A healthy heart and a healthy diet go hand-in-hand, so it’s important to know that not all calories are equal!

According to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, there are certain foods that give more bang for their buck when it comes to the cardiovascular system. To wit: “The best diet for preventing heart disease is one that is full of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fish, poultry and vegetable oils; includes alcohol in moderation, if at all; and goes easy on red and processed meats, refined carbohydrates, foods and beverages with added sugar, sodium, and foods with trans fat,” reads a Harvard article about preventing heart disease. It goes on to say that people who consistently focus on a diet rich in those foods have a 31% lower risk of heart disease, a 33% lower risk of diabetes and a 20% lower risk of stroke.

Improving your heart health may be as simple as improving your eating habits. Below, we’ve included some day-to-day tips to remember, along with 18 ideas for heart-healthy snacks. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t have a pizza night and burger and fries from time to time. But try and view those nights as treats, and strive to make healthier choices most of the time.

What can I do to make healthy eating easier?

Stock up on lots of fruits and veggies. Make sure your house is brimming with healthy options so that when you get hungry, you’re surrounded by good choices. Cut up carrots and celery, steam or roast extra broccoli and cauliflower, and slice up apples, oranges and cantaloupe. That way, it’s easy to indulge in fruits and vegetables, so you can pass on those unhealthy packaged and processed snacks. 

Don’t forget about portion control. The foods you choose matter, and so does the amount of those foods that you eat. By keeping your portions under control, you’ll eat fewer calories—which can help you maintain a healthy weight—and you’ll feel better after each meal. Good enough to take a walk around the block, rather than crashing on the couch!

The American Heart Association offers the following advice as a guide to different types of food:

– 1 cup of rice or cooked pasta: two servings; the size of a tennis ball
– 1 slice of bread: one serving; the size of an adult hand
– ½ cup cooked fruit or vegetables: one serving; the size of a baseball
– 1 ounce of low-fat cheese: one serving; the size of a pair of dice
– 1 tablespoon of olive oil: one serving; the size of a half-dollar
– 3 ounces of cooked meat: one serving; the size of a deck of cards
– 3 ounces of tofu: one serving; the size of a deck of cards

Opt for whole grains. If you have a choice between whole wheat bread vs. white bread, whole wheat is the healthier option. It has fiber and nutrients that can help regulate blood sugar, whereas white bread has been so processed its nutrients have been removed. Other examples of whole grains to choose from include brown rice, oatmeal, barley and whole-wheat flour. Try to avoid items with white flour in them, which traditionally include biscuits, pies, cakes, muffins, waffles, pasta, doughnuts and crackers.

Choose low-fat proteins. Pass on the bacon and beef, which are loaded with fat. Instead, opt for lean proteins, such as seafood, poultry, eggs, tofu, beans, peas and lentils. These foods will give you energy without bogging you down.

Select dairy products without all the fat. Dairy products are high in calcium that’s good for your bones and teeth. Too often, though, dairy products are also high in fat, although they don’t have to be! Next time you go shopping, leave the creamer and cheddar cheese behind and opt instead for low-fat milk (or a milk substitute, such as soy milk or oat milk), low-fat or no-fat yogurt and lower-fat cheeses, like mozzarella and cottage cheese.

Drink lots of water. Your heart pumps nearly 2,000 gallons of blood per day, according to the American Heart Association. That’s a lot of work! You can help make the job easier on your heart by staying hydrated. Just be sure and opt for water, rather than other sugary drinks, like soda and juice. Bored by plain water? Add slices of citrus or cucumber to add a little flavor and sneak in a few extra vitamins.

Heart healthy snacks

Eating a heart-healthy diet isn’t difficult. But it’s something that demands some planning and a little bit of education, as you familiarize yourself with convenient, grab-and-go bites that appeal to you and your family. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Sliced veggies (carrots, celery, green pepper and cucumbers), plain or with hummus
  • An apple or banana plain or with peanut butter or nut butter
  • Sliced up melon or a handful of grapes paired with ham or prosciutto
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Popcorn (just minimize the salt and butter)
  • Roasted nuts or seeds
  • A smoothie with your favorite fruits and/or veggies
  • Strawberries dipped in low-fat yogurt
  • Plain yogurt with a drizzle of honey
  • Steamed edamame
  • Slices of deli turkey rolled with a string cheese
  • Lettuce wrapped with turkey and/or low-fat cheese
  • Slices of avocado on whole-grain toast or a rice cake
  • Red and green pepper with guacamole
  • Cottage cheese with fruit
  • Cherry tomatoes and mozzarella balls with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil
  • A hard-boiled egg
  • A single-serving container of canned fruit or applesauce (make sure there’s no added sugar)

While food decisions are an important aspect influencing cardiovascular health, many other factors are also at play—some of which you can control. It’s important to also quit smoking (or never start); strive for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week and two days of muscle-strength workouts; get at least seven hours of sleep; and maintain a healthy weight.

In addition, make regular check-up appointments with your healthcare provider so you maintain a record of important numbers that reflect your heart health, including cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar. That way, your doctor can note any changes in your health and offer personalized insights and advice, and answer any questions you might have. In honor of American Heart Month this month, show your heart some love and make an appointment today.