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.

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 do need more of some and less of others. We recommend basing your meals around plenty of:

  • vegetables and fruit
  • legumes (like chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans and lentils)
  • whole grains in place of refined grains
  • nuts and seeds
  • good fats like oily fish.

You may also choose to include non-processed lean meats, poultry and/or reduced-fat dairy.

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 margarine, avocado, hummus, 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.

Can I drink alcohol 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 of the many benefits to cutting back on your drinking after a heart attack.

  • Alcohol is high in calories and reducing your alcohol intake may help with weight loss.
  • Limiting alcohol can help to lower blood pressure and improve your cholesterol.
  • Limiting alcohol may help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Drinking less will be better for your wallet.

Read more about alcohol and heart health.

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

How can I improve my cholesterol and blood pressure?

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

Improving your cholesterol

  • Swap foods high in saturated fats for heart healthy fats:
  • Saturated fats tend to be hard at room temperature and are found in foods containing animal fats like butter, cream and meat fats. They’re also found in coconut and palm oils.
  • 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. Good examples include fruit and vegetables, legumes and whole grains where the grain remains intact 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 that have added plant sterols within a balanced diet:
  • Plant sterols occur naturally at low levels in fruits, vegetables, nuts and cereals.
  • When eaten in higher amounts (between 2-3 grams per day), plant sterols can naturally reduce LDL-cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol).
  • Some food products like margarine are fortified with plant sterols so they have higher levels.
  • Limit your alcohol intake.

Lowering your blood pressure

  • Reduce your intake of salt (sodium) by swapping processed/smoked meats, pre-packaged foods and salty takeaways for whole, less-processed foods.
  • Try to lose weight.
  • Limit your alcohol intake.

How much should I be eating?

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

You can also check the size of your food portions by using your hand.

Watching the size of your food portions will help to prevent weight gain. This is especially important following a heart attack as maintaining your body weight will help lessen any strain on your heart and can help to prevent further complications.

Here are a few tips and tools to help you take steps towards improving what you eat and drink.

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 often 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 whole and less-processed foods (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.

Why is medication important?