How Nutrition Affects Your Heart Health

Good nutrition is essential to normal growth, development, and overall health. It’s especially important for your heart. Following a heart-healthy plan means eating foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, and fibre — and low in sodium and fat. It has been proven that even modest changes to your diet can reduce your risk of death from cardiovascular disease (CVD)

The food you eat affects many of the important risk factors associated with heart disease, including:

  • Cholesterol
  • Blood pressure
  • Weight and waist circumference
  • Blood sugar

Benefits of Eating a Heart-Healthy Diet

You can significantly improve your cardiovascular health by following a heart-healthy nutrition plan, as the following nutritional recommendations and their effects show: 

  • Diets high in whole grains and fibre are associated with improved nutrition overall and a decreased risk for CVD. 
  • Decreasing your intake of saturated and trans fats reduces your risk for CVD through the lowering of LDL, or “lousy,” cholesterol. 
  • Consuming omega-3 fats (fatty fish such as salmon, trout, sardines) is associated with a reduced risk of death from coronary artery disease. Omega-3s exert a protective cardiovascular effect by reducing triglycerides, inhibiting clot formation, and reducing blood pressure. 
  • Limiting your sodium intake to less than 2000mg (less than 1 tsp) per day can help you lower your blood pressure.1   
  • Each fruit or vegetable you eat is associated with a 4% reduction in the risk for a coronary event.2 
  • If you get more omega-3s and less saturated fat, you can increase your HDL, or “good,” cholesterol levels.3 
  • You can reduce your triglycerides, another form of fat in the body, by reducing your consumption of sugar and alcohol.  

Prevalence of Poor Nutrition

Health Canada considers the nutritional health of Canadians to be pretty good but not great. In fact, the food choices Canadians make contribute to a range of nutrition-related chronic diseases, not least of which is CVD. Poor nutrition and inactivity are second only to smoking among the non-genetic factors that can lead to illness and death.

Your food choices represent complex nutritional decisions — shaped by the relationship between you and your environment. 


  • Unhealthy eating increases the risk of a heart attack and is one of the 9 modifiable risk factors that account for 90% of heart attack risk.4 
  • In 2017, only 28.6% of Canadians older than 12 years of age reported they had consumed five or more fruits and vegetables per day.5  
  • Males report lower consumption of fruits and vegetables compared to females in Ontario.5
  • In Ontario, lower income households report the lowest prevalence of consuming vegetables and fruit five or more times per day.5 


Focus on the Facts: Nutrition Labels

All prepackaged foods have a nutrition label that provides information about the product (6). If you want to know the nutritional value of the food you’re about to buy, read the nutrition label. When seeking out heart-healthy products, look for labels that indicate low levels of trans and saturated fat, sodium and sugar, but higher amounts of fibre and vitamins and minerals. 

Step 1 – Look at the Serving Size 

Nutrition facts are based on a specific quantity of food. Always compare the serving size on the package to the amount that you actually eat. The label will list the nutrients according to the serving, not the package. 

Step 2 – Look at the Nutrients and the Percent of Daily Value (% DV) 

The percent of daily value puts nutrients on a scale from 0% to 100%. You need a certain recommended daily level of each nutrient. This scale tells you what percentage of your daily value a nutrient provides, usually in terms of a single serving. For example, if the label shows 10% for calcium, you’re getting 10% of your daily calcium from a single serving. The percent of daily value is based on a 2000 calorie eating plan. You can make these assumptions about the percent of daily value on labels: 

  • 5% or less is a small amount 
  • 15% or more is a large amount 
  • Consume higher % DV of fibre, vitamin A, calcium, and iron 
  • Consume smaller % DV of fat, saturated and trans-fat, sodium and sugar 

Step 3 – Look at the Ingredient List 

Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. This establishes the general makeup of the product. When reading the ingredient list, be sure to choose foods with labels that put: 

  • Salt or sodium and fat near the bottom 
  • High-fibre ingredients and whole grains (whole wheat, oats, rye, millet, quinoa, barley) at the beginning 
  • Sugar (honey, molasses, dextrin, syrup) last 

Eating with Less Salt

Sodium is a mineral found in salt (including sea salt, table salt, pink salt etc.).  You need salt for the functioning of your muscles and nerves, to regulate blood pressure, and to maintain the fluid in your cells. Too much salt can be harmful to your body, causing problems such as shortness of breath, elevated blood pressure, and water retention, all of which can lead to CVD, stroke, and kidney disease. It is recommended to limit your sodium intake to less than 2000mg per day. 1 tsp (5ml) of salt is approximately 2300mg.  

On average, Canadians consume double the recommended daily amount of salt. (7) Because salt can be found in a variety of products, particularly processed foods and beverages, it’s easy to get too much in your diet. This makes it especially important that you monitor your sodium intake. High sodium sources include canned soups/vegetables, salted nuts, processed meats, frozen dinners, fast food/processed foods, salad dressing and sauces and snack foods (cheese, pretzels, chips etc.).  

