Managing Your Atrial Fibrillation: What to Eat (and Avoid)

Diet do’s and don’ts for anyone with AFib
Woman with coffee feeling unwell possible Atril Fibrillation

You’re enjoying a second cup of coffee or glass of wine when — wham — your heart starts racing. You remember your doctor saying that atrial fibrillation puts you at greater risk for a stroke, or worse. Is that what’s happening? Should you call 911?

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Probably not, says cardiac dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD. You’ve likely just crossed the threshold for one of your triggers.

“We know that caffeine, alcohol and certain foods can often trigger AFib symptoms,” Ms. Zumpano says. Here, she offers suggestions on steps you can take to help keep your symptoms in check.

Find your threshold for triggers

That pounding heartbeat is your body letting you know that something has set off your AFib symptoms.

But you don’t necessarily have to ban alcohol or caffeine (which, aside from coffee, is also found in teas, energy drinks, colas and some over-the-counter medications) completely from your diet. You just need to learn your threshold — how much your body can tolerate before your AFib symptoms kick in, Ms. Zumpano explains.

Take these steps to find your threshold:

  1. Cut the trigger food or drink (caffeine, for example) from your diet for a few days.
  2. Reintroduce a small amount (maybe half a cup of coffee).
  3. If your symptoms return, consider switching to decaffeinated coffee or herbal tea.
  4. If you have no symptoms at first, try a second cup and see what happens. 

There’s no pat answer on what will work best for you, she says. You’ll just need to experiment a bit.

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What about following a special diet?

What you eat also certainly plays a role in managing your racing heartbeat.

Ms. Zumpano encourages her patients to follow a Mediterranean-style diet, which puts the focus on plant-based foods. This means building meals and snacks that are rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, nuts and olive oil.

Specific nutritious foods that are a great addition to your diet include:

  • Fish rich in omega-3s such as salmon, sardines, herring, tuna and mackerel
  • Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries and other fresh fruits 
  • Oats, barley, quinoa, brown rice and other whole grains
  • Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
  • Almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts

On the flip side, foods you should limit include:

  • Red meat
  • Processed foods (such as lunch meats, fast food and chips)
  • Baked goods and other sugary foods and drinks (including most fruit juices)

“You should minimize the junk, for lack of a better word,” Ms. Zumpano says. Processed foods, fast foods, fried foods and convenience foods are all high in salt and can all be classified as “junk.”

A high-sodium diet can also be a trigger — not to mention that it can lead to high blood pressure, which also increases your risk of stroke.

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Tips for including favorite foods in your diet

Following a healthy diet to help control your AFib doesn’t mean you have to give up all your favorites. Some small adjustments can help.

For instance, instead of buying macaroni and cheese in a box or frozen, make your own using whole-grain pasta, low-fat cheese and skim milk.

Plus, practice portion control. Treat yourself to a donut hole rather than a couple of donuts.

“Portion control gives you the ability to have unacceptable foods in small amounts,” Ms. Zumpano says.

If you are overweight, taking a blood thinner, or have diabetes other health issues, talk to your doctor about other ways to modify your diet to help control your AFib symptoms.

The bottom line? You can help minimize your symptoms by finding your threshold for common triggers like alcohol and caffeine and following a plant-based diet.

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