Heart Disease

Heart disease in women: How to eat a heart-healthy diet

February 14, 2024

Written by Maeve Ginsberg

Medically reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

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Key Points

  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death in American women. 
  • Changing your diet is one of the best steps you can take to prevent heart disease.
  • Regular exercise, quitting smoking and drinking, and reducing stress all help lower your risk of heart disease.

How heart disease impacts women

February is American Heart Month. This month is meant to bring greater awareness to the prevalence and risk of heart disease. Over 60 million women in the United States have some form of heart disease, and it remains the leading cause of death for women in the U.S. About 1 in every 5 female deaths is from heart disease. It can be a deadly condition and can greatly compromise your quality of life. As such, taking as many preventative steps as possible is crucial. Here’s how to eat a heart-healthy diet and prevent heart disease in women.

Types of heart disease

There are multiple different types of heart disease:

  • Coronary artery disease is the most common heart disease, as well as the leading cause of death for women in the U.S. It is caused by plaque buildup in the walls of arteries. Women are at higher risk for coronary artery disease after menopause due to hormonal changes.
  • Heart failure occurs when your heart is too weak to pump enough blood throughout your body for full function.
  • Arrhythmia means your heart is beating too fast, too slowly, or irregularly.

Heart disease risk factors

High blood pressure is one of the top risk factors for heart disease. More than 56 million women in the U.S. have high blood pressure or are taking blood pressure medication – nearly the same figure as the 1 in 5 who have heart disease. Your odds of developing high pressure depend on your diet and lifestyle, as well as your race and whether you had high blood pressure while pregnant.

Additional risk factors include:

  • Age
  • Family history
  • Race and ethnicity
  • History of previous heart attack
  • High LDL cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Emotional stress and depression
  • Smoking
  • Inactivity
  • Menopause
  • Excess weight

What is the best heart-healthy diet?

Diet plays a huge role in mitigating your risk of heart disease. Eating a heart-healthy diet is crucial to maintaining heart health and staying well overall.

Balance how much you eat. Overeating doesn’t just lead to excess weight and obesity. It can also overwhelm your digestive system and make you feel lethargic. Eating controlled portions that focus on low-calorie, nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables will help you maintain your overall health.

Prioritize fruits and vegetables. Produce is full of important vitamins, minerals, and fiber that support your cardiovascular health goals. Eating a variety of fruits and veggies is just as important as eating enough produce overall to ensure that you are getting a range of nutrients, including antioxidants. Great options include:

  • Fresh vegetables like carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, and mushrooms
  • Leafy greens like arugula, kale, Romaine lettuce, and spinach
  • Canned vegetables (check that they are low sodium)
  • Cooked or frozen vegetables like broccoli or cauliflower
  • Fresh fruits like berries, apples, mango, oranges, bananas, and grapes
  • Canned, frozen, or dried fruit without added sugars

Choose whole grains. Look for products that say 100% whole grain. You can also explore baking your own bread to avoid refined flour. Plenty of grain-based foods have unnecessary added sugars. Bread-like products like bagels and tortillas should only have a few ingredients and be made with whole wheat. Other carbohydrate options include cereals like oatmeal (made with rolled or steel-cut oats), quinoa, barley, wild or brown rice, and whole-grain pasta.

Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products. This can help keep your overall calories lower and reduce your saturated fat intake.

Choose low-fat protein sources. Similarly, this can help keep your calories lower. When it comes to lean meats, seafood, and poultry tend to have the lowest fat, but you can look for lean cuts of pork and beef as well. Other options include eggs, beans and lentils, legumes, and tofu or soybeans.

Prioritize unsaturated fat. Not all fat is bad. You need some amount of fat in your diet for nutrient absorption, and there are plenty of healthy fats out there that are good for your heart. Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly beneficial. Omega-3s are present in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, and herring, as well as in walnuts and flaxseed.

What foods should I limit to lower my risk of heart disease and stroke?

