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Lifestyle Tips for Atrial Fibrillation

Tuesday 10 March 2020
Atrial Fibrillation

I. Stay Up-to-date about your condition

a. Speak with your doctor

b. Know your stroke risk

c. Take prescribed medications

II. Adopt a Heart-Healthy Meal Plan

a. Limit saturated fats

b. Avoid refined foods and added sugar

c. Eat mostly plants

d. Minimize alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco

III. Exercise, Stress Management, and Social Support

Stay Up-to-Date About Your Condition

Knowledge is power. The more you know and understand your AFib condition, the more peace of mind you will have to live your day to day life without the worry.

Speak with your doctor

Developing a great relationship with your doctor is important. The more information your doctor has about your condition, symptoms, and any health-related events, the more informed choices they can make in terms of your treatment. Always speak with your doctor about any concerns or questions you may have relayed to AFib.

Know your stroke risk

For individuals with AFib, there is an increased risk for heart failure and stroke. AFib patients have up to five times more risk of a stroke. Speaking with your doctor about your risks can help you to both take preventative action. Diet and lifestyle are two factors within your control that can have an influence, either good or bad, on your risks associated with AFib. Your doctor may decide to treat you with medications to reduce stroke risk or may decide certain treatment procedures are necessary.

Take prescribed medications

Always follow your doctor’s directions when given prescription medications. Medications for AFib help to regulate heart rate rhythm and control the heartbeat. Over time, as the heart’s electrical signals change due to AFib, your prescribed medications may need to be changed. Medications only work if you take them as prescribed to prevent AFib risks. Informing your doctor about your AFib symptoms and side effects from medications will help them to understand your condition better.

Adopt a Heart-Healthy Meal Plan

It’s important to be mindful of the food that we choose to consume and fuel our bodies. Eating in a way that supports your health can feel empowering and have an overflowing effect in other areas of your life. Heart health and nutrition go hand-in-hand. According to the American College of Cardiology, around 80 percent of heart disease and stroke can be prevented through lifestyle changes, education, and implementation. [1]

If you are living with AFib, there are dietary choices within your reach that can help.

Limit saturated and trans fats

Saturated and trans fats are sticky and solid at room temperature; you can imagine the effect this may have on your blood vessel walls. Eating foods or additives with high amounts of these kinds of fats increases low-density lipoprotein (LDL) "bad" cholesterol, which is known to clog up arteries and increase the risk for coronary heart disease. 

Saturated fats can be seen in the foods you may eat, like the fat on beef or chicken. Dairy products have high amounts of saturated fats as well. Some plant-based sources of saturated fat to avoid or limit intake are palm and coconut oil. But overall, plant-based sources of fat should be encouraged in the diet.

sticks of butter on top of flour

A recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition investigates dairy fat intake and its possible effects on stroke, heart disease, and cardiovascular disease risk. [2] The results show that when dairy fat was replaced with plant-based sources of fat (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats), the risk of cardiovascular disease dropped by up to 24 percent.

Trans fats are the worst kind of fat for the heart and body. Small amounts of trans fats naturally occur in beef, veal, lamb, mutton, and dairy products. Artificial trans fats are created by adding hydrogen to liquid oil to make it solid, increasing shelf-life. 

Food manufacturers do not have to list trans fats on the nutrition information label if there is under 0.5 g present. There are “code words” that can tell you if trans fats have been added. Always read the ingredient list and search for red-flag words.  If the ingredient list includes the words hydrogenated oil, partially hydrogenated oil, or vegetable shortening, it means trans fats are present in the product. [3]

Harvard Public Health has an interesting 15-minute podcast all about the risks and history of trans fats in the American food supply: ”It is estimated that eliminating trans fats will prevent a quarter of a million heart attacks and related deaths each year in the US.”

Tips for eating less saturated and trans fats:

  • Always read the ingredient list! Avoid packaged products with the words “hydrogenated oils” or “partially hydrogenated vegetable oils” on the ingredient list — these are code words for trans fat.
  • Eat less store-bought cakes, biscuits, pastries, and other bakery products.
  • Limit takeaway foods such as pizza, fries, hamburgers, and other fried fast foods.
  • Avoid these foods that are likely to contain trans fats: vegetable shortening, microwaveable popcorn, some margarines and vegetable oils, non-dairy coffee creamers, crackers, canned frosting, and potato chips. [4]
  • Trim all the fat you can see off of meat. Avoid processed deli meats and remove the skin from chicken.
  • Swap meat and dairy for plant-based sources of protein such as legumes, tofu, tempeh, and nuts.
  • Instead of microwave popcorn, buy kernels from the bulk section at your grocery store to make in a pot on your stove. This way, you can control the amount of oil you use, and there are no trans fats.
  • Be mindful of butter; it is 50 percent saturated fat and 4 percent trans fat.

bowl of popcorn in white bowl on yellow background

Eat mostly plants

Plant-based eating focuses on eating foods that derive primarily from plants such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds, certain oils, and whole grains. Vegetarian diets have been shown to reduce coronary heart disease risk, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Often people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet get asked the question, "where do you get your protein from?" It's important to understand that a plant-based diet offers all the necessary protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, fats, and minerals that the body needs to function optimally. [5]

A Japanese study followed a group of 71,000 middle-aged study participants for two decades. People who consumed the most amount of plant protein in the study were 13 percent less likely to die during the study duration and 16 percent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease. The results demonstrate that people who follow a plant-based diet are expected to live longer and healthier lives than those who consume more animal protein. [6]

plant-based foods on a table

Tips to get started with a plant-based diet:

Change your approach to meat.

