Foods high in saturated fat—think butter, cream, and red meat—are a diet disaster when you’re trying to eat heart smart. At the other extreme are foods that boost overall health and help keep your heart functioning at its best.

Foods that contain flavonoids (from blueberries to cocoa) help your heart, as do foods with healthy fats, such as fatty coldwater fish and nuts. A varied diet should include whole, fresh foods—foods that aren’t processed and packaged.

Here are nine specifics that make up a tasty list:

  1. Lean Protein: Choosing leaner cuts of meat can help you manage your weight, which is part of promoting heart health. Health experts and dietitians often recommend skinless chicken, fish, and lean cuts of beef (those without the white marbling of fat). Research suggests that lean pork can also be on the short list. Aim for just three to six ounces of lean protein daily
  2. Fruits and Vegetables: Even though the bare minimum is considered five servings a day of fruits and vegetables, for the best heart health the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends seven to nine total servings, depending on your calorie needs. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors ensures that you’ll get a range of nutrients plus plenty of fiber. 
  3. Whole Grains: Like fruits and vegetables, whole grains are rich in nutrients as well as dietary fiber. Fiber from whole grains has been linked to lower heart disease risk factors—your risk goes down as your fiber consumption goes up. Plan on about six 1-ounce servings a day for a 1,600-calorie diet. A serving is a slice of whole-grain bread, a ½ cup of brown rice, or an apple with skin.
  4. Healthy Fats: Your body needs some fat to keep working well, but you want “healthy” fats, like those found in plant-based oils, the monounsaturated canola, olive, peanut, and sunflower oils, and the polyunsaturated soybean, corn, and safflower oils. However, you only need a small amount of fat each day, about two to three servings. A serving is only one teaspoon of oil.
  5. Fish: People who live in regions where a diet rich in fatty fish is common, such as Scandinavia, seem to have a lower risk of heart disease. You, too, can gain this benefit, which comes from omega-3 fatty acids. Start by eating fish, such as tuna, salmon, sardines, and mackerel on a regular basis—two to three times a week. 
  6. Nuts: Research shows that people who snack on nuts—as little as a quarter-ounce a day—have lower cholesterol levels. However, it's wise to portion out your nut snacks so you don’t overdo it, because their calories can add up quickly. Aim for about a ¼ cup to benefit from the fiber and healthy fat without consuming too many calories.
  7. Chocolate: Regularly eating a small amount of dark chocolate seems to help prevent heart disease and other chronic health conditions, such as diabetes. Cocoa, the key ingredient of chocolate, is the key to chocolate’s heart-healthy effects. Researchers are still learning about chocolate’s effects on your health, but in the meantime, you can enjoy a nibble here and there. (Just remember that too much chocolate adds up to too many calories and fat, which can lead to weight gain.)
  8. Tea: Black tea and green tea, hot or cold, help protect you from heart disease risk factors. Just be judicious about sweeteners because sugar adds unwanted calories.
  9. Spices: National recommendations are to consume 1,500 grams or less of salt a day to guard against high blood pressure. So, rather than salting foods, experiment with a variety of spices to add flavor. A recent study found that capsaicinoids, which give chile peppers their heat, might be especially good for heart health—so pass the cayenne!

If you need more help in the dietary department, ask your primary care provider to recommend a dietitian. Also, the American Heart Association has an online personal calorie number tool that determines what your daily caloric intake should be and how much fat and salt you can incorporate into your diet. They base the numbers on personal information, such as your height, weight, activity level, and typical food choices and habits.

This article is part of a series of heart health articles produced for the Healthgrades Pledge for Heart Health campaign. The Pledge for Heart Health campaign is a Facebook application that asks people to virtually pledge that they’ll talk to their doctor about heart health. For each pledge received in the month of February 2013, Healthgrades will donate $1 to the American Heart Association (up to $10,000).