Tips to Decrease your Sodium Intake  

  • Cook without salt and remove the saltshaker from the table. 
  • Be spicy not salty. Flavour food with herbs, spices, lemon, vinegars or salt-free seasoning blends.  
  • Use fresh or frozen poultry, fish and meats, rather than canned, smoked or processed.  
  • Read labels and choose products with less sodium. Look for “no salt added” or “low sodium” options.  
  • Cook more at home and eat out less often. Most restaurant meals have 1000mg of sodium or more.  
  • Follow the DASH Eating Plan for overall health and to keep your sodium in check. (8) 


Cook At Home More Often  

A “home-cooked” meal includes at least three food groups (vegetables and fruit, grain products, milk and alternatives, meat and alternatives and uses whole, unprocessed foods. Cooking at home allows for more control over what is in our food, including less salt, fat and sugar. It is not only better for our health but also better for our wallets as it is cheaper than pre-made meals and/or restaurant foods.

Keeping ingredients like canned fish, eggs, frozen vegetables and brown rice in the house makes it convenient for fast meals. Cooking large batches of soup, stews and casseroles and freezing is another great way to prepare and plan ahead.  

10 tips for healthy eatingDownload printable version

How You Eat Is as Important as What You Eat 

Eating while doing other things means you pay less attention to what you are eating and may end up eating faster and more food. Sitting at a table allows us to enjoy what we are eating and be more aware of our choices. It is also a great way to connect with friends and family. Start by choosing one meal a day and eating at the table once or twice each week.  

Listen To Your Body  

 Eating is more than just nutrients it is also social and should be enjoyable. To practice listening to your body, try turning off all distractions such as TV, computer or tablet. Take your time, don’t rush and taste the food you are eating. Listen to your hunger cues, eat when you are hungry and pause during or after your meal to ask yourself how full you are.  

Eat At Regular Times  

Skipping meals can leave you feeling extra hungry and lead to overeating. It is also harder to make healthy choices and eat slowly when we are very hungry. Eating at regular intervals, at least every four to six hours, can help avoid becoming too hungry. Start by including breakfast within one to two hours after waking up. Setting an alarm, booking an appointment in your calendar and planning meals in advance are some ways to help eat regularly throughout the day.  

Plan Healthy Snacks  

Healthy snacking can help you feel full between meals and give you an energy boost. A snack should include at least two food groups (vegetables and fruit, grain product or protein source). For example, 1 cup of berries and ½ cup of plain yogurt or 1 apple and 1tbsp of nut butter. Listen to your body and snack when you are hungry, not because you may be bored or stressed.  For healthy snacking, plan ahead and portion the snack into a bowl. Try snacking without distractions like driving or watching TV.  

Eat A Variety of Fruits and Vegetables at Every Meal  

Consuming seven or more servings of vegetables and fruit each day may help to reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. A serving of raw or cooked vegetables is ½ cup. A serving of fruit is ½ cup or one small piece of fruit (about the size of a tennis ball).  To increase your fruit and vegetable consumption, aim to fill half your plate with fruit and/or vegetables at all meals.   

Eat Whole Grains More Often  

Whole grains are higher in fibre, vitamins and minerals. They include oatmeal, bulgur, brown or wild rice, psyllium, barley, quinoa, popcorn just to name a few. Eating more whole grains helps to reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes as well as lowering your cholesterol and blood pressure. A few simple ways to increase your whole grains include using brown rice instead of white rice, whole pasta instead of white pasta, have oatmeal for breakfast or try using dark rye breads or whole grain breads.  

Eat Fish At Least Twice A Week  

Fish is a good source of protein, is high in omega-3 fats and can help to lower your risk of heart disease. Choose fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, pickerel, sardines or trout at least two times per week.  Fresh, frozen or canned fish are all good options, which can be baked for an easy meal, added to salad or curry or made into a sandwich.  

Include Legumes Like Beans, Chickpeas, Lentils, Nuts and Seeds More Often 

Eating more nuts, seeds, lentils and legumes (kidney, black, white beans, chickpeas) helps to reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes as well as reduce cholesterol and blood pressure. Aim to include them at least four to five times per week. This can be done by adding chickpeas to a salad, beans to a chili, eating nuts and seeds as a snack or adding them to a salad.   

Don’t Be Afraid of Fats 

Fats actually play an important role in our bodies. They give us energy, are part of cell walls, hormones and insulate our bodies. They also taste good and keep us feeling full. The healthier fats to chose more often are unsaturated fats and include fats from plant sources including nuts, seeds and avocado. For example, cook using olive, canola or sunflower oil, make your own salad dressings and eat nuts and seeds as snack. Trans fats (mainly found in processed foods) and saturated fats (mainly animal-based products like red meat and dairy) are the ones to choose less often.  Cooking more at home, limiting red meat to twice per week and choosing lower fat dairy options are all ways to reduce trans and saturated fats.  



1.Public Health Agency of Canada (2009). Tracking Heart Disease and Stroke in Canada.