Even if your ticker is in top shape, health experts still want you to eat more heart-healthy foods. Really. “Eating for a healthy heart is one of the best tools to fight heart disease, which is the number one cause of death in the U.S.,” Chris Rosenbloom, a registered dietitian based outside of Atlanta and author of “Food and Fitness After 50: Eat Well, Move Well, Be Well.” “That’s especially important because heart disease doesn’t just happen when you turn 66 or after a heart attack, it begins as early as childhood and progresses over a lifetime.”

How does a heart-healthy diet work?

A diet that supports your heart isn’t really a diet, per se. It’s a flexible roadmap that encourages eating more food that’s good for the heart, yet fewer foods linked to cardiovascular disease. Why? “Although heart disease has many factors, inflammation is at the core of the disease for most people,” Sonya Angelone, a registered dietitian in San Francisco and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told TODAY. “A diet of overly processed foods, low-fiber refined grains, processed seed oils and few fruits and vegetables will contribute to inflammation and heart disease over time. But if you have a heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory diet, you will lower your risk.”

While eating for better heart health doesn’t require counting calories, it does emphasize portion control and maintaining a healthy body weight. That’s because a high body mass index, or BMI, can increase several risk factors for heart disease, such as:

What does the research say about heart-healthy diets?

If you’re wondering what does eating healthy do to your heart, the answer is lots of good things! According to the American Heart Association, a heart-focused diet that’s low in saturated fat can lower harmful LDL cholesterol by as much as 10 to 15%. Why is that important? Research reveals that people who have LDL cholesterol levels below 100 mg/dL are less likely to suffer from heart disease. Because a diet for heart health is also low in sodium (found in salt), it can additionally reduce blood pressure, another heart disease risk factor. In fact, a low-sodium diet is so effective that research suggests halving the amount of salt you consume can significantly decrease blood pressure in just 4 weeks.

Is a heart-healthy diet good for you?

Eating lots of heart-healthy diet foods doesn’t just prevent heart disease. It may also:

What you’ll eat on a heart-healthy diet

“Basically a heart-healthy diet is based on eating plenty of produce and minimally processed foods every day,” said Angelone. When planning your heart-healthy foods list, follow the lead of American Heart Association. Its heart-healthy diet definition favors a wide variety of these minimally-processed, whole foods:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Fish
  • Skinless poultry
  • Olive, canola and avocado oils

Because foods rich in saturated fat, refined sugars and sodium may contribute to heart disease the American Heart Association also recommends:

To cut down on saturated fat, refined sugars and sodium, you’ll want to reduce or avoid these foods:

  • Beef, pork and lamb
  • Deli meat and cold cuts
  • Poultry with skin
  • Pizza, burritos and tacos
  • Bread, bagels and rolls
  • Canned soup
  • Butter, cheese and cream
  • Whole and 2% milk
  • Coconut and palm oils
  • Sweetened drinks such as soda, sweet tea and lattes
  • Candy
  • Desserts like cakes, cookies, doughnuts and ice cream

What does a day of heart-healthy meals look like?

This sample menu gives you an idea of what is considered a healthy heart diet. Here is what you might eat on a one-day heart-healthy meal plan:

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal with a diced pear and chopped nuts
  • Lunch: Quinoa bowl with chickpeas and grilled vegetables
  • Snack: Unsweetened plain, non-fat Greek yogurt with berries
  • Dinner: Grilled salmon or tuna, sauteed spinach and a baked potato

Examples of heart-healthy diets

You might be surprised to learn there’s no one best heart-healthy diet. There are several plans that have strong track records, especially:

What are the pros and cons of a diet for heart health?

“Healthwise, I can’t think of a single con,” said Rosenbloom. “Eating a diet for heart health is also good for the brain, for keeping weight in a healthy range and for preventing high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.”

However, if you don’t eat many fruits, vegetables or whole grains, or can’t imagine life without meat as your main course, this diet may seem a little overwhelming at first. “It may be helpful to know that this way of eating doesn’t require expensive foods or even giving up all of your favorites,” said Rosenbloom. “Just make small changes like eating more fruits and vegetables, reducing portion sizes of meat and higher fat foods and eating more fiber-rich foods.” Not sure where to begin? Start slowly by preparing a couple of heart-healthy recipes once or twice a week.

Is a heart-healthy diet effective over the long term?

This style of eating does more than just protect you from developing heart disease. It can also help people who already have heart troubles. For example, when people who’ve had coronary bypass surgery or have stents to open the heart arteries eat this way, they are less likely to have their arteries close up again, according to Rosenbloom.

The bottom line

Experts agree that a heart-supporting diet is one of the best ways to improve heart health. “But it’s only one piece of the puzzle,” said Rosenbloom. “In the end, smart food choices, aerobic exercise, not smoking and taking medications as prescribed all work together to keep a heart healthy!”