Rather than thinking of meat as the main course, use it as a small side dish that takes up a small portion of your plate. If you aren't ready or do not want to cut meat out entirely, have smaller amounts at mealtime and think of eating less meat.

Eat lots of vegetables.

Chop vegetables, such as carrots, cucumbers, and peppers, and keep them ready in your fridge. When you are craving a snack, reach for the vegetables and enjoy them with a hummus or guacamole dip.

Choose healthy fats.

Say no to saturated and trans fats. Say yes to plant sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as olives, avocados, walnuts, and other nuts and seeds.

Cook vegetarian meals often.

Small transitions make a big difference. If you are used to having meat at every dinner meal, try cooking vegetarian a few nights a week. Build your meal using whole grains, legumes and beans, and a variety of vegetables.

Make friends with greens.

Green leafy vegetables are one of the best things you can eat for optimal health. You can steam, stir-fry, or even bake them. Try and eat a large handful every day of kale, collards, swiss chard, spinach, or other greens. Replace your chip craving with surprising delicious and easy-to-make kale chips.

Eat a healthy breakfast.

A healthy breakfast does not include sugary cereals or a high-fat muffin. Start your day with oatmeal, quinoa, or barley. Eating a healthy breakfast is easier than you may think and doesn't have to take a ton of time. Try preparing overnight oats the night before, so you have breakfast ready to grab in the morning. [5]

healthy breakfast meal with banana and dragonfruit

Avoid refined foods and added sugar

For heart protection, high-fiber foods are best. Soluble fiber foods such as whole grains and legumes are digested slowly, allowing extra cholesterol in the gut to be excreted with food after digestion, helping to reduce cholesterol levels. Plant-based soluble-fiber rich foods also have a low glycemic index, which means a slower rise in blood sugar and insulin levels. Refined carbohydrates, such as white-flour products, cause a rapid rise in blood sugar. A quick rise in blood sugar increases heart attack and diabetes risk. 

Diets high in sugar have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Excess sugar in the diet can cause inflammation, high blood pressure, and high triglycerides, which are all risk factors for heart disease. Heart disease increases complications and risks associated with AFib, such as stroke and heart failure. [7]

Added sugars should account for less than 10 percent of daily caloric intake. Sugar is often a hidden ingredient in drinks and sodas, processed, and sweet foods. When in doubt, choose water over sugary juices or pop. Do your best to minimize added sugar or avoid it completely. If you have a sugar craving, reach for a fruit snack such as peaches, apples, pears, or pineapple instead of packaged cookies.

Here is a sugar breakdown for you:

  • For a 2,000 calorie per day diet, sugar should make up less than 200 of those calories
  • 1 gram of sugar equals 4 calories
  • 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon
  • 1 soda per day averages around 40 grams of sugar. This is a total of 160 calories, which is already your daily intake of added sugars! [1]

Minimize Alcohol, Caffeine, and Tobacco

Although alcohol is a depressant, it can have stimulative effects on the body. For someone with AFib, a few drinks while preparing dinner or socializing with friends can be dangerous.  A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that moderate consumption of alcohol can trigger AFib symptoms, especially in people 55 years of age or older. [8]

friends cheering holding alcoholic beverages

Foods and drinks such as coffee, tea, energy drinks, chocolate, and certain soda drinks (such as Mountain Dew and Coca Cola) contain varying amounts of caffeine. Because caffeine is a stimulant and can physiologically influence the heart rate, people with AFib should be mindful of their caffeine intake. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that caffeine is dangerous for people with AFib at very high doses. Therefore, smaller amounts of caffeine, such as one cup of coffee a day, are said to be tolerated okay by people with AFib. You should always consult your doctor about how much caffeine is safe to consume, as this may vary with each individual AFib case. [9]

A study published in July 2018 in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology investigated the link between tobacco smoking and atrial fibrillation. The results show that the more a person smokes, the greater their risk of developing heart arrhythmia. Furthermore, for every ten cigarettes smoked per day, there is a 14 percent increase in AFib risk. [10] [11]

Exercise, Stress Management, and Social Support

Four friends with hands over shoulders looking into nature

Exercise is an important activity to improve cardiopulmonary and cardiovascular fitness. Exercise helps to maintain a healthy heart, improve lung capacity, and improve skeletal muscle fitness. Increased cardiopulmonary fitness reduces risk factors associated with heart diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol.

The American College of Sports Medicine has a free online pamphlet outlining how you can be active when you have atrial fibrillation. To get started, they recommend keeping it simple and beginning with light to medium effort, such as a walk to the mailbox. The pamphlet outlines aerobic, strength, and other types of activities you can do with AFib.

Managing stress and staying social go hand-in-hand and can offer relief from your AFib symptoms. Reach out to a friend to try a yoga class together at your nearest community gym. Activities such as restorative yoga, meditation classes, and tai chi can help manage stress levels and has positive health benefits.

Don’t let AFib define you as you continue to pursue new hobbies, activities, make new friends, and stay active in your community. Don't be afraid to ask for help or receive support. Ask a loved one or friend to attend your next medical appointment together as a support system. People in your life may not understand what you are going through. Try your best to anticipate your needs, and communicating them with the people in your life may give them a better understanding of how they can support you.

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.