Choosing a heart-healthy diet after a heart attack

Heart Health

by Injoon (Isack) Lee, MD, FACC

Apr 30, 2024

When you’re recovering after a heart attack, you want to take steps to improve your heart health. And that often includes making changes to your diet. Along with medical treatments, diet can play a pivotal role in your ability to maintain a healthier heart moving forward.

From diets to supplements, there’s a lot of information today about what could be good for your heart. But all of these options may not be right for you. That’s why it’s important to talk with your doctor and choose the best fit for your heart and your needs.

How your diet affects your heart

We’re still understanding all of the ways that your diet affects your heart health, but studies have shown certain diet choices to be beneficial. Eating specific heart-healthy foods—and avoiding others—can provide you with cardiovascular protection, reducing the risk of another heart attack.

In general, heart-healthy foods include:

  • Whole grains
  • Legumes
  • Beans
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits

You should limit:

  • Processed foods
  • Red meat
  • Trans fat
  • Saturated fat
  • Refined carbohydrates and sugar
  • Sugary drinks, such as soda, juice or sports drinks

As you focus on your diet, portion control and counting calories are important, too. This allows you to see how much you’re taking in, limit high caloric intake, and maintain a healthy weight and waist-to-hip ratio. Recent data shows that your waist-to-hip ratio is more predictive for obesity and metabolic syndrome than body mass index (BMI). Keeping these factors in check contributes to a healthier heart.

Building the right diet for you after a heart attack

Diets such as the DASH diet and Mediterranean diet incorporate many of the foods that studies show benefit cardiovascular health. When choosing a diet, one important distinction between different diets is what they’re designed for. For example, a person who wants to manage high blood pressure after a heart attack may choose a different diet than someone who has heart failure.

Ask your doctor if one of these diets could benefit you:

  • Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH diet): As the name suggests, the DASH diet is designed for people with high blood pressure. It focuses on foods rich in magnesium, fiber, potassium, calcium and protein—such as vegetables, whole grains, fruits and low-fat dairy—and limits salt and saturated fats.
  • Low-sodium diet: It’s often recommended that people with heart failure focus specifically on a low-salt diet. Because too much sodium can cause your body to retain water, this diet can help with symptoms like fluid retention.
  • Plant-based diet: A few studies have shown cardiovascular benefits when consuming a plant-based diet. However, more data is needed for confirmation when it comes to a plant-based diet and your heart health.
  • Mediterranean diet: The Mediterranean diet incorporates many of the same foods as a plant-based diet—vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and plant-based fats. It also includes eggs, dairy, poultry and certain types of fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Most recently, the PREDIMED study from Spain showed consistent data that the Mediterranean diet benefits cardiovascular health.

Other dietary concerns after a heart attack

When working toward a more heart-healthy diet, your focus may include more than just food. It’s common for people to ask about other dietary factors like alcohol or supplements.

There is mixed data about alcohol and cardiovascular health overall. But one thing we know is that alcohol can increase inflammation, promote poor sleep hygiene and interact with certain medications. For these reasons, we often recommend that people abstain from alcohol, especially post-heart attack.

Over-the-counter supplements, such as fish oil and others, have not shown significant clinical benefits in cardiovascular health. However, high-intensity omega-3 acid prescription medications have proven to be beneficial for a special subset of people when combined with cholesterol medications.

Staying on track for a healthy heart

Just like heart disease doesn’t appear overnight, the effects of a heart-healthy diet won’t appear overnight. Rather, it’ll take weeks to months for your body to get accustomed to the new diet changes and their effects. So don’t give up.

If you need more support to make the right diet choices, you have many resources. Start by checking in with your cardiologist. Together, you can find the support you need to keep moving forward for a healthier heart.

About the Author

Injoon (Isack) Lee, MD, FACC, is an interventional cardiologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Irving.

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