Heart-healthy diet: What is it, what can you eat and what should you avoid?
If you’re newly diagnosed with cancer and preparing to start treatment, heart health might be the last thing on your mind. But it shouldn’t be, says clinical dietitian Cindy Hwang.
“Some cancer treatments can damage the heart and blood vessels,” says Hwang. “Adopting a heart-healthy diet before you start treatment strengthens your heart for what lies ahead.”
She breaks down the basics of the cardiac diet, also called a heart-healthy diet, to help you get started and stick to the plan.
What is a cardiac diet?
“Cardiac diet” is an unofficial term for a heart-healthy diet. It’s an eating plan that emphasizes foods that promote heart health, such as vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean poultry and oily fish like salmon and tuna that are high in omega-3 fatty acids. The diet also limits processed foods that are high in sugar, salt and unhealthy fats, because these increase the risk of heart disease.
“These heart-healthy diets are very similar to MD Anderson's dietary recommendations for cancer prevention,” Hwang says. “They not only help your heart, but they can also help prevent cancer from recurring.”
How strict is a cardiac diet?
“Cardiac diets are very flexible,” Hwang says, “and offer a wide array of food choices.”
She points to fruits and vegetables as an example.
“You can eat any fruit or vegetable you desire – whether fresh, frozen, canned or dried – but watch out for added salt or sugar in the packaged varieties.”
Frozen vegetables and fruits can be just as nutritious, or sometimes even more nutritious, than fresh fruits and vegetables, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That’s because produce is frozen at its nutritional peak. Fresh produce, on the other hand, may lose vitamins and minerals during the time it takes to get from the field to the plate.
What can I eat on a cardiac diet?
To build a heart-healthy plate, choose foods from the following categories:
Whole grain bread, bagels, English muffins, and tortillas
Whole grain hot or cold breakfast cereals with no added sugar, like oatmeal or shredded wheat
Whole grain brown or wild rice, or quinoa
Whole wheat or whole grain pasta and couscous
Choose products with the word “whole” in the first ingredient – for example, “whole wheat,” “whole grain” or “whole oats.”
Meats and other proteins
Seafood – fish (especially varieties rich in omega-3 fatty acids) like salmon, mackerel, herring and lake trout
Poultry – chicken or turkey breast without skin, or lean ground chicken or turkey (at least 93% lean)
Lean meats – pork shoulder, beef sirloin, or lean ground beef (at least 93% lean)
Beans, peas, and lentils
Egg whites or egg substitute
Unsalted seeds and nuts
Vegetables and fruits
All fresh vegetables and leafy greens
All canned vegetables (rinse to remove salt, or choose “no salt added”)
Frozen vegetables without added butter or sauces
All fresh fruits
Canned, frozen, or dried fruit without added sugars
Oil-based, non-creamy salad dressings like balsamic vinaigrette or Italian
Soft margarines in tubs, not sticks
Water (plain or flavored with fruit slices)
Which foods should I limit while on a cardiac diet?
Baked goods like cakes, cookies, muffins, scones, biscuits, croissants, cobblers, doughnuts, pastries and pies
White rice, bread and pasta
Snacks containing partially hydrogenated oils. This includes some potato chips, crackers, snack mixes, cheese puffs and microwave popcorn.
Meats and other protein
High-fat cuts of beef (regular ground meat, ribs, T-bone and ribeye steaks)
Processed meats like hot dogs, sausage, salami, lunch meat, bacon
Organ meats (liver, brains and sweetbreads)
Fried chicken or fish
Poultry with skin
Vegetable and fruits
Fried vegetables and fruits
Vegetables prepared with butter, cheese or creamy sauces
Canned or frozen fruits in heavy syrup
Whole or 2% milk
Whole milk yogurt
Cream or half-and-half
Fats and oils
Tropical oils like coconut, palm and palm kernel oil
Drinks with added sugars
Heart-healthy diets also limit sodium, which bumps up your blood pressure and makes your heart work harder.
"Limit your sodium intake to no more than 2,000 milligrams per day," Hwang says. "For reference, a teaspoon of table salt is about 2,300 milligrams. Make sure to check nutrition labels for the sodium content in processed and packaged foods."
Make one change at a time
Starting and sticking to the cardiac diet is a process, Hwang says.
She advises starting with one change. For example, start by replacing butter with olive oil when cooking. Once that’s become second nature, add another change, like eating more fruits and vegetables.
“It might be challenging at first if a heart-healthy diet is different from your usual diet,” Hwang says. “But even with small changes over time, you can gain the benefits of a heart-healthy diet.”
Make a heart-healthy diet a long-term lifestyle
Not every cancer survivor will experience heart problems after cancer treatment. But those who do may live 15 years or longer before heart-damage symptoms emerge.
“That’s why we advise cancer survivors to continue following a heart-healthy diet throughout their lifetimes,” says Hwang. “It truly can change your health for the better – during and beyond cancer. In fact, this is the way we should all be eating.”