A heart-healthy diet can help you reduce your atrial fibrillation risk factors. Good news: Making healthy changes in your diet is easier than you might think.
Diet alone may not be able to prevent atrial fibrillation, but what you eat definitely counts. In fact, when researchers from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health analyzed a group of studies on diet and atrial fibrillation, they found evidence that making smart food choices can help reduce your risk. And if you’ve already been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, the right diet may help reduce your symptoms.
The best place to start is by controlling your caloric intake to maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight can contribute to sleep apnea, which is a big risk factor for atrial fibrillation.
The next step in atrial fibrillation prevention is to eat a heart-healthy diet. This can help stave off all types of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke, plus other atrial fibrillation risk factors, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
The benefits of a heart-healthy diet are huge, but the plan is simple. Here are 10 tips to get you started:
Cut back on salt. Too much salt contributes to high blood pressure, which can increase your risk for atrial fibrillation and make symptoms harder to control. You should limit your salt intake to less than 2,400 milligrams a day. That means you need to read food labels — prepared foods like canned soups and processed meats tend to have a high sodium content — and limit use of the salt shaker when cooking and at the table.
Eat more fish. The University of Minnesota researchers pointed out that the unsaturated fats in fish can reduce your risk for heart disease and protect your heart against abnormal heartbeats. This makes fish a valuable food choice for atrial fibrillation prevention, although more studies are needed. The National Institutes of Health advises eating fish at least twice a week. When preparing fish, try heart-healthy cooking techniques such as grilling, broiling, baking, and steaming — studies didn’t find any benefits from fried fish.
Limit meat and dairy. The saturated fats in animal-based foods like butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, and fatty meats aren’t good for heart health. These are the types of fats that contribute to heart disease and stroke. Limit saturated fat to 10 percent of your total daily calorie intake by choosing healthier low- or no-fat dairy and lean meats (trim any visible fat before cooking). Also avoid processed and fried foods.
Count cholesterol. For a heart-healthy diet, you should consume less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day. If you like eggs in the morning, remember that just one egg yolk has 213 milligrams of cholesterol (the whites have none, so these are okay.) Try not to use more than four eggs yolks a week for heart-healthy cooking. Organ meats (like liver) and shellfish (notably shrimp) are also high in cholesterol.
Fill up on fruits and vegetables. For a healthy heart and a healthy weight, fruits and vegetables provide the most nutrition, fiber, minerals, and vitamins for the least amount of calories. Aim for at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Conversely, you should avoid foods loaded with sugar and fat, such as processed baked goods, candy, and sugary sodas.
Wake up to whole grains. Whole grains have not been fully processed and still have their outer shell — that’s where most of their fiber and nutrients are found. Processed grains, which are used in white bread and regular pasta, have that shell removed and aren’t as good at helping you control your appetite or your blood sugar. Try starting your day with a bowl of whole-grain oatmeal or kasha, and aim for a total of six servings of nutrient-rich whole grains a day.
Watch how much you eat. One of the best ways to reach or maintain a healthy weight is to control portion sizes. Restaurant portion sizes can often feed two, and sometimes serving sizes at home can be just as excessive. A food scale can help you learn proper portion sizes. For example, using a food scale can show you what 3 ounces of chicken looks like — which may be smaller than you think. Avoid overeating by eating at the dinner table and not in front of the TV. When eating out, try splitting a main course, ordering a healthy appetizer as your meal, or having half of your entrée wrapped up right away to avoid overeating.
Fall in love with heart-healthy cooking. Don’t fatten up heart-healthy foods by cooking them the wrong way. Broil or roast chicken and lean beef. Steam veggies to maximize their natural flavors — and don’t smother them with butter, salt, or sugar. When a recipe calls for some fat, choose the unsaturated kind, such as olive oil or canola oil, in place of butter or lard.
Beware of the booze. Too much alcohol can trigger symptoms of atrial fibrillation, or what doctors call “holiday heart syndrome.” A review of studies on alcohol and atrial fibrillation published in the Japanese Circulation Society’s Circulation Journal found that moderate drinking usually doesn’t increase the risk for atrial fibrillation, but heavy drinking does. Moderate drinking usually means one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men, but even that could be too much if you have atrial fibrillation. Some people are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol on atrial fibrillation than others and may have symptoms after only one drink.
Go easy on caffeine. Caffeine is similar to alcohol in that it’s likely to trigger symptoms of atrial fibrillation. Drink caffeine in moderation and reduce or eliminate it if symptoms occur.Although coffee in moderation is unlikely to trigger atrial fibrillation in most people, it’s a known heart stimulant and does increase your heart rate.
A heart-healthy diet is smart to stave off atrial fibrillation and other heart problems, not to mention risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. If you’re struggling to adapt your diet, ask your doctor for ideas or a referral to a dietitian who can help you create a road map for improving your heart health.
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