Eating for a healthy heart

The good health habits of a person with congenital heart disease are exactly the same as those for someone who was not born with a normal heart. In addition to leading a physically active life there are several other lifestyle choices that are important in keeping our hearts healthy. However, if you are born with a heart condition it is especially important to form a good habit early in life and to avoid things that are known to put you at risk of acquired cardiovascular disease. 

More than 10 centuries ago, the Persian physician, Avicenna, highlighted the importance of prevention in medical practice. The preventive medicine in his view was ‘to help individuals reach their natural life span by implementing tailored dietary and lifestyle measures based on personal characteristics and environmental conditions’. Such recommendations were to empower the body with maximum capacity to confront internal and external causes of disease, with particular attention to the heart and liver.

Supporting the heart and applying measures to promote its function have become of prime importance in both prevention and treatment of heart disease. Based on the food and drugs that are used to boost heart function and treat cardiac disease a good diet should include grains, legumes, nuts, fruits and oils. This is similar to the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to help prevent cardiovascular disease. The main sources of oil in the Avicennian diet includes olive and walnut oils, demonstrated to be beneficial in lowering incidence of cardiovascular disease too.

The food we eat has a big influence on the health of our heart and just a few simple swaps could make a big difference to your cardiovascular health.

Alcohol use can increase blood pressure and contribute to abnormal heart rhythms. Additionally, alcohol can adversely affect common heart medications such as warfarin. Drink alcohol in moderation (no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men). 

Patients with Fontan circulation are at high risk of developing liver disease, and alcohol may increase the risk of having liver problems.   

  • Eat vegetables and fruits, and limit juice intake
  • Use vegetable oils and soft margarines low in saturated fat and trans fatty acid instead of butter or most animal fats
  • Eat whole-grain rather than refined-grain bread and cereals
  • Reduce intake of sugar-sweetened foods
  • Use non-fat or low-fat milk
  • Increase fish consumption (particularly oily fish - rich in omega 3 - like salmon, sardines, mackerel etc), use only lean cuts of meat and reduced-fat meat products, and remove the skin from poultry
  • Reduce salt intake
  • Take a balanced meal and be aware of portion size
  • Avoid extra-large plates and try to eat while seating at a table, ideally with others. Make meals a social event too, when you can. 

Ideally aim to enter pregnancy with a healthy body weight (BMI* between 18.5 and 25 kg/m2) and avoid excessive weight gain in pregnancy by having a healthy diet and keep active where possible before and during pregnancy

Being physically active helps you to keep your heart healthy. It’s important for everyone to exercise daily. Regular exercise will make your heart and blood circulatory system more efficient, lower your blood cholesterol level and keep your blood pressure down. It can also have beneficial effects on inflammatory related responses and propensity to arrhythmia. Talk to your cardiologist or clinical nurse specialist about appropriate types and levels of exercise for you and your condition.

Excessive salt intake can contribute to high blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure, chronic and untreated, can weaken the heart and damage arteries, leading to heart failure and other heart diseases. Reduce salt intake to less than 6g/day – that’s around 1tsp a day. 

Eating wisely can help you safeguard your health and your sleep. Avoid large meals before going to bed. For general health and wellbeing, aim for between seven and nine hours of sleep every night. 

Smoking can increase your blood pressure, negatively affect your heart rate and damage the blood vessels throughout your body. Smoking increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, narrow your arteries and compounds in cigarette smoke damage the lining of blood vessels and make blood cells more likely to stick together making your blood more likely to clot.

Some patients with congenital heart disease rely on the lungs to be in the best possible condition to allow for a good blood circulation. If you smoke seek help to quit smoking to reduce your risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Stress is linked to high blood pressure and can cause arteries to constrict, starving the heart of nourishing and potentially triggering chest pain. Practice ways to manage your own stress that work for you and your lifestyle. Focus on positive things and thoughts.

Most foods contain several different types of sugar.  Foods such as fruit, vegetables and milk contain sugar within their structure but as these foods contain a lot of useful nutrients, you don't need to cut down on them.

Most people need to cut down on free sugars. These are the sugars found in your food that are not contained within the structure of the food. Free sugars shouldn’t make up more than 5 per cent of the energy you get from food (30 g per day). Eat a diet low in sugar and limit the amount of sweets, chocolate, cakes, puddings and sugar-coated cereal you eat. Reducing your sugar and alcohol intake will help with weight loss too.

Maintaining a healthy weight is important for everyone, and more so for patients with congenital heart disease. Obesity contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease and other diseases such as diabetes. Losing a moderate amount of weight (about 5-10%) has great health benefits such as lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, reduced breathlessness, and reduced joint pain.

Keeping a food diary can help with weight loss. Use body mass index (BMI) which is a formula to calculate body weight to height. This enables people to determine whether they are at a weight which is healthy for them.