The Life-Changing Impact of a Healthy Diet on Heart Failure Recovery

Heart failure, despite its name, does not mean that the heart has stopped working. Instead, the heart is not pumping blood as efficiently as it should. This can result in symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, and difficulty with everyday activities.

However, while heart failure is a serious condition with no cure, it can be managed effectively with medications and a healthy lifestyle. With the right treatment plan, many people with heart failure can lead full, enjoyable lives.

Adopting a heart-healthy diet is a crucial element of heart failure recovery. By changing your diet, your heart won’t have to work as hard, which can prevent complications and relieve symptoms of heart failure.

A heart failure diagnosis shouldn’t mark the end of a healthy and fulfilling life. By following these simple guidelines, you can take control of your heart failure recovery.

1. Give your heart a boost by cutting back on salt in your diet

Steering clear of salty foods can be challenging, which is why most Americans consume too much sodium, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While the body requires a small amount of sodium to function, too much can negatively affect blood pressure. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of sodium is less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day, according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Adopting a low-sodium diet is an effective way to support heart health. Reducing salt intake can start lowering blood pressure “within weeks for most people,” according to the CDC.

Lowering the salt added to your cooking doesn’t mean sacrificing flavor. In place of salt, try leveling up your seasoning technique with more herbs and spices, garlic, onions and lemon juice.

If you’re searching for inspiration or new ideas, plenty of salt-free or low-sodium seasoning blend recipes can be discovered online. Another option is purchasing low-sodium seasonings and sauces from companies like Soulfitgrill, inspired by founder Chaz Daughtry’s desire to recreate the flavors of his grandmother’s cooking with a healthy twist.

2. Opt for fat-free or low-fat sources of calcium and vitamin D

Calcium and vitamin D are part of a well-rounded diet, but sources like milk, cheese and yogurt contain saturated fats, negatively affecting cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

Choose fat-free or low-fat dairy products, or try alternatives like soy and almond milk. According to the Mayo Clinic, these non-dairy milk alternatives contain two types of “good” unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

According to Harvard Health, calcium benefits strong bones and helps regulate blood vessels and most body functions. Vitamin D helps the body absorb and retain calcium and can help control infections and reduce inflammation.

Non-dairy sources of calcium include dark, leafy green vegetables like kale, collard greens and spinach, sardines and canned salmon (soft bones and all), almonds, tofu processed with calcium, broccoli, dried beans, lentils and peas.

Aside from receiving your daily allowance of vitamin D through sunlight exposure, other sources of vitamin D that can be included in your diet include certain fish like salmon, swordfish, tuna and sardines, as well as cod liver oil, beef liver, and foods that are fortified with vitamin D like orange juice, non-dairy milk alternatives, and cereals.

3. Embrace whole grains

You don’t have to cut starch from your diet to eat healthy! The key is to opt for whole grains. Refined grains (white flour, white bread and white rice) are processed and stripped of essential nutrients.

Whole grains provide essential nutrients like B vitamins, iron and soluble fiber, which can help lower cholesterol and the risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and even type 2 diabetes. According to the American Heart Association, whole grains also provide nutrients that are “important for a variety of body functions such as forming new cells, carrying oxygen in the blood, regulating the thyroid and maintaining a healthy immune system.”

Some tasty whole-grain foods include whole wheat bread and pasta, oats, corn, barley, farro, quinoa, brown rice, wild rice, graham flour, oatmeal and popcorn.

4. Taste the rainbow: get your fruits and vegetables

Eating plenty of fresh produce can promote healthy blood pressure, mitigate the risk of heart disease and stroke, and help regulate blood sugar. Fruits and vegetables contain fiber, vitamins and minerals with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits that support immune health.

It’s best to enjoy a variety of fruits and vegetables to maximize your vitamin intake range. The more variety, the better!

With the popularity of plant-based diets on the rise, plenty of resources are available to inspire your next nutritious meal, like Cooking for Your Heart and Soul, an extensive guide to plant-based eating by the Association of Black Cardiologists.

5. Check your protein sources: plant-based vs. animal proteins

Protein is an essential macronutrient that keeps our bodies running. But, as the experts note, not all protein sources are considered equal.

Plant-based sources of protein are a healthier choice when compared to animal protein. Animal products contain saturated fats that can contribute to increased cholesterol levels. While some cholesterol is necessary for your body to function, too much can cause plaque to build up in your arteries and increase your risk for heart attack or stroke.

If beef or pork is on the menu—choose lean cuts. Or explore plant-based protein sources which provide protein and soluble fiber—without saturated fats or cholesterol—such as beans, lentils, split peas, chickpeas, nuts and seeds, nut butter, potatoes, quinoa, seaweed, spinach, tofu, and tempeh .

6. Know your healthy fats

Not all fats are bad for you! You should avoid saturated fats, especially in the context of heart health, as they can negatively affect cholesterol levels.

Unsaturated fats, however, are considered “good” fats and can positively affect cholesterol levels, ease inflammation, and stabilize the heartbeat. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are the two “good” types of fats.

Great sources of unsaturated fats include avocados, fish, seeds (pumpkin, sesame, flax), nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts) and particular oils (olive, peanut, canola, sunflower, corn, soybean and flaxseed). Many are also excellent sources of fiber, protein and essential vitamins and minerals.

Racism, Stress, and Heart Health

Approximately 6.2 million adults in the United States are affected by heart failure—but not everyone is similarly affected.

Black women face a disproportionate burden of heart disease and are more likely to experience worse outcomes, at younger ages, than their White counterparts due to systemic health disparities. Heart disease, which can lead to heart failure, is the leading cause of death among Black women in the US

According to Marwah Abdalla, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians, higher stress levels may add to the disparity in outcomes. Abdalla and her colleagues observed unusually high levels of chronic stress among Black women in the most extensive study of cardiovascular disease in Black Americans.

“More chronic stress in these women was associated with more hypertension, which we know increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular diseases,” says Abdalla.

Additional factors include systemic factors that are beyond one person’s control.

“We think it is partially due to mistrust of the healthcare system. It is partially due to the social determinants of health—socioeconomic status and how that influences health over time. Racism, especially structural racism, is a constant source of stress, drives mistrust and social determinants of health and is associated with lower Life’s Simple 7,” Dr. Joshua J. Joseph, assistant professor of medicine in the division of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at Ohio State College of Medicine, told Cardiology Today.

Take Control of Your Heart Health

It’s best to discuss a heart-healthy diet with your doctor or dietitian.

In addition to practicing good nutrition, you can manage your heart failure recovery and improve your overall health by addressing your risk factors and knowing your numbers. Visit your doctor for regular check-ups and keep track of your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and body mass index (BMI).

“Get checked, then work with your medical professional on your specific risk factors and the things you need to do to take care of your personal health,” says Dr. Winston Gandy, cardiologist and chief medical marketing officer with the Piedmont Heart Institute in Atlanta, Georgia. “You can’t do anything about your family history, but you can control your blood pressure.”

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