Healthy living for a healthier heart

We look at some lifestyle changes which can help improve your heart health and help you live well for longer with heart failure.

Living with heart failure is not always easy. But on top of your medications there are plenty of simple healthy lifestyle changes you can make to help you live well for longer with heart failure.

It’s really important for people with heart failure to eat a healthy diet, get enough physical activity, stop smoking and maintain a healthy weight – all these can help lower the workload on your heart.

Go for variety and balance

Make healthier food choices when you’re shopping, cooking or eating out so you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet. This can help improve your cholesterol levels, your blood pressure, and your weight, all of which help maintain good heart health.

The Australian dietary guidelines and the Heart Foundation recommends you eat a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, wholegrain cereals (such as in bread, pasta and rice), fish (especially oily fish such as tuna and salmon), lean meat and low-fat dairy products (including milk, yoghurt and cheese).


Drop the salt

You’ll need to eat less sodium (part of salt) also, as salt raises your blood pressure and causes your body to retain fluid, making your symptoms worse. The Heart Foundation recommends people with heart failure eat no more than 2-3g sodium a day (about a teaspoon or two of salt).

Try eating more fresh produce, as over 75% of the salt we eat comes from packaged and processed foods. Choose low-salt products (less than 120mg sodium per 100g) by checking the nutrition information panel or using the SaltSwitch filter in the FoodSwitch app. Don’t add salt to your food at the table or during cooking – after a few weeks, your taste buds will usually adapt!

Over 75% of the salt we eat comes from packaged and processed foods.

Fat facts

It’s also important to cook with and eat less saturated and trans fats as this will help manage your cholesterol levels. 

Saturated fat and trans fat are ‘unhealthy’ fats because they raise your levels of ‘bad’ LDL-cholesterol, which contributes to your blood vessels being clogged with a fatty material called plaque. 

Foods high in saturated fat or trans fat include:  

  • butter 
  • fatty cuts of meat 
  • deep fried foods 
  • baked goods 
  • full fat dairy 
  • fast food/takeaway 
  • palm oil and coconut oil

Where possible, replace saturated fat with ‘healthier’ poly- or mono-unsaturated fats which can help lower cholesterol.  

  • Replace butter or ghee with olive oil or canola oil when cooking
  • Choose low-fat dairy 
  • Eat two to three serves (around 150g each serve) of oily fish like salmon, blue-eyed trevalla, sardines and tuna as they’re a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat

Remember, as fat is a concentrated source of energy, you still need to eat ‘healthier fats’ in moderation as too much of any type can lead to weight gain.

Man exercising with weights

Watch your drinks

It’s best for people with heart failure to not drink any alcohol. This will have a positive effect on fluid retention and prevent further damage to your heart. If you do choose to drink, limit it to one to two standard drinks each day – but keep an eye on your weight to make sure you’re not retaining too much fluid.

Move more

Try to get active every day, for at least 10 to 30 minutes. Do what you can without overtiring yourself and getting breathless – you should still be able to talk fairly easily as you do it. If you can’t manage one longer session of activity, divide your activity into two or three shorter sessions.

The goal is to get moving in different ways so try activities like walking, cycling, light weightlifting and gentle stretching exercises. But don’t do strenuous activities that make you breathless unless your doctor has approved them. It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor, physio or exercise specialist about what to do, how much to do and how hard to go before you start any activity. They can help you develop safe and achievable daily activity goals, and help you change your plan so you can keep exercising if your condition changes.

Watch your weight

There is a close relationship between nutrition, weight, physical activity and the risk of further heart disease. So if you’ve been carrying extra weight now’s a good time to get back in shape.

For many people, losing any extra weight means using more energy with physical activity and taking in fewer kilojoules from what you eat. To help you reach and maintain a healthy weight, plan and make small practical changes to your diet and exercise, and aim to lose no more than 0.5-1kg each week.

Quit smoking

If you’re a smoker it’s advised you make it a priority to quit. Smoking damages the heart and blood vessels further, making the symptoms of heart failure worse.

 If you’ve made the decision to quit smoking, good on you! It’s a good idea to call the QUITline (13 QUIT) and also to talk to your doctor or pharmacist for help and support. They can help you work out strategies to stay smoke-free, and also provide tools such as nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) that can better your chances of quitting for good.

Smoking damages the heart and blood vessels further, making the symptoms of heart failure worse.

Look after your mental wellbeing 

Many people can feel ‘down’ because of some of the daily frustrations of living with heart failure, or be worried about what may happen in the future. Dealing with these feelings is an integral part of managing your heart failure as it seems that being positive and having a good attitude may help improve you heart health. Reach out and talk to someone about these feelings, such as your partner or a close friend.

Feeling low every now and then is normal. However, if you feel this way continuously for more than two weeks, and your low mood is affecting your ability to carry out your normal routine, you may be experiencing symptoms of depression. Talk to your doctor about these feelings as there are effective ways to help you find and keep a positive mindset, which can in turn improve your quality of life and stop your condition from worsening.

For information and support to make any heart healthy lifestyle changes, ask your doctor or pharmacist for help. An accredited practising dietitian can also help with making changes to diet and nutrition.
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