‘Cardiovascular health’ refers to the condition of our heart and blood vessels. One of the most effective ways of optimising our heart health is through our diet. Maintaining a heart-healthy diet, combined with regular physical activity and other positive lifestyle habits, can contribute significantly to optimal cardiovascular health. If you have specific health concerns or conditions, seek guidance from healthcare professionals or registered dietitians for personalised advice.

In this article, we’ll explore various eating patterns and their impact on cardiovascular health.

The link between diet and cardiovascular health 

Diet plays a significant role in our cardiovascular health. Having a balanced eating pattern that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats can help maintain a healthy heart. On the other hand, diets that are high in saturated fats, trans fats and sodium (salt) can lead to conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and obesity, all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular diseases (heart diseases). 

For optimal cardiovascular health, the most effective approach is to make healthier eating choices. There are a variety of eating patterns that are thought to support this, such as the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet and various plant-based diets (e.g. a vegetarian diet). 

What are the dietary patterns to promote cardiovascular health? 

Several dietary patterns have been associated with promoting cardiovascular health. These patterns often focus on a combination of heart-healthy foods and overall lifestyle choices. Here are some dietary patterns that have been linked to cardiovascular health:

Mediterranean diet: a heart-healthy eating pattern

This diet emphasises fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats that are derived from fatty fish and plant sources (particularly olive oils or nuts). It limits red meat and processed foods. Studies have linked the Mediterranean diet with lower risk factors for heart disease such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

The Mediterranean diet provides antioxidants and heart-healthy fibre from plant-based sources such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. These are all foods that protect cardiovascular health by lowering cholesterol and triglycerides (a type of fat that can be harmful in high quantities). Furthermore, the Mediterranean diet includes an optimal combination of unsaturated fats (olive oil and nuts) and omega-3 fatty acids from various food sources including fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines.

DASH diet: dietary approaches to stop hypertension

The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet was created specifically to help people manage their blood pressure through diet alone. This eating pattern includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein while restricting added sugar, saturated fat and sodium (salt) intake. The DASH plan encourages high-fibre foods like beans, nuts and seeds as an important source of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, magnesium potassium and protein. 

The DASH diet has been shown to reduce high blood pressure (hypertension). It’s important for individuals with hypertension or those at risk for cardiovascular disease to consult with healthcare professionals, including doctors and registered dietitians, to create a plan that is tailored to their specific health needs and conditions. Dietary changes, in conjunction with other healthy lifestyle habits, can contribute to better blood pressure management and overall cardiovascular well-being.

Plant-based diets: a focus on heart health

Plant-based diets focus on foods that mainly come from plants including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes and beans. These diets are rich in fibre and antioxidants, which help to reduce inflammation and improve cardiovascular health.

All plant-based diets focus on whole foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts and legumes as well as healthy fats like olive oil, avocado and nut butters while limiting or excluding discretionary food (also known as junk food). These include:

  • ice cream, potato chips, cakes, donuts, lollies and chocolate
  • takeaway ‘fast foods’ such as hot chips, fried chicken, pizza and burgers
  • sugary drinks (such as cordial, energy drinks and soft drinks) and alcoholic drinks.

Plant-based diets may reduce the risk for heart disease by lowering cholesterol and controlling insulin and glycaemic levels (the amount of glucose in your blood), which in turn help decrease vascular inflammation. 

If you do choose to follow a plant-based diet, it is important to eat a variety of nutritious foods and ensure you get all your vitamins and minerals from different sources.

Low-fat diets 

Myth 1: if the label says ‘no-fat’ or ‘low-fat’, you can eat as much as you want.

Fact: many low-fat or no-fat foods have added sugar, starch or salt to make up for the reduction in fat. They often have just as many calories as the regular version.

Myth 2: saturated fats are very bad for your health

Fact: saturated fats are not unhealthy in appropriate amounts, but some research suggests that too much saturated fat leads to high cholesterol levels—especially ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol.

In conclusion, both low-carb and low-fat diets have their place in nutritional science. The key is to understand your body’s needs and consult with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian before starting any new diet plan.

The role of macronutrients in cardiovascular health 

Macronutrients are nutrients that your body needs to function optimally. The three main macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates and fat. Each type of macronutrient plays its own part in maintaining a healthy body, and all are crucial for cardiovascular health. It’s important to maintain a balance of these macronutrients for overall health and well-being. Specific nutritional needs can vary based on factors such as age, sex, activity level, and individual health goals. Additionally, micronutrients (such as vitamins and minerals) and water are also crucial components of a well-rounded and nutritious diet.

