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3-Day Cardiac Diet: Is It Safe? (Plus How to Eat for a Healthy Heart)

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Cardiac diet - Dr. Axe

The cardiac diet — also sometimes called the heart-healthy diet, DASH diet or MIND diet— is recommended by many cardiologists for adults who are at high risk of developing heart disease.

This may be because they’re dealing with risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or obesity, or even because they’re battling an illnesses like diabetes or even cancer, which can interfere with normal heart function.

The cardiac diet is very similar to the well-known Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to promote not only cardiovascular health, but cognitive health and longevity in general. Because it emphasizes healthy foods like veggies, whole grains, fish, nuts and seeds, it’s a great choice for just about everyone, whether they’re susceptible to heart-related issues or not.

What Is the 3-Day Cardiac Diet?

The cardiac diet (CD) is a heart-healthy diet plan that can help minimize the risk of developing heart disease. Two principles that this diet emphasizes most are reducing sodium/salt intake and fat intake, especially saturated fat.

Other components include reducing processed foods and added sugars and increasing intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fiber, legumes, fish and nuts — all of which studies show protect heart health.

The “3 day cardiac diet” got its name because some say that a very restrictive version of the cardiac diet, which is followed for three days of the week, can help you lose up to 10 pounds in three days. However, these results are not common and haven’t been proven.

The traditional cardiac diet is not actually meant to be a fad diet, but more like a healthy lifestyle change that can be followed long term.

Foods to Eat and Avoid

What meats can you eat on a cardiac diet? Can you eat cheese on a cardiac diet?

As mentioned above, the CD is a low-sodium and relatively low-fat diet. While leaner meats, egg whites and fish are allowed, fattier cuts of meat and most cheeses are off-limits, since they are higher in total fat and cholesterol.

What do you eat on a cardiac diet? Here are the heart-healthy foods and beverages you’ll find on the cardiac diet menu:

  • All types of fresh vegetables or frozen vegetables
  • All fresh fruit or frozen fruit, including avocados
  • Milk and dairy products, particularly fat-free or 1 percent milk, yogurt, or cottage cheese
  • Whole grains, including 100% whole-wheat products like bread and pasta, oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, etc.
  • Lean meats, such as poultry, beef and pork loin
  • Most types of fish
  • Dried beans and legumes, such as lentils, peas, chickpeas, etc.
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Seeds
  • Meat alternatives made with soy or textured vegetable protein
  • Egg whites or egg substitute
  • Healthy fats and unsaturated oils, such as olive oil, peanut oil and avocado oil
  • All herbs and spices (fresh or dried)
  • Water, sparkling water, teas and coffee
  • Alcohol in moderation (one to two drinks per day at most)

What should you not eat on a heart healthy diet? These are the foods you should avoid if following the cardiac diet:

  • Full-fat milk and dairy products, such as whole milk, cream, butter, most cheeses, cream cheese and ice cream
  • Fried foods and fast food
  • High-sodium canned goods like soups
  • Fried vegetables
  • Fruit juices
  • Baked foods like refined breads, doughnuts, biscuits, croissants, pastries, pies and cookies
  • Snacks made with partially hydrogenated oils, including chips, cheese puffs, snack mixes, regular crackers and butter-flavored popcorn
  • Higher-fat cuts of meat (poultry with skin, ribs, T-bone steak and regular ground meat)
  • Processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, sausage, cold cuts, salami or bologna
  • Whole eggs and egg yolks
  • Stick margarine and shortening
  • Partially hydrogenated oils
  • Tropical oils that contain saturated fat (coconut, palm and palm kernel)

Guidelines/Meal Plan

Here are the basic guidelines for following the CD:

  • Limit your total fat intake. Aim to get no more than 25 percent to 35 percent of your daily calories from all sources of fat.
  • Reduce saturated fat intake. Keep saturated fat to less than 7 percent of your daily calories.
  • Avoid trans fats, which are considered dangerous fats found in foods like margarine, shortening and processed foods.
  • Lower cholesterol intake to 200 milligrams per day or less.
  • Reduce sodium and salt intake. Consume less than two grams per day.
  • Stop smoking, and only drink alcohol in moderation. This means sticking to one serving per day for women and two per day for men at most. (One drink/serving is equal to 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine and 1.5 ounces of spirits).

What does this look like in practice? Here are some ways to create your own healthy and tasty cardiac diet plan:

  • Increase your fiber intake with complex carbs. Choose heart-healthy carbs like whole grains and sweet potatoes.
  • Add more volume to your meals with vegetables. Increase your intake of filling but low-calorie veggies like leafy greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, turnips, mushrooms, etc.
  • Satisfy your sweet tooth with fruits. Try snacking on slices apples, berries, bananas, apricots, mangoes, oranges, etc.
  • Read labels to avoid added sugar. Look out for table sugar in sweets and beverages sweetened with added sugar.
  • Cut back on your meat intake by adding in legumes. Try bean-based soups, hummus and other spreads, or veggie burgers.
  • Increase the amount of water you drink. This helps you digest the added fiber better and avoid problems with bloating and gas.
  • Decrease saturated fat by choosing lean protein and low-fat dairy products. Take the skin off poultry to save calories.
  • Focus on monounsaturated fats and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. These are found in nuts, avocados, olives or olive oil.
  • Cook foods at home to take charge of how they’re prepared. Try steaming, baking, broiling, roasting, slow cooking or stir-frying foods with little added oil/butter.
  • When you buy canned goods, select no-sodium or low-sodium options. Use as little added salt when cooking as possible.

