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If you've been diagnosed with an arrhythmia, your doctor may recommend some key lifestyle changes. Diet shouldn't be forgotten — and that doesn't just mean eating healthier foods, but also staying well away from damaging ones.

Do you have arrhythmia — an abnormal heartbeat? Depending on the kind, it may be completely harmless or extremely serious, and in this case, taking all the steps you can to reduce your risk of complications is important. Frequent trips to the doctor, changes in your medications, and surgery might be in your future, but your lifestyle can also play an important role in managing arrhythmia. 

Diet — a little-talked about component of arrhythmia management — is one of those lifestyle factors. Just like a heart-healthy diet can benefit you enormously, certain foods and drinks are detrimental. What do you need to know?

Why does arrhythmia even matter?

Arrhythmia can cause acute dangerous and frightening symptoms like:

  • Palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting

These symptoms are worrying when you are relaxing, but can be even more dangerous if they strike while you’re operating heavy machinery, driving, or climbing! But arrhythmia can also lead to long-term complications, including a higher risk for dementia, and a much higher risk of stroke, cardiac arrest, and heart failure. To add insult to injury, some arrhythmias are risk factors for other arrhythmias, increasing their potential to cause serious harm over time. Overall, it’s important to talk to your doctor to see what you can do to mitigate or eliminate the risk factors and symptoms if you have arrhythmia.

That’s worrying, what dietary changes can I make to keep my heart healthier? 

Some foods and drinks are best avoided altogether.

1. Alcohol

Alcohol is one of the primary dietary elements to cut down on or avoid completely. Alcohol consumption is, itself, a risk factor for arrhythmia, especially when it comes to heavy drinking.

Moderate alcohol intake means no more than two standard drinks of alcohol a day for men, and one drink for women.

"One drink" is defined very clearly — 12 ounces of beer, for instance, and 5 ounces of wine, with the drink becoming smaller and smaller as the alcohol percentage shoots up. However, these guidelines may differ based on the person’s weight or medical situation, so talking to a doctor about how much you can safely consume is best. 

Alcohol is dangerous to people with arrhythmia for several reasons. It can raise your blood pressure (in combination with certain arrhythmias, this greatly increases your risk of stroke), increase the amount of certain fats in the blood, worsen heart failure, cause you to gain weight, and possibly contribute to heart failure.

This isn’t just theoretical — for patients with atrial fibrillation, the most common type of arrhythmia, studies have shown that both moderate and heavy drinking increase the symptoms. Binge drinking had the same effect on the heart as heavy drinking. In addition, heavy drinking increased the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. Combined with certain arrhythmias, this can make the risk of stroke dangerously high.

2. Sodium

Salt, despite being important for our survival, is often cited as a health risk, and many warn against consuming too much sodium. This holds true for people with arrhythmia as well. Because of the way sodium interacts with liquid, it increases your blood pressure, which is a health risk for people with certain types of arrhythmia.

In addition, saltier foods tend to contain more fat and calories. Adults should generally consume less than 2300g of salt per day, with the goal being less than 2000g. For children, it should be even less. Here are some general tips for avoiding saltier foods:

  • Read the food labels to find items with less sodium per serving (keeping the serving size in mind).
  • Choose fresh foods, frozen foods, or foods without added salt.
  • Avoid pre-seasoned, marinated foods, and processed meats and vegetables.
  • Eat at home more often to allow you to control how much salt you add to your meals.
  • Say no to "instant” meals" and premade sauces, as those often contain more added salt.
  • Flavor your foods with spices instead of salts.
  • Avoid fast food and condiments like soy sauce.

3. Processed meats

Meat is often an all-time favorite. It’s unfortunate that eating too much meat — especially certain kinds — is also associated with many health risks. It's best not to eat more than four to six ounces of processed meats a week, and ideally none at all. Studies have found that processed meats are the hardest on the heart. They're oftehn packed with salt, nitrates, and other preservatives.

Consider replacing your deli meats or hot dogs with tuna or chicken to reduce your intake of processed meats. Red meat can also impact heart health, so it may be a good idea to cut down on meat altogether, and instead experiment with vegetarian alternatives. 

4. Refined grains and carbohydrates

Another health tip that has become more widespread is using whole grains over refined grains. This means less potatoes, white bread, and white rice, and instead more brown rice and oatmeal. Ideally, you should eat only seven ounces or so of refined grain a week. Refinements often remove many of the nutritional benefits of the grains, and they change the structure of the food in such a way that it increases the body’s blood sugar. Replacing these refined carbs with whole grains can reduce your risk of stroke and heart disease, so avoid them if you want to stay heart healthy.

5. Sugars and soft drinks

You already know refined sugar is unhealthy. It’s no surprise that it can also impact heart health. To be clear, the naturally-occurring sugars you find in foods like fruit aren’t necessarily bad. However, most of the sugar we consume is added to the food, such as certain juices and sodas.

We only eat or drink about 56 ounces a week at most, but preferably as little as possible, as additional sugars provide very little to no nutritional benefits. Even diet sodas with low calories and little sugar are just "less harmful", rather than "better".

Adding a soda to your meal greatly increases the amount of calories you consume, and may increase your weight over time. Weight is a risk factor for certain arrhythmias and can increase the workload on your heart. Try to avoid sweetened snacks and drinks, and maybe try some more natural snacks such as fruits, fresh juices, or just drink water.

Most of these foods and beverages will not immediately or necessarily have a major impact on your heart health, but do raise your risk of complications when you have arrhythmia. Even if you aren’t able to cut out unhealthy foods completely, small positive changes can go a ways towards making your heart healthier.

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