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What is a Cardiac Diet?

By Kerrie Main
Updated May 17, 2024
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Many people with cardiac problems, or a predisposition to them, need to follow some type of cardiac diet to treat or prevent cardiovascular disease. Typically, this medical diet consists of heart-healthy foods such as whole grains, fiber, fruits and vegetables. Cardiac diets usually are created by dietitians, and they prohibit harmful foods, including different types of fat, sodium, cholesterol and sometimes caffeine. In the United States, they often follow the basic guidelines of the National Cholesterol Education Program.

Some people utilize this diet to improve overall health and promote weight loss. A typical heart-healthy breakfast includes some form of whole grains and fiber, such as low-sugar cereal or oatmeal and fruit. Lunch might consist of a grilled chicken breast sandwich on whole-wheat bread with carrot sticks on the side. Snacks throughout the day usually consist of fruits such as apples or grapes. A dinner example might be a piece of grilled fish, grilled or steamed vegetables such as asparagus or broccoli and small side salad with lime juice as the salad dressing.

One of the main features of a cardiac diet is eliminating unhealthy fat from meals, including saturated fat, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and trans fats. Saturated fats are known to contribute to high cholesterol and triglycerides, which typically cause plaque buildup on blood vessel walls and make it more difficult for the heart to pump blood. Trans fats can increase low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and decrease high-density lipoproteins (HDL), and they often are found in processed foods. Typically, the diet will cut out the consumption of bacon, luncheon meats, cheese, high-fat milk, high-fat red meat and many bakery products, such as donuts.

Many doctors and dietitians believe that sodium should be restricted to 2,000 mg to 4,000 mg per day on a cardiac diet. Sodium has a natural tendency to increase blood pressure and can have a negative diuretic effect when consumed with medicine. A heart-healthy diet usually will restrict salty snack foods and table salt. Some people think that any foods with more than 140 mg of sodium should be avoided indefinitely.

Restricting foods with high cholesterol is another feature of a typical cardiac diet. This type of food can include butter, red meat, high-fat dairy products and egg yolks. Too much bad cholesterol (LDL) can contribute to fatty deposits in the blood vessels, which can cause a heart attack. Cardiac diets usually suggest that a person consume no more than 200 mg of cholesterol per day.

Caffeine intake on many cardiac diets is restricted to less than two caffeine-containing items per day. It is a stimulant and can increase one's heart rate, which puts many people with cardiovascular issues at risk of a heart attack. A person on this diet might consider drinking green tea in place of other caffeinated beverages.

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Discussion Comments
By anon958957 — On Jun 30, 2014

I had been having issues for 12 years. I’ve been getting dizzy, and had heart palpitations and shortness of breath. In that time, I had had three stress tests and all were normal. I had one breathing treatment, a colonoscopy and an endoscopy because the doctor in the chest pain ward figured I had aggravated my vagus nerve.

My family doctor put me on meclozine for the dizziness. Come on. A drug for motion sickness? I was even sent to an ENT for a balance test and was told I had lost 27 percent of the low tones in my right ear, but my brain would make up for it -- when? I had my fourth stress test here in March 2014. My wife took me to the ER because I was having trouble catching my breath.

This time, they had to do an angiogram and place a stent in one of my arteries since it was 90 percent blocked and I have others that are 40 percent blocked. I am still short of breath but am not dizzy anymore.

By anon950415 — On May 10, 2014

I had been having chest pains off and on for about three days. I suffer from daily heart palpitations but the chest pains were new so I thought I might be having a heart attack - especially knowing I have high "bad" cholesterol. Better safe than sorry, so I went to the ER. While I didn't have a heart attack, they kept me over night for monitoring and to do some other blood tests.

Upon release, I was gifted with print-outs full of information for a cardiac and low sodium diet but no meal plans, naturally. Finding pre-planned meals for a cardiac diet on-line does prove difficult but I finally found some online.

In order to determine what we can use in our meal plans, it really comes down to reading labels on the food we buy. Although one would think so, you don't have to become a complete vegetarian to eat better and stay healthier, but you do have to commit to avoiding some of those things that are really bad for you - those food you really love - my downfall is chocolate ice cream and Hostess "Ding Dong" brand chocolate cake snacks. I think it would be safe to say that while on a cardiac diet, it wouldn't be a big deal to have just a little of it 1 percent of the time but the other 99 percent of the time you have to avoid it. You have to learn to find a substitute that you can enjoy the rest of the time while you're thinking about that chocolate. It's hard, I know.

That's where I am: learning to stick with it. On top of that, I have to quit smoking. It's a very bad habit and while I've gone cold turkey twice in my life, I only recently started smoking again in late 2013 due to some very stressful family issues that were going on. I'm still in that situation but have implemented using meditation and yoga when I'm feeling really bad and as long as I'm keeping myself busy, I don't think about cigarettes as much and I've already cut down to about five a day.

I will continue researching the web for cardiac meal plans - I know they exist somewhere. If I find nothing, then I will have to use my own creativity and knowledge to make one that benefits me. Good luck everyone.

By LittleMan — On Nov 23, 2010

Can anybody give me some good recipes for the cardiac diet listed above? My father has just been diagnosed with heart disease, and we're trying to help him transition into a healthier diet.

Of course, every time I search for cardiac or heart diet, I end up with the cardiac three day diet or the cardiac soup diet, so I'm hoping for a little better luck here.

Do you guys have any good recipes? He won't eat tofu or anything like that, by the way, so you can save those. Just, maybe lower cholesterol versions of typical foods would be nice.

Thanks so much!

By galen84basc — On Nov 23, 2010

This actually sounds like a good diet! I was thinking that it was something like the three day cardiac diet, which is really pretty extreme.

I've never really gone in for fad diets anyway, but that one seems particularly crazy to me -- you really basically barely eat for three days.

Call me crazy but I'm not exactly sure how that helps your heart...of course, I've heard that there's a cardiac diet based on soup too, which might be a little more healthy, but still, I think that I'll stick with my normal, healthy diet/exercise plan. Then maybe I won't need a cardiac diet (of any kind) when I'm older!

By gregg1956 — On Nov 22, 2010

Thanks for this article -- my doctor recently told me that I'm at risk for cardiac disease because of my diet, and that I'm going to have to start following a cardiac diet plan at least three days out of the week.

I've looked at a bunch of different sites, but all I seem to find are those fad diets, like the 3 day cardiac diet, which just isn't what I need. This article was really really helpful, and actually provided information rather than a sales pitch.

Thanks, and keep up the good work!

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