found in other forms of peanut butter, Johnson says.


Other options: Unsalted peanut butter or any other unsalted nut butter.

  1. Red Grapes

These juicy fruits have resveratrol, which helps keep platelets in your blood from sticking together.

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That may partly be why red wine -- in moderation (1 glass for women, 2 for men) -- may have some heart-healthy advantages over other types of alcohol. But health experts don’t recommend that anyone start drinking, because alcohol does have some health risks.

Love your nightly glass of wine? You can ask your doctor to make sure your serving size is OK for you. And feel free to go for grapes straight from the vine anytime.

Other options: Black grapes.

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