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Foods To Avoid When You Have Heart Disease

Updated on June 08, 2022
Article written by
Megan Cawley

  • Reducing your intake of certain foods can help you manage heart conditions like atrial fibrillation, hypertension, heart failure, heart attack, and stroke.
  • Reading food labels can help you avoid products that are high in sodium or added sugars and find better alternatives for your health.
  • Swapping products high in saturated fats for lower-fat meat or dairy and switching refined carbohydrates for whole grains are steps you can take to improve your diet.

If you’ve had a heart attack or have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, like atrial fibrillation, heart failure, or hypertension, eating a heart-healthy diet is essential. A nutritious diet can help you control high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure, maintain a healthy weight, and manage other risk factors. Members of MyHeartDiseaseTeam agree that limiting foods like pizza and french fries is hard, but doing so can help improve symptoms and overall well-being.

“It has been three months since I’ve avoided ‘damaging’ foods, and I see such a difference,” said one MyHeartDiseaseTeam member, echoing the comments of others. “No shortness of breath. No arthritis pain anywhere in my body. Lots of energy. Amazing!”

Here are some of the foods best avoided when you’re living with heart disease. As always, ask your cardiologist or a health care professional for medical advice before making changes to your diet. They can make recommendations based on your unique health condition, treatment plan, and dietary preferences.

Foods To Avoid: Getting Started

Making lifestyle changes and adopting a heart-smart diet — which involves reducing or eliminating sugars, sodium, fat, and refined carbs — can present challenges for many MyHeartDiseaseTeam members.

“I miss pepperoni. It’s a definite no-no. Bacon, too,” lamented one member of MyHeartDiseaseTeam. “I like junk food, LOL. The struggle is real,” wrote another.

One member, who was recovering from a triple bypass, asked for help getting started on their healthy eating journey. “Before, my meals were eggs and bacon for breakfast and TV dinners at night. I’ve always had fried foods. Now I need to get healthy. Any ideas?”

“From time to time, I break my own rules,” another member admitted. “I’m human; I make mistakes like everybody else. But I always go back to my diet.”

When making changes to your diet, it’s important to consider the type of heart disease you have and what dietary measures your physician suggests. Those living with atrial fibrillation, for example, as well as those recovering from a stroke, are encouraged to:

  • Replace refined grains (such as white bread, pasta, and cakes) with whole wheat or whole grain alternatives.
  • Eat smaller portions.
  • Reduce alcohol and caffeine intake.
  • Replace high-fat processed meats with low-fat protein options.
  • Add healthy fats (such as olive oil and avocado) to your diet.

Those with cardiomyopathy might need to avoid alcohol entirely and cut out added salt and sodium from their diet, including certain prepackaged herb-and-spice mixtures. Too much alcohol or sodium can worsen symptoms, increase water retention, and risk further heart damage.

1. Salt

Salt (or sodium) is in almost everything we eat, including healthy foods. However, hidden salt in packaged, overprocessed, and restaurant-prepared meals — which can raise blood pressure and worsen heart disease — has turned members of MyHeartDiseaseTeam into sodium detectives.

“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. It’s worth the effort,” commented one member. Another salt sleuth discovered that their favorite frozen meal had 1,046 milligrams of sodium. “I put that back on the shelf in a hurry,” they said.

Minimizing processed or canned foods can also help you avoid high-sodium products. As one member explained, “They have a high concentration of salt because it preserves the food. Fresh and frozen foods are better for you. They’re a little more expensive, but I’m worth it.”

Some companies make sodium-free or reduced-sodium varieties of canned and packaged goods. It’s still a good idea to check the food label. Even products labeled reduced or low-sodium may have a sodium content higher than what is best for you.

Controlling salt intake can be even more challenging when eating out. “When you go to a restaurant or order take-out food, tell them to not use salt, or choose foods with low sodium,” urged one member.

Some members find that decreasing their salt intake or avoiding salt entirely reduces their craving and taste for it. As one member wrote, “I never pick up the salt shaker and really don’t miss it anymore!”

