Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both women and men, with someone dying from the disease every 36 seconds. There are many risk factors, including various underlying conditions, but one of the easiest to control is your diet. Fortunately, eating a heart-healthy diet doesn’t have to be tough. Here are a few ways to build a more heart-friendly nutrition plan.

The Basics

Creating a heart-healthy diet starts with understanding what you should eat and try to curtail. In general, aim to consume no more calories than you expend each day. The average adult needs about 2,000 calories per day, but you may need more or less depending on your age, gender, height and weight, and activity level. If you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll need to expend more calories than you take in. You can learn how many calories you need at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate Plan website.

Regardless of your specific calorie needs, heart-healthy eating basics are the same for everyone. They include:

  • A variety of fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Non-tropical vegetable oils
  • Healthy proteins such as low-fat dairy, beans, nuts, seafood, and lean meat or poultry
  • Low sodium
  • Few processed foods
  • Reduced sugar and alcohol intake

Additional Tips for a Heart-Healthy Diet

Heart-healthy doesn’t have to mean boring. Take this opportunity to learn more about spices and seasonings that don’t rely on salt for flavor. More ways to liven up a heart-friendly diet include:

Eat the rainbow: Challenge yourself to eat as many different colors of fruits and vegetables as possible.

Start with what you know: Toss some chopped veggies and fresh herbs into your stew, omelet, or other one-pot dishes.

Canned or frozen foods are fine: Don’t have time to process a lot of fresh produce? No problem. Look for flash-frozen fruits and vegetables or canned items without added sugar or salt.

Get your calcium: Need a healthy dessert alternative? Try tossing some frozen blueberries or strawberries into a cup of low-fat yogurt.

Expand your techniques: Most recipes that call for breading and frying have alternatives that rely on baking or grilling. Search the internet for recipes, and don’t be afraid to experiment.

Play with substitutions: We all love comfort foods, but there are easy ways to make your favorite high-fat comfort dish a bit more heart-friendly. For example, if you love macaroni and cheese, try making it with low-fat cheese and milk, reducing the butter, and adding fresh tomatoes and spinach. Or satisfy your sweet tooth with healthy dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate.

Indulge occasionally: Unlike a short-term fad diet, heart-healthy nutrition is meant to last a lifetime. If you implement a regimen of strict denial, you’ll only end up bingeing later. So give yourself permission to have an occasional treat. Just reduce the portion size or the frequency of consumption. For example, if you always have doughnuts on Saturday mornings, try having them just one Saturday a month. Or eat half a doughnut every Saturday morning alongside a healthy breakfast.