Improving your diet

The days and weeks after a heart attack are a good time to think about making changes to your diet. This will protect your heart and lower your chance of having another heart attack.

family in kitchen cooking dinner

It can be difficult to know how to start making changes. Here you’ll find plenty of tips to get you started.

Taking steps to eat and drink well is a great way to manage your blood pressure, cholesterol and to look after your heart and health in general. Healthy eating isn’t about ‘cutting out’ food - it involves eating a balanced diet, using tasty ingredients and choosing healthier alternatives.

How can good nutrition help me after a heart attack?

There’s strong evidence to show that following a heart healthy diet can help:

  • improve your blood cholesterol
  • lower your blood pressure
  • reduce your risk of blood clotting
  • reduce your weight and/or help you to maintain your weight
  • maintain control of your blood sugar (if you have pre-diabetes or diabetes).

Think about making good nutrition the new normal in your household and involve the whole family. Not only will having the support of loved ones help in making long-term changes, but learning to choose and prepare healthy meals will benefit everyone in your household.

What does a heart healthy diet look like?

You may be wondering what foods to eat after a heart attack. It's all about balancing the different types of food you eat to get a wide range of nutrients.

All foods can be part of a heart healthy diet, but you just need more of some and less of others.

While small amounts of butter every now and then shouldn’t be a problem for most people, there is clear evidence that there are better fats for our heart. After a heart attack we recommend replacing butter with heart friendly spreads like avocado, hummus, margerine, nut and seed butters or using no spread at all.

Due to the high saturated fat content, it’s not advised to use coconut oil instead of other heart healthy plant oils (like olive oil, rice brain or canola), especially after a heart attack.

You can safely eat up to six eggs a week following your heart attack. They are a great source of protein, vitamins and minerals. We recommend that your eggs are either boiled, poached or scrambled without butter.

Enjoying treat foods now and then is part of a balanced approach to eating. Consuming too much sugar is closely linked to your risk of heart disease. It's important to think about ways to eat less added sugar after a heart attack.

Drinking alcohol comes with risks to health and not drinking alcohol at all is a good choice. If you drink alcohol, it’s important to keep within Alcohol NZ's safe drinking guidelines.

Here are some benefits you can experience from drinking less alcohol after a heart attack:

  • Manage your weight (alcohol is high in calories).
  • Lower your blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • Alleviate symptoms of depression and/or anxiety.
  • Save money for you and your family.

If you think you may be drinking too much, talk to your doctor or practice nurse.

How can I change my diet to lower my risk?

There are plenty of changes to what you eat and drink that will help to improve your cholesterol and lower your blood pressure.

Improve your cholesterol

  • Swap foods high in saturated fat for heart healthy fats:
  • Saturated fat is found in foods containing animal fats like butter, cream and meat fats. It’s also found in coconut and palm oils and a wide range of processed foods. 
  • Heart healthy fats are found in plant foods like avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, plant oils (e.g. olive, rice bran and canola) and oily fish.
  • Choose whole grain and fibre-rich foods like fruit and vegetables, legumes and whole grains like oats, whole grain bread, quinoa, brown rice, barley and millet.
  • Eat oily fish such as mackerel, sardines, salmon, kahawai, warehou, pilchard and herring.
  • Eat foods with added plant sterols within a balanced diet:
  • Plant sterols occur naturally at low levels in fruits, vegetables, nuts and cereals.
  • Some food products like margarine are fortified with plant sterols so they have higher levels.
  • When eaten in higher amounts (between 2-3 grams per day), plant sterols can naturally reduce LDL-cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol). However, it is still important to focus on the quality of your overall diet.
  • Limit your alcohol intake.

Lower your blood pressure

  • Reduce your intake of salt (sodium) by swapping processed/smoked meats, pre-packaged foods and salty takeaways for foods that are as close to how they are found in nature as possible.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Limit your alcohol intake.

Heart healthy eating tips and tools

Here you will find our top healthy eating tips and tools to help you shop, cook and plan your meals after a heart attack.

Watching the size of your food portions will help to prevent weight gain, which is especially important following a heart attack.

To help you in the kitchen, stick our Food Portions resource on your fridge.

Write down everything you eat and drink for a few days and use it as a tool to help you make changes.

Change the simple things first and only try one or two changes at a time. Learn more about goal setting.
 

Food prepared at home is usually lower in salt, saturated fat and added sugars, especially when steaming, grilling, poaching and baking.

Pre-chop vegetables and store them in a container so they are ready to go. Use a slow cooker to make batch meals like soups, casseroles and stews. Freeze leftovers in pre-prepared portions to save time and minimise food waste.

While we recommend that you eat mostly foods that are close to how they are found in nature (most of which don’t have a food label), processed foods can be a quick and easy option. To help you make better choices at the supermarket, learn how to read a food label.

  • Take a list and stick to it to prevent buying unnecessary items and to keep you on track.
  • Buy most groceries from the outside aisles of the supermarket. This is where you’ll find fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables, lean meats, whole grain bread, milk, cheese and yoghurt.
  • Stock your pantry and freezer with healthy staples like canned and frozen legumes, vegetables and fruit.
  • Get your family involved with picking the weekly meals – that way everyone will have a meal to look forward to.
  • Shop with the seasons. It's cheaper and you’ll eat a wide variety of fruit and vegetables. Here’s a handy 5aday guide on what produce is in season.

What about my medications?

After a heart attack, your doctor may put you on medication. Medication will work alongside dietary and lifestyle changes to help manage your symptoms and lower your chance of having another heart attack.

Sometimes, the nutrients found in food can interact with your medications so it’s important to always follow the advice of your doctor when starting a new medication.

Read more about taking medications after a heart attack.

Starting to exercise

Improving your diet is just one of the things you can do to improve your health and reduce the risk of another heart attack.

Exercise can also improve your physical and mental health. Find out about the role exercise can play in your recovery, and get the answers to some common questions about exercising after a heart attack.

Learn about exercise after a heart attack