2. Saturated Fats

MyHeartDiseaseTeam members also report cutting saturated fats and trans fats — particularly in red meat and processed foods. “After my heart attack in June, all of the docs said, ‘No red meat’ again,’” shared one member who has four stents.

Saturated fats are primarily found in animal products like meat and dairy. Saturated fats are also found in products like coconut milk or certain oils. Eating high amounts of saturated fat can contribute to high cholesterol levels. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats to 13 grams per day.

Reducing saturated fat doesn’t mean you can’t eat any meat. Eating lean proteins, like skinless chicken and fish, or eating smaller portions of meat are ways to reduce saturated fat. One member said their cardiologist recommended “thin pork chops instead of bacon.” Remember that a 6-ounce steak has half the fat of a 12-ounce steak. Portion size is extremely important.

Some members choose to limit meat altogether and instead get protein from legumes, like beans and lentils. One member said adopting a vegetarian diet saved their heart. “The Mayo Clinic told me 27 years ago that I had a 20 percent chance of living five years without a heart transplant. I still have my same heart, and last fall, a cardiologist told me he’d never seen anyone with a heart as bad as mine live this long. I’m a vegetarian and feel wonderful.”

People with heart disease don’t need to cut cheese or dairy products out entirely. Instead, it’s helpful to minimize high-fat, high-salt cheeses. Opt for low-salt, low-fat options like cottage cheese or yogurt.

“No more Cheez Whiz or Velveeta — too high in salt. I miss them. Cheddar always tastes better, but now it’s Swiss — which is lower in salt,” explained one member.

3. Added Sugars

Members of MyHeartDiseaseTeam say they avoid added sugars that can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and contribute to inflammation. Added sugars are different from naturally occuring sugars found in fruits and dairy products.

Added sugars are most associated with beverages like sodas and desserts. However, sugar may be an ingredient in breads and many packaged sauces and dressings. You can tell if a product has added sugars by reading the nutrition label. The label will list the total amount of sugar as well as any added sugars. The American Heart Association recommends women limit added sugars to 6 teaspoons (or 25 grams a day) and men limit added sugars to 9 teaspoons (or 36 grams a day).

4. Refined Carbohydrates

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 bread
  • Steel cut or old-fashioned oats
  • Barley
  • Quinoa

One MyHeartDiseaseTeam member avoids all “white foods.” “I’ve gotten rid of enriched or bleached white bread, white pasta and sugary cereals, instant rice, bagels, pizza, pastries, pies, cookies, and cakes,” they shared.

Reducing refined carbohydrates can help people with heart disease avoid high triglyceride levels — a measure of heart wellness. Triglycerides are a type of fat that can contribute to stroke and heart attack risk if levels are too high.

“I don't eat starch anymore, especially after finding out how much my triglycerides have come down. It’s amazing,” said one MyHeartDiseaseTeam member.

5. Alcohol

Some researchers say moderate alcohol consumption can lead to a lowered risk of heart disease, though results are mixed on these findings. Excessive alcohol intake can lead to an increased risk for obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.

Too much alcohol can also cause alcoholic cardiomyopathy, which occurs when long-term, heavy alcohol use alters the shape of the heart, potentially leading to heart failure. Those with alcoholic cardiomyopathy are encouraged to abstain from alcohol consumption entirely, though those who do not have the condition can continue to drink moderately with their doctor’s approval.

Drinking habits vary among MyHeartDiseaseTeam members. Some never consume alcohol while others drink more regularly. “I drink one small glass of red wine nearly every day. I read it was good for you,” one member shared. However, as another member noted, “If a person has any type of heart disease, you better check with your cardiologist first.”

Find Your Team

On MyHeartDiseaseTeam, the social network and online support group for those living with heart disease, more than 48,000 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 heart disease.

Have you eliminated unhealthy foods since being diagnosed with heart disease? Which foods have you found helpful? 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.
Megan Cawley is a writer at MyHealthTeam. She has written previously on health news and topics, including new preventative treatment programs. Learn more about her here.

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