  1. Protein: protein consists of amino acids, which are essential for the growth, repair and maintenance of body tissues. Excessive protein intake has been linked to cardiovascular disease (heart disease).

  2. Carbohydrates: these are the main source of energy for several body tissues, and the primary energy source for the brain. The body breaks carbohydrates down into glucose, which moves from the bloodstream into the body’s cells and allows them to function. A diet that is too high in refined carbohydrates and sugars can lead to obesity and metabolic syndrome, both of which increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (heart disease).

  3. Fats: fats can also provide the body with energy. While some types of dietary fats may be healthier than others, they are an essential part of our diet and play a role in hormone production, cell growth, energy storage and the absorption of important vitamins.

The different types of fats and their impact on heart health

There are four different types of fats found in food. They are monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and trans fats.

  1.   Monounsaturated fats can help to lower cholesterol and are found in foods such as olive oil, olives, canola oil, avocado and peanuts.
  2.   Polyunsaturated fats can also help to lower cholesterol levels. Foods like oily fish (which contain omega 3 fatty acids) can help to decrease blood pressure. Walnuts, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, safflower and sunflower oils also contain polyunsaturated fats.
  3.   Saturated fats increase cholesterol levels. They are found in staple foods such as meat, and in full-fat dairy foods (milk, cheese, yoghurt) and butter. Saturated fats are also found in baked goods (cakes, muffins, biscuits) and processed meats (salami, sausages and deli meats).
  4.   Trans fats also increase cholesterol levels but have a greater impact on heart health. They also decrease HDL cholesterol (often referred to as ‘good’ cholesterol). Trans fats are mostly found in store bought baked goods, chocolate, chips and takeaway foods.

Beyond food: lifestyle factors for a healthy heart 

Eating well is not the only factor that supports cardiovascular health. Doing the recommended amount of physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight are also important, as are quitting smoking, limiting alcohol consumption and managing stress.

Practical tips for adopting heart-healthy eating patterns

Here are some practical tips to help you adopt a heart-healthy eating pattern: 

  • Choose whole grains: Whole grains are a good source of fibre and other nutrients that play a role in regulating blood pressure and heart health. Replace refined grains with whole grains such as brown rice, oatmeal, whole grain bread and whole grain pasta.
  • Limit saturated and trans fats: Saturated and trans fats can increase your blood cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease. Limit your intake of foods high in these fats, such as butter, full-fat dairy products and fatty meats.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre but low in calories.
  • Include sources of lean protein: Choose lean meats and poultry and prepare them by trimming visible fat from meat and removing the skin from chicken. Use cooking methods such as grilling, poaching (chicken) and stir-frying.
  • Reduce your salt intake: Eating a lot of sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Choose products labelled as low salt, and use lemon, lime, herbs and spices such as pepper to flavour food.
  • Limit added sugars: Too much sugar in your diet can lead to weight gain and high blood pressure, which can raise your risk of heart disease. Foods high in added sugars include chocolate, lollies, soft drink, alcohol and baked goods.
  • Manage portion sizes: How much you eat is just as important as what you eat, especially in terms of weight management. When plating meals, fill one half of your plate with  vegetables. The other half of your plate should be for protein and carbohydrates.

A diet to help you maintain cardiovascular health can be found here, while special designed recipes can be found here.

Maintaining a heart-healthy diet is important for optimal cardiovascular health. By consuming a variety of healthy foods from different food groups and making lifestyle changes such as increasing physical activity levels and quitting smoking, we can significantly reduce our risk of developing heart disease.

But successfully making long-term healthy lifestyle changes is not always easy. This is where prevention programs such as Life! can help.

How the Life! program can help you

Life! is a free healthy lifestyle program that helps you improve your eating habits, increase your physical activity and manage stress. It will help you reduce your risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Life! is run by experienced health professionals, including dietitians and exercise physiologists, who guide and support you to make healthy lifestyle changes. 

The program includes 7 sessions delivered over a 12-month period. You can choose from a group course or our telephone health coaching service. Learn more about the program today. 


10 common diet myths – busted – BBC Good Food

Circulatory system – healthdirect
Heart, stroke and vascular disease: Australian facts, About – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
Heart health (cardiovascular) – Healthy WA
How the Mediterranean diet lowers risk of cardiovascular disease – NHLBI, NIH
DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet to prevent and control hypertension – RACGP 

Keeping your heart healthy – Heart Foundation 

Macronutrient balance – Eat For Health
Cardiovascular Health Mission – Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care 

Nutrition position statement – Heart Foundation

What is plant-based eating – Heart Foundation 

What we’re doing about cardiovascular conditions – Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care
Low-Carbohydrate Diets – Harvard Health 

Fats, Oils and Heart Health – The Heart Foundation