Heart Healthy Recipes

To celebrate American Heart Month, our expert shares heart healthy food and recipes... and lots of advice.
broccoli cauliflower salad

Anne McIlhenny is the Chief Clinical Dietitian at UVM Health Network – Alice Hyde Medical Center, where she provides Medical Nutrition Therapy counseling, which helps educate people about a variety of nutrition problems including diabetes, celiac disease, high blood pressure and gastrointestinal disorders, and many others. She sat down with us recently to talk about heart-healthy foods and share some heart-healthy recipes.

What’s the role of nutrition in heart health?

The foundation of good health is a healthful diet. This doesn’t mean everyone has to be perfect all the time, but nutrition lays the foundation for good health throughout your life. When you’re 20, you don’t realize what your choices may mean when you’re 60 or 70. My diabetes patients will often say: “I should have paid more attention to my diet, but I didn’t – and here I am.”

What makes a food specifically “heart-healthy” as opposed to just “healthy?”

There’s a lot of new research on the connection between certain foods, inflammation and heart disease.

Highly processed ingredients – like refined sugar and flour, trans fats and hydrogenated vegetable oil – cause an inflammatory response in the body, similar to how your body reacts to an allergen or a virus.

Processed foods like hot dogs, salami, pepperoni, store-bought baked goods, sodas and sugary drinks – even some of the popular peanut butter brands – all contain these types of ingredients.

During that inflammatory response, your body enters a state of “chaos” as it tries to get rid of something it sees as potentially harmful. And that process, as it happens over and over again throughout our lives, causes changes to the proteins in our body that are associated with higher cardiac risks, such as coronary artery disease, stroke and cerebral aneurysms.

It’s a long-term process that doesn’t produce any symptoms, but studies show the lasting impact of those food choices.

What does a heart-healthy diet look like?

A heart-healthy diet includes a wide variety of natural foods, including lots of fruits and vegetables, which is where many people tend to have a hard time. It’s not uncommon for people to only have fruit once in a while, as opposed to the recommended two to three servings a day. The goal is a combined two and a half cups of fruits and vegetables every day.

What are some heart-healthy foods?

All types of berries – raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries – have a strong anti-inflammatory effect.

It’s also important to eat a variety of vegetables. Spinach, kale, and brussels sprouts are great. In addition to those dark greens, think about orange, red and yellow vegetables, too. The colors indicate a variety of nutrients, and they also create a pretty plate, which can make them more appealing.

Look for whole grain bread and pasta products, as opposed to white refined breads and rices. Labels can be hard to read sometimes, so I tell people to look at the first ingredient. It should be whole grain (as opposed to white enriched flour).

Certain fish, such as salmon, herring and trout, are great because they contain unsaturated fatty acids. Nuts and seeds also fit in that category. But you want to be careful of portion sizes because they’re high in calories. Don’t eat half the can of nuts; add them as a garnish.

Which foods should be avoided?

  • Processed meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, salami, prosciutto, and pepperoni.
  • Organ meats, such as liver.
  • Processed baked goods containing trans fats and hydrogenated vegetable oils.
  • Processed peanut butter (as opposed to the natural style). Many well-known varieties have replaced the natural liquid oils with solid processed fats, so you don’t have to stir it. If you’re a big peanut butter eater, this could be a problem.
  • Tropical oils, such as coconut oil and palm oil. They’re all the rage right now, but they’re full of fatty acids, so they’re more harmful than olive oil or peanut oil.
  • Refined sugars, such as candy, sodas and other sweetened drinks.
  • Red meats, such as beef, pork and lamb, should be eaten in moderation.
  • Excessive alcohol. The recommended daily limit is one drink for a woman and two for a man.

For those who want to make lifestyle changes, where should they start?

It may be tempting to say, “I’ll raid my fridge and pantry and throw out everything I shouldn’t eat.” But big changes like that might not be sustainable over time.

Instead, start small and focus on vegetables. Have a vegetable with every meal, and try some new ones.

Try starting a vegetable garden in spring. It will keep your bank account healthier, too! Gardens are also a good way to get kids excited about vegetables. If they help grow them, they’re more likely to want to taste them.

And finally, start moving. We should all strive for 150 minutes of exercise every week. For someone who can barely walk to the mailbox, that’s a daunting goal. But again, start small. Walk 10 minutes every day, if that’s all you can do. Or break up your exercise into several short sessions throughout the day. Just get started, because you’ve got today. Tomorrow is always tomorrow, and it’s not promised.

Roasted Broccoli and Cauliflower Salad with Yogurt, Honey and Lemon Dressing

Yield: 6 servings



  • 2 cups cauliflower, cut into small pieces
  • 2 cups broccoli, cut into small pieces
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup carrots, shredded
  • 1/2 cup scallions, sliced
  • 3/4 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seeds


  • 1/2 cup non-fat Greek yogurt
  • 1/2 cup low-fat mayonnaise
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest


  1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
  2. Toss cauliflower and broccoli with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast for 12 minutes, then cool.
  3. While vegetables roast, mix yogurt, mayonnaise, honey, lemon and zest until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Once cooled, toss cauliflower and broccoli with dressing and remaining ingredients, and serve.

Curried Squash Soup

Yield: 6 to 8 servings


  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder
  • 1 tablespoon cumin powder
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 large butternut squash or pumpkin (3 lbs) peeled, seeded and cut into chunks
  • 6 to 8 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


  1. Heat olive oil in a large, thick-bottom soup pot (like a Dutch oven) over medium-high heat.
  2. Add onion, ginger and garlic. Cook until translucent.
  3. Add curry, cumin and cayenne. Stir well.
  4. Add squash and stock, simmer until squash is tender.
  5. Add maple syrup and season with salt and pepper to taste. Puree until smooth, then serve.

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