A healthy diet is important to the vitality of your heart, and even more so after a cardiovascular event, like heart attack or stroke. Lifestyle interventions, including a well-balanced diet and regular exercise, can help prevent heart attack and stroke in people with heart disease. A healthy meal plan "gives your body optimal performance, so that it can recover and heal itself and also prevent another cardiac event in the future," says Lauri Watson, RD, a registered dietitian.

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Learning about nutrition and implementing a healthy diet is a big part of cardiac rehabilitation, a program designed to aid recuperation after heart attack, heart failure or cardiovascular surgery. Sure, there are certain heart-healthy guidelines, but consuming a ticker-friendly diet isn’t as difficult as you might think. Watson recommends focusing on a whole food and plant-based food plan. She also says it's OK to start small. "Even small changes add up to big changes over time."

A healthy diet is the best weapon against heart disease, suggests Watson. Read on to build your arsenal. 

Enjoy: fruits and veggies

Watson recommends adding a variety of colorful produce to your meals. Both fruits are veggies are low in calories and fat and high in vitamins and minerals. But there are even more potential benefits to reaching these dietary goals.

Loading your plate with low-calorie fruits and veggies leaves less room for higher calorie foods and may promote weight loss. Excess body weight has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, making this a heart-smart move. Produce is also generally free of unhealthy, saturated fats that can increase your cholesterol levels and clog your arteries, upping the chances of heart attack and stroke. 

Enjoy: whole grains

Hearty whole grains like whole wheat, brown or wild rice, quinoa and oats boast a number of benefits. For one, grains are especially filling, which may help sate your desire for between-meal snacking and stave off weight gain. Whole grains are also rich in dietary fiber, which can help keep cholesterol levels in check and lower the likelihood of stroke, heart disease and diabetes.

Enjoy: lean meats

Protein is essential for the health and function of each of our bodies' cells, including the heart, but how much do we really need? Not as much as you might think, and there could be a downside to consuming too much protein from the wrong sources. Specific recommendations vary by age and gender, but general guidelines suggest we need at least 8 grams of protein per 20 pounds of body weight.

Some animal proteins, like ground beef, pork, duck and lamb, are high in saturated fats, which can increase levels of artery-clogging cholesterol. Instead, choose lean sources of protein, like chicken or turkey breast and beef with 10 percent fat or less. Plain non-fat Greek yogurt and eggs are other lean sources of protein to enjoy throughout the week. Depending on the condition of your heart, it may be wise to limit your egg yolk consumption. Before whipping up an omelet, ask your doctor how many egg yolks are safe for you to consume.  

Enjoy: fatty fish

Oven-roasted or grilled fatty fishes, like salmon and tuna, are a heart-conscious protein choice. Government dietary guidelines recommend men and women consume 8 or more ounces of seafood each week. Research suggests regular seafood consumption has been linked to a decreased risk of cardiac deaths in people with and without heart disease.    

Seafood is low in saturated fats but high in vital nutrients like protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s, found abundantly in wild caught salmon, might slightly lower blood pressure levels, slow the buildup of atherosclerotic plaque and decrease the risk of an irregular heartbeat.

When you're choosing your filets, opt for a swimmer with a low mercury, like salmon or trout, especially if you’re pregnant or plan to start a family.   

Enjoy: beans and legumes 

Legumes, like beans, lentils and peanuts, contain several heart-healthy nutrients: protein, unsaturated fats and fiber. Protein and fiber can help keep you full and prevent overeating at your next meal. Bean and legume consumption as part of a healthy diet has also been linked to better blood cholesterol levels, a known contributor of heart disease.

These healthy sources of plant-based protein can easily be incorporated into your meal plan. Stir plump lentils into soup, blend beans into a creamy dip or toss chopped nuts into your next salad.

If you're reaching for canned beans, give them a good rinse to get rid of excess sodium, too much of which may increase your blood pressure.

Limit: caffeine 

Caffeine, found in coffee, tea and chocolate, is a stimulant consumed by an estimated 90 percent of adults around the world. Some research suggests coffee is protective against type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's disease and heart disease, but the jury is still out. Other evidence suggests those with heart conditions should be careful about consumption.

Available evidence suggests drinking coffee doesn't have a big impact on the body's cholesterol levels, but long-term coffee use may produce a minor increase in blood pressure. Caffeine, in doses approved by your doctor, can be safe for people with an irregular heartbeat, but heart disease patients are cautioned to avoid consuming excessive amounts of caffeine.  

Research has yet to draw a conclusion on the "right" amount of caffeine for your heart, so all consumption should be discussed with your cardiologist. 

Avoid: sugar

Added sugars, found in soda, juice and bakery treats, add unnecessary calories to your diet. A 2014 study published in JAMA: Internal Medicine suggests excess sugar can hurt your heart, even if you're not overweight. During the 15-year study, participants who consumed between 10 percent and 25 percent of their daily calories in the form of sugar had a 30 percent higher risk of heart disease-related mortality. People getting more than a quarter of their daily calories from sugar had almost triple the risk.       

Watson is wary about recommending unhealthy foods "in moderation," given the various interpretations of the word. Instead, she suggests indulging only on special occasions, like birthdays or holidays. "Nobody likes to be told they can't ever have something, but, to me, these foods should be eaten sparingly," Watson says.  

Avoid: saturated fat

Saturated fats are abundant in foods like processed meats, full-fat dairy, french fries, red meat and packaged foods like cakes and biscuits. A diet rich in these fats can mess with the balance of cholesterol in your blood – lowering the protective kind (HDL) and bumping up the harmful type (LDL). Too much bad cholesterol can increase your risk for arterial blockage and up your likelihood of stroke and heart attack.

Replacing unhealthy fats with healthy ones can help shield your heart. Swapping red meat and packaged bakery snacks with grilled salmon, nuts and avocado can help lower cholesterol levels and improve heart health. 

The United States Department of Agriculture recommends limiting saturated fat intake to no more than 10 percent of your daily calories, but people with heart conditions may want to be especially careful. The American Heart Association guidelines are a bit more restrictive for those with elevated LDL cholesterol levels, suggesting saturated fat be limited to just 5 or 6 percent of daily calorie intake. Speaking with your healthcare provider is the only way to be sure you're eating the right amount for you.

Avoid: salt

Sodium isn't just sprinkled on top of your food. The salty stuff lurks in some unexpected places, like bread, cereal, soda and frozen dinners. Sodium is a mineral our bodies need for proper nerve and muscle function. However, too much salt can increase blood pressure levels, a main contributor to heart disease.

The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day but says 1,500 mg is the ideal target. And Watson agrees. Preparing food at home is one of the best ways to monitor sodium intake. "You're able to better control the salt in your food," Watson says. "And that 1,500 mg number is going to seem a lot harder to reach."

Instead of reaching for the salt shaker as you head to the stove, sprinkle a mix of chopped herbs into your pan. Watson recommends a combination of cilantro, basil and oregano, finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Peppers, garlic and onions also add great favor to any dish.

This content originally appeared on Sharecare.com.