Atrial fibrillation (AFib) occurs when the normal rhythmic pumping of the upper chambers of the heart, called the atria, break down. Instead of a normal heartbeat, the atria pulse, or fibrillate, at a fast or irregular rate. This can increase a person’s risk of stroke and heart failure.
Certain heart-healthy foods may allow you to maintain some control over your heart’s rhythms. They include:
- fish and other foods with high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids
- fruits and vegetables high in vitamins, potassium, and beta carotene, such as dark leafy greens, broccoli, tomatoes, and asparagus
- oatmeal, especially with berries, nuts, and seeds added for extra protein and fiber
Some foods are bad for your heart, and can make you more susceptible to symptoms of AFib. These include foods high in fat, sodium, and sugar. Eating too much of these foods can make events such as heart attacks more likely, too.
Read on to learn what food and drinks to avoid.
Studies show that alcohol can trigger an AFib episode if you’ve had a paroxysmal AFib attack. According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), even moderate drinking can lead to AFib episodes in people with heart disease or diabetes. Binge drinking is especially risky. If you have AFib, aim for no more than two drinks per day.
For years, it was standard to recommend that people with AFib avoid caffeine. Some products that contain caffeine include:
Clinical studies fail to show any link between caffeine intake and AFib episodes. According to a large Danish study, there was no association between coffee intake and AFib. Another study in dogs showed the risk of triggering an AFib episode was reduced in animals who were given caffeine.
You may want to limit your intake of high-caffeine energy drinks, but a cup of coffee is probably fine.
Eating right for AFib means eating right for your whole body. Obesity and high blood pressure can increase your risk of AFib.
Following a lower-calorie, vegetable-heavy, lower-sugar diet is a good way to combat excess weight, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Cardiologists may recommend that you reduce certain types of fat if you have AFib.
Unhealthy fats to avoid include:
- Trans fats. These are the most dangerous fats. Trans fats are found in margarine, foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, certain crackers and cookies, potato chips, doughnuts, and other fried foods.
- High-fat animal products. This includes beef, pork, or chicken with the skin attached.
One 2017 study found a slightly increased risk of AFib in men who replaced saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats. More research is needed to replicate these findings and to confirm what other factors contributed to this outcome.
Salt intake can worsen high blood pressure. Reducing sodium in your diet can help you maintain heart health and reduce your AFib risk.
Many processed and frozen foods use a lot of salt as a preservative. Be sure to read labels and try to stick with fresh foods and foods with low sodium or no salt added. Salt substitutes and fresh herbs and spices can keep food flavorful without all the added sodium. Aim for 1,500 milligrams of sodium or less per day.
Vitamin K is present in products that include:
- leafy green vegetables, such as spinach and kale
- green tea
- calf’s liver
It’s best to avoid large changes in the quantities of these foods while taking the blood thinner warfarin (Coumadin). If you have AFib, this medication may help prevent blood clots. Keep your vitamin K intake as stable as possible from day to day.
The amount of vitamin K you should consume daily varies based on your age. It’s recommended that:
- Adolescents between 14 and 18 years of age can have about 75 micrograms (mcg) per day.
- Most males over 19 years of age can have about 120 mcg per day.
- Most females over 19 years of age shouldn’t have much more than 90 mcg per day, even if they’re pregnant or nursing.
Vitamin K can interact with warfarin and reduce its effectiveness. It’s best to talk with your doctor before increasing your intake of vitamin K.
Gluten is one type of protein in wheat, rye, and barley. It’s found in products that include:
- many packaged foods
If you’re gluten-intolerant or have a wheat allergy, your body might respond to gluten or wheat consumption by causing inflammation in your body. The inflammation can have an effect on your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve can have a major impact on your heart and make you more susceptible to AFib symptoms.
Talk to your doctor if you believe you have a gluten sensitivity or wheat allergy. If gluten-related digestive issues or inflammation are making your AFib act up, reducing gluten products in your diet can help you get AFib under control.
Eating grapefruit may not be a good idea if you have AFib and are taking medications to treat it.
Grapefruit juice contains a powerful chemical called naringenin. This chemical can interfere with the effectiveness of antiarrhythmic drugs such as amiodarone (Cordarone) and dofetilide (Tikosyn). Grapefruit juice can also affect how other medications are absorbed into the blood from the intestines.
Certain foods and nutritional choices are especially useful in helping you control AFib and prevent symptoms and complications. Follow these guidelines to help you decide what to eat:
Eat for AFib
- For breakfast, choose whole, high-fiber foods like fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. An example of a healthy breakfast would be unsweetened oatmeal with berries, almonds, chia seeds, and a dollop of low-fat Greek yogurt.
- Reduce your salt and sodium intake. Make sure you don’t consume more than 2,400 mg per day.
- Avoid having too much meat or full-fat dairy, which contains a lot of saturated animal fats.
- Aim for 50 percent produce at each meal to help nourish the body and provide fiber and satiety.
- Keep your portions small. Try weighing your food on a food scale to ensure your portions aren’t too big.
- Skip foods that are fried or covered in butter or sugar.
- Try not to have too much caffeine or alcohol each day.
- Be mindful of your intake of essential minerals, such as magnesium and potassium.
Some research shows that low magnesium levels in your body can have a negative effect on your heart rhythms. It’s easy to get extra magnesium in your diet by eating some of the following foods:
- nuts, especially almonds or cashews
- peanuts and peanut butter
- whole grains
On the flip side of excess sodium is the risk of low potassium. Potassium is important for cardiac health because it allows muscles to work efficiently. Many people may have low potassium levels due to an unbalanced diet, or from taking certain medications such as diuretics. Low potassium levels may increase your risk of arrhythmia.
Some good sources of potassium include:
- fruits, such as avocados, bananas, apricots, and oranges
- root vegetables, such as sweet potatoes and beets
Because potassium can interact with certain medications, talk to your doctor before adding more potassium to your diet.
Avoiding or limiting certain foods and taking care of your health can help you lead an active life with AFib. To reduce your risk of AFib episodes, follow a diet low in saturated fat, salt, and sugar. A healthy diet can also help with underlying health conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity. Be sure to talk with your doctor about medication and food interactions.
Should I avoid tyramine if I have AFib?
Tyramine is an amino acid that’s present in aged and cured meats and cheeses, wine, dark chocolate, and other foods. Tyramine exerts its action on the heart through the nervous system. While not a trigger for everyone, tyramine has been documented as the culprit in some AFib (and migraine) cases. I recommend a tyramine elimination diet for at least one month if you want to assess your sensitivity to it. When you reintroduce tyramine after one month and it triggers AFib, then continue to avoid those foods to protect your heart function.Natalie Butler, RD, LDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.