According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a healthy diet should consist of less than 10% total calories from saturated fat. An eating plan high in saturated fat can increase your risk of heart disease. Saturated fat is present in fatty meats, sausages, bacon, butter, and full-fat dairy foods like ice cream.

Replacing these sources of saturated fat with unsaturated fats can help lower “bad” cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. Olive oil, avocados, low-fat dairy products, nuts, and seeds are all great options.

It’s also important to reduce or limit sodium and salt. Excess sodium is correlated with high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends healthy adults have no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day (about a teaspoon), but that most adults stay below 1,500 mg daily. While we tend to focus on the salt we add to foods, sodium is present in many of the packaged foods we eat, so it’s important to read your nutrition labels carefully.

How women can prevent heart disease with healthy eating and lifestyle changes

Reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease goes beyond heart-healthy eating. There are a number of steps you can take in your lifestyle to mitigate your chances and be as healthy as possible.

Regular physical activity is important to keep your heart healthy and keep your body strong. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week and combine that with a few strength sessions to keep your bones strong.

Limit your alcohol intake. When you drink alcohol, it disrupts your sleep and puts extra stress on your liver. Poor sleep is correlated with high blood pressure, heart attack, diabetes, obesity, and depression. Aim for at least seven hours of quality sleep per night.

Smoking and using tobacco directly impact your heart and blood vessels. Cigarette smoke specifically lowers oxygen in your blood, which raises your blood pressure and heart rate. Quitting smoking and tobacco can have an enormously positive impact on your health, with the risk of heart disease dropping even just a day after quitting and dropping by half after a year.

Managing your stress can have a significant impact on your blood pressure and other heart disease risk factors. Stress can lead to unhealthy behaviors and poor sleep. Chronic stress can really wear you down, so maintaining a routine to combat it is crucial. Regular physical activity, yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness exercises can all help. And don’t forget to have fun and enjoy time with loved ones!

Regular checkups are important so that you always know what’s going on with your health. It can be hard to know if you have high blood pressure or a heart condition without medical intervention. Regular screenings for blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, and any other health concerns help keep you in the know.

Working with a registered dietitian for heart health

If you are struggling to create a healthy lifestyle full of heart-healthy foods and are concerned about your heart health, working with a registered dietitian can be a great step. A board-certified RD can assess your current dietary pattern and lifestyle, as well as your medical history, to create an eating plan and offer guidance to improve your key biomarkers and overall health.

With Fay Nutrition, you get connected with a qualified registered dietitian who is covered by your health insurance. This means you can work with an expert who specializes in heart-healthy eating for as little as $0 per session. Your RD will create a custom plan for you to follow to improve your eating patterns and reduce your blood pressure. They can work in tandem with your healthcare team to create an individualized approach that brings as many health benefits as possible. Having this extra support can make a significant difference in your overall health.

Click here to get started with Fay Nutrition today.

The views expressed by authors and contributors of such content are not endorsed or approved by Fay and are intended for informational purposes only. The content is reviewed by Fay only to confirm educational value and audience interest. You are encouraged to discuss any questions that you may have about your health with a healthcare provider.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Women and Heart Disease
  • Mayo Clinic - Heart-healthy diet: 8 steps to prevent heart disease
  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics - Heart Health for Women
  • Mayo Clinic - Strategies to prevent heart disease

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Maeve Ginsberg

Written by Maeve Ginsberg

Maeve Ginsberg is a health and wellness writer with a personal passion for fitness. As an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and former powerlifter, she loves combining her interests in health with her writing. Maeve has a Bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University. 

Rita Faycurry, RD

Medically Reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

Rita Faycurry, RD is a board-certified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in clinical nutrition for chronic conditions. Her approach to health is centered around the idea that the mind and body are intimately connected, and that true healing requires an evidence-based and integrative approach that addresses the root cause of disease. In her books and articles, Rita offers practical tips and insights on how to care for your body, mind, and spirit to achieve optimal health and wellness.