Pizza with pepperoni

5 Foods to Avoid With Heart Failure (and 3 to Enjoy)

SEPTEMBER 06, 2023


It’s common for those recently diagnosed with heart failure to have a moment of panic standing in front of the refrigerator or pantry. It can feel like all your old standbys and go-to comfort meals are now the enemy. 

Yes, a heart failure diagnosis is bound to come with lifestyle changes that include a new outlook on how you nourish your body. That’s because food plays a huge role in keeping your heart healthy for as long as possible.

But even as you mourn the loss of some unhealthy favorites, you can welcome a buffet of heart-healthy choices packed with flavor and nutrients. 

Join us as we break down the top five offenders when it comes to heart-healthy eating as well as highlight three choices that always get the green light. 

5 Food Types to Avoid with Congestive Heart Failure

After you receive a heart failure diagnosis, your provider will likely offer discharge instructions that include lifestyle changes like avoiding alcohol and tobacco and limiting sodium. You may also be able to meet with a nutritionist who can help you come up with a plan for specific foods to avoid based on your particular diagnosis and the progression of your HF. 

So, in general, what foods should heart patients avoid? Here are five that top the list: 

1. Ultra-processed foods. The word “processed” indicates a broad category of foods that have been altered from their natural state to enhance flavor, extend shelf life or improve appearance. This can include anything from sugary cereals to deli meats to canned vegetables. Even lettuce that has been washed and packaged is considered processed. Not all processed foods are inherently unhealthy. Canned beans and even frozen fruits are considered “processed” but can play a role in a heart-healthy diet

Ultra-processed foods have undergone multiple processes and often contain ingredients you wouldn’t usually use in home cooking. They often combine larger quantities of added salt or sugar, artificial colors and flavors, emulsifiers and other components meant to preserve or enhance.  

These ultra-processed foods are the most critical to avoid when adopting a heart-healthy diet. These include soft drinks, candy, chips, packaged snacks, most store-bought cookies and cakes, instant noodles, many ready-to-eat meals, and sugary breakfast cereals.

Harvard researchers found a direct link between ultra-processed foods and poor heart health. The study found that “for every 10% increase in the amount of ultra-processed foods people ate, their risk of a heart attack, stroke or other serious cardiovascular event was 12% higher.” 

2. Deep-fried foods. Foods that have been deep fried in oil contain high levels of saturated fats and trans fats. Both types of fat can wreak havoc on your cholesterol levels. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to less than 5% to 6% of your total calories, which equals roughly 11 to 13 grams of saturated fat for a 2,000-calorie diet. To reduce trans fats in your food, choose foods with 0 grams of trans fat and avoid anything made with hydrogenated oils. 

3. Red meat. Proteins like beef, veal, lamb and pork can be high in saturated fat and cholesterol, both of which are hard on the heart. New research, though, has uncovered even more issues with red meat, especially for those with existing heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, the new study “found that chemicals produced in the digestive tract by gut microbes after eating red meat (such as beef, pork, bison, venison) explained a significant portion of the higher risk of cardiovascular disease associated with higher red meat consumption.”

No such link was found in other proteins, like poultry, fish and eggs — one more reason to choose leaner meats or vegetable sources to get your daily protein allotment. 

4. Sugary drinks. Sugar-sweetened beverages and sweet snacks can be a significant source of empty calories, meaning they fill you up with little to no nutritional value. Sugary drinks, in particular, have been linked to obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure — all of which are bad for your heart. Sugary drinks can be an accomplice in causing inflammation within the body.

5. Full-fat dairy. Full-fat dairy products, such as whole milk, butter and cream, are rich in saturated fats. These fats can raise blood cholesterol levels. Elevated cholesterol, especially LDL (the “bad” cholesterol), is a known risk factor for heart disease and heart failure. But don’t ditch dairy altogether. In moderation, it can be part of a heart-healthy diet. Choose low or nonfat versions or give plant-based milk alternatives (almond, oat, even pea) a try. 

3 Food Types to Enjoy for a Healthy Heart

Making changes to your diet can feel like all subtraction. Here are three foods that you can add to your heart-healthy diet guilt-free.

1. Whole grains. Whole-grain foods help keep weight and blood pressure down, control cholesterol levels and lower the risk of heart disease. Think beyond whole wheat bread and add oats, buckwheat, brown rice and quinoa to your diet. Swap out white flour pasta for whole wheat varieties and opt for whole grain bread instead of white bread. 

Shopping tip: To ensure you get the benefits of whole grain, read the ingredients list on packaged products. The first ingredient should be 100% whole wheat or 100% whole grain. 

2. Lean protein. Even without red meat, protein options are abundant. Opt for lean animal proteins like chicken, turkey, fish or eggs. Or go veggie and choose from various beans, lentils, soy and even green peas. 

3. Colorful fruits and veggies. Fruits and vegetables are endlessly versatile and packed with heart-healthy nutrients. The more color, the better when it comes to your diet. Dark green veggies (kale, spinach, broccoli) are rich in vitamins C, E, and folate. Orange options like carrots are rich in beta-carotene and fiber. Blueberries are packed with fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese and potassium. 

Focus on finding options that compliment your tastes and try out new recipes that feature your favorites. Fresh is best, but frozen and canned options also work. Just ensure they’re not packed in syrup or added salt. 

Track Your Progress for Success

The dietary and lifestyle changes that come along with a heart failure diagnosis can feel overwhelming, especially if you aren’t used to watching what you eat. Tracking when and what you’re eating — along with other metrics important to heart failure patients like symptoms, medications and fluid intake — can give you valuable insights into your food habits and help keep you on track. The Coremum app, developed by a heart failure nurse, is designed to track such metrics and allow you to easily share your progress with your care team. 

Heart failure may change how you approach food, but it doesn’t mean you can’t live a flavor-filled life. By embracing heart-healthy foods and avoiding those that may do more harm than good, every meal can be a step toward a stronger, healthier heart.