Wondering how you can enhance the flavor of your meals without the use of salt? Try using healthy salt substitutes and flavor enhancers, such as:

  • spices and herbs (peppers, onion powder, garlic powder, no-salt seasoning blends, basil, dill, rosemary, parsley, sage, thyme, etc.)
  • lemon or lime juice
  • apple cider vinegar and other vinegars

3-Day Cardiac Diet Meal Plan:

If you choose to follow the more restrictive 3-day cardiac diet, you’ll consume a set meal plan for three consecutive days during the week, and then you can basically eat whatever you want for the rest of the week (four days). This cycle should be repeated each week.

While following this diet, meals include a source of protein and usually some carbs, such as bread or fruit, sometimes along with veggies. The goal is to lower your calorie intake to about 800–1,000 calories per day.

Foods that are allowed during the three restrictive days of the week are:

  • veggies
  • fruits
  • lean meats
  • bread
  • fish
  • dairy products like cottage cheese or yogurt
  • coffee
  • tea
  • water

Here’s what your day may look like when following the diet:

  • Breakfast: half of a grapefruit, 1 slice toast and 1 tablespoon nut butter
  • Lunch: 1 slice of toast with 1 chicken breast or 1 small can of tuna
  • Dinner: 3 ounces of lean meat, 1 cup of non-starchy veggies, 1 small piece of fruit

Benefits

1. Can Help Reduce Inflammation and Risk for Heart Disease

The CD emphasizes eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables each day, which provide a variety of antioxidants as well as fiber, vitamins and minerals that research shows support heart health. These nutrients can also help fight oxidative stress and inflammation, which can contribute to a number of age-related health conditions.

In addition to fruits and veggies, other anti-inflammatory foods are included in the diet, such as oily fish like salmon (rich in omega-3s), nuts like almonds and walnuts, olive oil, avocado, herbs and spices.

2. Helps Decrease High Blood Pressure 

Because it decreases sodium intake and increases potassium intake, the CD can help decrease high blood pressure (or hypertension). Hypertension is considered a major risk factor for heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems, and it can be worsened by high-sodium intake and high levels of inflammation.

3. Can Help Prevent High Cholesterol

In addition to providing low levels of sodium, the CD reduces overall fat intake, especially saturated fat and cholesterol. This is intended to help prevent the buildup of plaque on the artery walls, which can pose a risk for heart disease.

4. May Lead to Weight loss

This type of diet is emphasizes many heart healthy foods that are high in fiber, such as veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains. These tend to be filling and are generally low in calories but high in volume.

This can help take up room in your stomach and control your appetite, potentially leading to lower calorie intake and weight loss.

Risks and Side Effects

Compared to the 3-day cardiac diet, the standard cardiac diet is a healthier choice with more variety. It’s more sustainable and backed by research compared to the 3-day version, which is not.

If you take any medications on a daily basis, such as a blood thinner or cholesterol medication, speak with your doctor before starting to follow the cardiac diet meal plan. Because it’s low in fat and sodium, the diet may change how your medication works to keep your cholesterol and blood pressure levels in the normal range, so get your doctor’s guidance to be safe.

Another potential condition that may be impacted by the CD is a kidney problem, particularly if you use salt substitutes frequently that contain potassium. If you have a kidney-related issue or take potassium-sparing diuretics, make sure you understand whether salt substitutes are safe for you.

You also want to ask your doctor about whether or not you should take any supplements to help cover your needs if following this diet, such as a B12 or vitamin K supplement. In addition to changing your diet and supplement routine, discuss what types of exercise are appropriate for you to do, since this can help boost how well the diet works to improve your heart health.

Sample Menu

Breakfasts:

  • Unsweetened oatmeal with berries, flaxseeds and low-fat yogurt.
  • Egg whites cooked with tomatoes, onion and leafy green vegetables, such as kale, spinach and collards.
  • A green smoothie made with spinach, apple, hemp seeds, avocado and almond milk.

Lunches:

  • Salad topped with grilled chicken, fresh veggies, avocado and olive oil dressing.
  • Black bean tacos with avocado and salsa.
  • Veggie burger on a whole grain bun with lettuce, tomato and side salad.

Dinners:

  • Broiled fish with a baked potatoes and roasted vegetables.
  • Sliced chicken or steak stir-fried with vegetables and brown rice.
  • Lentil soup served with a side salad and sweet potato.

Conclusion

  • The 3-day cardiac diet is a “heart-healthy diet” that emphasizes foods like vegetables, fruits, low-fat diary, beans, nuts, seeds, fish and whole grains.
  • Salt and saturated fat are limited on this diet, which means processed foods, fatty cuts of meat, cheese, butter and lard are mostly off-limits.
  • Examples of cardiac diet recipes can include salads with protein, oatmeal with fruit, fish or chicken with vegetables, hummus wrap with veggies, or bean and veggie soup with whole grain bread.
Josh Axe

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