Healthy eating after a diagnosis

The food you eat can help you recover and reduce future risk. Here’s how to start
A woman tends a saucepan on a stove

Healthy lifestyle changes are often recommended after someone has been diagnosed with heart disease, or has been through a heart attack or stroke. 

Whether it’s happened to you or to someone you love, there will be a team of doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, dietitians, social workers and pharmacists (and others!) to work with. They will provide education about nutrition, medication and exercise, and will help you cope with emotional aspects of changing health.

In the days after a new diagnosis or a hospital stay, you may be inundated with fact sheets and instructions, which can be difficult to keep straight. Remember that it’s all new, so it’s OK (in fact it’s encouraged!) to ask questions. 

One focus will likely be eating habits. Eating a healthy diet has been linked with better health outcomes, including lower blood pressure levels and a lower risk for heart attack (or subsequent heart attack). 

Until you meet with a dietitian for a personalized plan, this checklist outlines some of the elements of a heart-healthy diet. 

When thinking about my usual eating habits, I try to: 
  • Fill half my plate with vegetables at most meals
  • Choose whole grains (oats, pot barley, brown rice, whole grain wheat) more often than refined grains (white rice, white bread) 
  • Opt for plant-based proteins such as chickpeas, kidney beans, tofu, peanut butter or lentils instead of meat at least once a week
  • Enjoy at least two, 3.5-ounce servings of fatty fish each week, such as salmon, rainbow trout, sardines or tuna
  • Choose fresh poultry, beef or pork instead of processed meats such as bacon, deli meat, hotdogs and sausages most often 
  • Buy foods without trans fats (this is easy in Canada, since artificial trans fats were banned as an added ingredient in 2018).
  • Use unsaturated oils (such as olive oil) most often 
  • Be aware of my intake of added sugars, and aim for no more than 12 teaspoons (48 g) per day
  • Drink water more often than soda, fruit drinks or other sweetened beverages
  • Include at least two fibre-rich foods at each meal, including whole grains, vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts or seeds
  • Be aware of my sodium or salt intake and cut back on ultra-processed foods as well as very salty foods such as soy sauce, fish sauce, pickles, pretzels, chips and deli meats
  • Prepare food using healthier methods like steaming, roasting, broiling, oven-baking or stir-frying instead of deep-frying
  • Cook at home more often than dining out or ordering fast food

Which points are a challenge for you? That’s where you could start to make changes.

Pick one at a time! A major overhaul is too hard to stick to; small changes are more manageable. If you are interested in healthy meal plan ideas, start with the Mediterranean or DASH diet. Both have been clinically tested and are highly recommended for heart health. 

In addition to altering just one habit at a time, it’s also vital to focus on what you should be eating, rather than what to reduce. Adding heart-healthy foods is just as important as cutting back on less nourishing foods. 

Not sure where to start? Vegetables! Add more to meals until they fill half your plate. 

As you continue to learn and educate yourself, know that healthy lifestyle changes are within your grasp and don’t need to all happen at once. Treat yourself with kindness, and take it slow.