garlic and olive oil

Get Heart Healthy with These Tips

Columbia cardiologist Jennifer Haythe, MD, shares doable tweaks that will help get your heart into shape

Most of us know we should do more in general to keep our hearts healthy, but we might not know the best ways to get started. The easiest way is to be more mindful of the foods we eat.

“Unfortunately, a lot of our society’s diet has been based on corn syrup and processed foods,” says Jennifer Haythe, MD, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, who helps her patients adopt heart-healthy habits. “When most patients realize they need to eat better, they feel excited about the change.”

Haythe promotes a Mediterranean diet, which includes non-processed foods, fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, fish, poultry, and olive oil while limiting saturated fats and red meat.

“Putting all this together is a great way to keep your heart healthy.”

Haythe shared with us her own daily dietary habits, as well as lifestyle changes that she suggests for her patients.


Choose olive oil

As a core part of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil is low in saturated fats and monounsaturated fats and reduces your LDL cholesterol (often called “bad” cholesterol). “This is all great for your heart,” Haythe says.

Load up on berries

Berries are ideal for heart health because they are low in calories, high in fiber, and help combat LDL and inflammation. “My favorites are blueberries and blackberries; I add them to yogurt, cereal, or just have them as dessert,” Haythe says.

Go nuts

Unsalted nuts, like walnuts and almonds, promote good cholesterol and lower LDL, so they’re perfect for snacking or adding to foods like salads and oatmeal. “But only have a few because they can be high calorie,” Haythe says.

Replace salt with garlic

Garlic is one of Haythe’s favorite ingredients for its great flavor and low calories. “What I really like about garlic is it can replace salt,” she adds. “As a heart failure doctor, I know low salt is crucial. So flavor your meat, salad, pretty much anything, with garlic.”

Wake up with oatmeal

Not only does oatmeal reduce LDL and inflammation, it’s also high in fiber, helping you feel full quickly. “It goes through your digestive tract slowly, so you might not eat as much as you normally would,” Haythe says. Steel-cut oatmeal or rolled oatmeal is best for your heart, she adds.

Stop smoking

In addition to eating well, Haythe’s No. 1 heart health rule is quitting tobacco. “Everyone can quit—there’s no exception—and it’s never too late. It’s the best thing you can do for your heart, lungs, brain, and whole body,” she says.   

Stick to your prescriptions

If you have a risk factor for cardiac disease—diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure—taking your medications exactly as your doctor prescribes helps protect your heart, Haythe says.

Get moving

Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are also risk factors for heart disease, especially in the United States. “Be active and get out there, even if it's just walking; it's great for your heart,” Haythe says.