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Simple, heart-smart substitutions

A heart-healthy diet is low in saturated fat and cholesterol. It also limits salt, refined sugar, and processed foods.

Making heart-healthy food choices doesn't mean you have to sacrifice flavor. The key is to substitute less healthy foods with fresh produce, whole grains, beans, lean meats, fish, and low-fat dairy.

1. Replace saturated fats

Reduce the amount of fat in your dairy. Many dairy products are high in saturated fat. But there are healthier options.

  • Instead of butter, cook with olive, canola, corn, or safflower oils.
  • Replace heavy cream with evaporated skim milk.
  • If a recipe calls for whole milk, mix a cup of low-fat milk with a tablespoon of vegetable oil. You'll cut out unhealthy saturated fat.
  • Replace whole-milk cheese, yogurt, and milk with low-fat versions.

Reduce fat and cholesterol in meat. Try meat substitutes with your meals.

  • Beans are great in soups, salads, and over rice.
  • Nuts liven up salads, stir-fried meals, and vegetables.
  • Eggs make great dinners, as omelets and frittatas. Use egg whites to cut even more fat.
  • Mushrooms add a meaty texture to sauces, casseroles, and stroganoffs.
  • Tofu goes well with curries and stir fried dishes.
  • Eat more fish, especially fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids. This includes herring, sardines, salmon, tuna, trout, and mackerel.
  • Shrimp has less cholesterol than chicken, pork, or beef.

Choose lean meats. They have less fat and are better for your heart. When selecting and cooking lean meats:

  • Remove the skin from chicken and turkey before serving.
  • Choose lean cuts of pork, such as tenderloin or loin chops.
  • Look for beef cuts labeled "choice" or "select."
  • Avoid marbled cuts of beef, or cuts marked "prime."
  • Cut off visible fat before cooking.
  • Instead of frying, bake, roast, broil, or stir fry meat.
  • If excess fat pools in the pan, pour it off before serving the meat.

Prepare meat as just a part of the meal, rather than the main attraction. For example, stir fry pork with broccoli and serve over brown rice. Along with the meat, you get a serving of vegetable and whole grain.

2. Prepare foods with little or no salt

To cut back on salt, stock your kitchen with low- or no-salt prepared sauces, soups, canned foods, or mixes. Instead of salt, season your food with:

  • Orange, lemon, or lime juice
  • Spices and herbs
  • Vinegar
  • Salt-free herb blends

3. Cook with whole grains

White flour, white rice, and other refined grains have been stripped of their nutrients. You often find them in foods that are high in sugar, sodium, and fat.

Whole grains are loaded with fiber and nutrition. They can help lower cholesterol in your blood and make you feel full longer. As you shop for food, read labels for fat and sugar content. Be on the look out for:

  • Whole grain breads, cereals, and crackers
  • Whole wheat flour instead of white flour
  • Brown or wild rice instead of white rice
  • Whole wheat barley
  • Oatmeal
  • Other grains such as quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and millet

4. Cut back on sugar

Too much sugar in your diet typically means many calories without many nutrients. To keep your weight in check and your heart healthy, limit the sugar you eat.

  • Cut sugar in recipes by 1/3 or more. You often won't notice a difference.
  • In recipes, use unsweetened applesauce in equal amounts in place of sugar.
  • Cook with carob instead of cocoa powder. It is sweeter so you can add less sugar.
  • Use ginger, allspice, or cinnamon in oatmeal.


Baked Salmon Dijon

  • 1 cup fat free sour cream
  • 2 tsp dried dill
  • 3 tbsp scallions, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 ½ lbs salmon fillet with skin cut in center
  • ½ tsp garlic powder
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • As needed, fat-free cooking spray
  1. Whisk sour cream, dill, onion, mustard, and lemon juice in small bowl to blend.
  2. Place salmon, skin side down, on prepared sheet. Sprinkle with garlic powder and pepper. Spread with the sauce.
  3. Bake salmon until just opaque in center, about 20 minutes.

Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Vegetarian Spaghetti Sauce

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 small onions, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 ¼ cups zucchini, sliced
  • 1 tbsp oregano, dried
  • 1 tbsp basil, dried
  • 8 oz can of low-sodium tomato sauce
  • 6 oz can of low-sodium tomato paste
  • 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 cup water
  1. In a medium skillet, heat oil. Sauté onions, garlic, and zucchini in oil for 5 minutes on medium heat.
  2. Add remaining ingredients and simmer covered for 45 minutes. Serve over whole grain pasta, cooked without salt.

Source: Your Guide to Lowering Your Blood Pressure with DASH, U.S. Health and Human Services.


Eckel RH, Jakicic JM, Ard JD, et al. 2013 AHA/ACC Guideline on Lifestyle Management to Reduce Cardiovascular Risk: A Report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. November 2013.

Gidding SS, Lichtenstein AH, Faith MS, et al. Implementing American Heart Association Pediatric and Adult Nutrition Guidelines A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee of the Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism, Council on Cardiovascular Disease in the Young, Council on Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, Council on Cardiovascular Nursing, Council on Epidemiology and Prevention, and Council for High Blood Pressure Research. Circulation. 2009;119(8):1161-1175.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary guidelines for Americans 2010. US Department of Agriculture, 7th edition Washington (DC): US Government Printing Office. 2010.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Your Guide to Lowering Your Blood Pressure with DASH, NIH Pub. No. 06-4082.

Update Date: 5/18/2014

Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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