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5 Diet Tips for Atrial Fibrillation

Posted on July 14, 2022
Article written by
Scarlett Bergam, M.P.H.

  • Reducing your intake of processed foods can support your health if you’re living with atrial fibrillation.
  • Being mindful of portion size, reading food labels, and choosing healthy substitutions such as fresh, low-fat, low-sodium, low-sugar foods are steps you can take to improve your diet.
  • There are budget-friendly healthy food choices, including frozen fruits and vegetables, whole grains like oats and brown rice, and dried beans and legumes.

Making healthy lifestyle changes is an important part of disease management for people living with atrial fibrillation (AFib). A heart-healthy diet can help you feel your best with AFib and prevent or manage other heart problems, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol. AFib is a type of heart rhythm disorder (arrhythmia) that can increase your risk of stroke, clots, and heart failure.

Here are some tips on what foods to eat and what foods to avoid while living with AFib. Ask your cardiologist or dietitian for advice before making diet changes. They can make recommendations based on your unique health condition, treatment plan, and dietary preferences.

1. Limit Salt

Salt (or sodium) is in almost everything we eat, including healthy foods. Many packaged, processed, and restaurant-prepared meals have unexpectedly high levels of sodium that can be problematic for people with AFib and other heart conditions. Too much sodium can raise blood pressure, worsen AFib, and increase the risk of stroke. Taking steps to lower stroke risk is particularly important for people with AFib, as their chances of having a stroke is four to six times greater than that of the general population.

Minimizing processed or canned foods can help you to avoid high-sodium products. Salt is often used to help preserve food. If fresh foods are out of your budget or take too much time to prepare, try frozen rather than canned ingredients. If canned and packaged foods are your only accessible options, look for sodium-free or reduced-sodium varieties.

Checking your food labels is always a good idea. You may be shocked to see how much sodium is in food that doesn’t taste salty, including dips, dressings, and processed meats. “Since my doctor limited my intake to 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day, I’ve learned to read labels and look up salt content of foods online,” noted one member of MyHeartDiseaseTeam.

Keeping track of your sodium intake at home can be difficult, let alone when your food is prepared by someone else. If you order a meal from a restaurant, request that it is cooked without added salt, sauces, or dressings so you can gain control over your sodium intake.

2. Reduce Saturated Fats

If you’re living with atrial fibrillation, it’s important to reduce your consumption of saturated and trans fats — particularly in animal products like red meat and dairy, as well as coconut milk or certain oils. Eating high amounts of saturated fat can raise your cholesterol levels. The American Heart Association recommends that saturated fats comprise 5 percent to 6 percent of your daily caloric intake — about 13 grams if you consume 2,000 calories per day.

Some dairy products are also full of saturated fats. If dairy is part of your diet, try to minimize how much high-fat, high-salt cheese you consume, such as cheddar. You might also opt for fat-free or low-fat versions of your favorite milk and yogurt.

Finally, you can reduce how much oil and butter you consume by boiling, steaming, microwaving, or air-frying your meals. When you do use oil, make sure to seek out healthy fats, like the unsaturated fats found in olive oil.

3. Minimize Added Sugars and Refined Carbohydrates

Refined carbohydrates and added sugars can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and contribute to inflammation. The American Heart Association recommends that women limit daily added sugars to 6 teaspoons and men limit them to 9 teaspoons.

Added sugars are most associated with baked goods as well as beverages like sodas and fruit juices. However, refined carbohydrates, which turn into sugar while being digested, make up most breads and pastas. One MyHeartDiseaseTeam member said they now avoid all “white foods.” “I’ve gotten rid of enriched or bleached white bread, white pasta, sugary cereals, instant rice, bagels, pizza, pastries, pies, cookies, and cakes,” they wrote.

Many packaged sauces and dressings have high amounts of sugar. You can tell if a product has added sugars by reading the nutrition label, which itemizes both natural and added sugars.

Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap in many fad diets, but you don’t have to cut out all carbohydrates to eat a heart-healthy diet. Rather than avoiding carbohydrates, it’s best to focus on eating whole grains instead of refined grains like white flour. Whole grain options include:

  • Brown rice
  • Whole wheat or multigrain bread
  • Steel cut or old-fashioned oats
  • Barley
  • Couscous
  • Quinoa

The American Heart Association suggests eating six servings of whole grains per day.

