If there’s one person who has heart health in mind when they eat, it’s a cardiologist. After all, cardiologists see the effects of food on our hearts—day in and day out.
“Nutrition is the foundation upon which our health is built,” says Kerrilynn Hennessey, MD , a cardiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire. “It’s an important determinant of our risk for heart attack and stroke as well as living longer.” For optimal heart health, Dr. Hennessey says her goal is to maintain normal blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose levels, and body weight—which is why she follows a mostly plant-based diet . A diet that’s rich in fresh plant foods can help lower your sodium intake to less than about two grams daily, which has been shown to reduce blood pressure . Plant foods also help optimize your cholesterol levels to reduce your risk of heart disease , she adds.
Hennessey points to another benefit of plants: They’re high in fiber, which has loads of health benefits for your heart and body. Insoluble fiber (found in foods like vegetables and whole grains) helps control appetite and weight; lowers your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer ; and prevents constipation. Soluble fiber (found in oats, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and peas ) may help lower total cholesterol, blood pressure, and inflammation.
On the flip side, fried food (which is high in saturated and trans fats ), processed meats, and foods with lots of added sugar (like soda) substantially increase the risk of stroke and heart disease when consumed regularly, she notes. Rather than micro-managing her diet, she focuses on minimizing these foods along with butter and margarine.
But how does she put all of that knowledge into practice? Keep reading to find out her go-to foods and snag some heart-healthy meal ideas straight from her own standard rotation. If it’s good enough for a cardiologist, it’s good enough for us. A cardiologist’s favorite heart-healthy foods to inspire your meal ideas
Dr. Hennessey says studies have consistently shown that a Mediterranean diet (which involves lots of fruits, nuts, vegetables, legumes, fish, lean animal protein, and whole grains ) is associated with a lower risk of death than the standard American diet (which typically involves a lot of red meat and processed foods). That’s why it’s the type of diet recommended by the American Heart Association for optimal heart health—and it’s the diet Dr. Hennessey “loosely” follows.
Here’s more intel about the Mediterranean diet straight from a top RD: “I’ve realized over time that having a diet plan helps to streamline grocery shopping, makes it easier to eat healthy choices with a busy schedule, and reduces food waste,” says Dr. Hennessey. “My husband and I have a list of staple fruits and vegetables that we enjoy, know how to prepare, and are able to consume in a week. I eat avocado and nuts on a near-daily basis…and I enjoy a serving of broiled salmon weekly.”
Staples in Dr. Hennessey’s kitchen include olive oil and legumes. Her favorite foods include Brussel sprouts, snap peas, broccoli, spinach, arugula, peppers, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, hummus, bananas, raspberries, strawberries, clementine, black beans, chickpeas, onions, sweet potatoes, whole unsalted almonds or cashews, nut butter, quinoa, and brown and white rice.
While Dr. Hennessey tries to be primarily plant-based, she does eat lean meat like ground turkey, chicken breast, and salmon. It’s something she balances carefully, pointing to a 2018 observational study that linked higher intake of animal protein but not vegetable protein to heart failure as evidence that cutting back on meat is a reasonable goal for […]