Reducing refined carbohydrates can help people with atrial fibrillation avoid high triglyceride levels — a measure of heart wellness. Triglycerides are a type of fat, and high levels can contribute to stroke and heart attack.

4. Eat More Fruits and Veggies

This is probably not the first time you have been told to eat your fruits and veggies, but the adage is especially true for those living with AFib and other forms of heart disease. Many fruits and vegetables contain vitamin C, vitamin K, and vitamin A, which can reduce the buildup of arterial plaque — as well as magnesium, which is associated with lower heart disease and stroke risk. Further, filling up on these low-fat, low-sodium, and low-calorie foods can help promote weight loss.

Fruits such as blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and cranberries are high in antioxidants and vitamins. Fresh fruits have less sugar and more nutrients than most canned or dried fruits and fruit juices. If fresh fruits are out of season, too difficult to prepare, or too expensive, seek out frozen fruits. They can be a healthy, less-expensive alternative — and they work great in smoothies. According to the American Heart Association, you should aim to eat two servings of fruit per day.

Further, the American Heart Association recommends eating at least two-and-a-half servings of vegetables per day, including:

  • Dark leafy greens, like kale and spinach
  • Red and orange veggies, like bell peppers and carrots
  • Starches, like sweet potatoes

Similarly to fruits, fresh or frozen vegetables are a safer bet than canned or processed veggies to avoid added salt and sugars.

Eating more fruits and vegetables can be a big change for many members. “My doctor has just put me on the Mediterranean diet, so now I have to learn to eat vegetables I’ve never eaten before,” one MyHeartDiseaseTeam member wrote.

Eating more vegetables doesn’t require that you become a gourmet cook or that you cook all the time. “Tuesday I made low-salt vegetable soup and ate leftovers for days,” one member shared.

5. Enjoy Lean Protein

Between 10 percent and 35 percent of your daily calories should come from protein. To reduce your saturated fat intake, opt for lean meats instead of fatty varieties, and consume smaller meat portions. One way to do this is to consume fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including salmon, sardines, herring, tuna, and mackerel.

One member shared their fish dinner plans: “I will probably have baked fish and boiled shrimp for dinner with a fresh vegetable salad.”

Some people choose to forego meat altogether and instead get protein from legumes, like beans and lentils. For protein-filled plant-based snacks, try heart-healthy nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts.

Dairy can be a major source of protein. When you’re looking for dairy options, choose low-salt, low-fat options like cottage cheese or yogurt. Instead of whole milk, choose lower-fat cow’s milk or nondairy milks made from nuts, grains, or soy. The American Heart Association recommends three daily servings of low-fat, low-sodium dairy products. This can include nondairy milk that’s fortified with calcium and vitamin D and contains no added sugar.

Portion control can make all the difference in maintaining a heart-healthy diet. Remember that a 6-ounce steak has half the fat of a 12-ounce steak — so reduce the amount of meat on your dinner plate and replace it with vegetables and whole grains. With balance, you can still enjoy your favorite foods in moderation.

What To Remember

In order to keep your health under control, it is essential to adopt an AFib diet — which involves reducing or eliminating sugars, sodium, fat, and refined carbs. Simple changes, such as reducing portion sizes, swapping refined grains for whole grains, minimizing alcohol and caffeine intake, and seeking out low-fat protein options can help you prioritize your heart health.

Find Your Team

On MyHeartDiseaseTeam, the social network and online support group for those living with heart disease, more than 49,000 members talk about a range of personal experiences and struggles. Here, you can ask and answer questions, share your story, and connect with others from around the world who understand life with atrial fibrillation.

Have you eliminated unhealthy foods since being diagnosed with AFib? Which food swaps have made a difference in your life? Share your experiences in the comments below or on MyHeartDiseaseTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Larry A. Weinrauch, MD, FACC, FACP, FAHA is an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School with a focus on cardiovascular disease and clinical outcomes research. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Scarlett Bergam, M.P.H. is a medical student at George Washington University and a former Fulbright research scholar in Durban, South Africa. Learn more about her here.

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