How Food Can Impact Your Heart
Meals With High Fat Content and Heart Disease
Updated April 2023
If you eat a meal that is high in fat and cholesterol, you may immediately experience heart burn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). If you regularly eat meals that are high in fat content, it can increase your risk of developing heart disease.
Allison R. Zielinski, MD, is a Northwestern Medicine cardiologist. She explains the link between diet and heart disease.
While acid reflux is typically not dangerous, patients with known coronary artery disease should pay attention to chest discomfort with eating.
“When you eat a large meal, your body diverts more blood to the stomach and digestive system, and away from the heart, with a temporary increase in heart rate and potential slight decrease in blood pressure,” says Dr. Zielinski. “In patients with coronary artery disease, this may trigger angina (chest pain) and it should be discussed with their physician to see if further testing is recommended.”
In addition, meals with high saturated fat content can contribute to high cholesterol, which is a risk factor for developing coronary artery disease.
The recommended heart-healthy diet is as plant-based as possible with:
- Healthy fats (salmon, nuts, olive oil for instance)
- Lean proteins
- Whole grains
- Minimal saturated fat (red meat, dairy), sodium, and fried, processed or packaged foods.
If you have heart disease, limit the amount of foods in your diet that are high in saturated fat and processed carbohydrates as much as possible, and pay attention to any new symptoms that occur with eating or activity.
The Link Between Higher Body Weight and Heart Disease
Having a diet that is high in unhealthy fats can lead to higher body weight and obesity, a disease where your weight is higher than what physicians consider healthy, based on your height. Having a higher body weight can increase your risk of high blood pressure and diabetes. And, people who have obesity or a higher weight have a significantly higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. This occurs for a number reasons:
- A higher weight can lead to high blood pressure, which can damage your heart when it’s not managed properly. This is a major risk factor for stroke, heart failure and abdominal arterial aneurysm.
- Having a higher weight increases your risk for atrial fibrillation (AFib), which can lead to stroke, heart failure and other complications.
- Obesity can cause insulin resistance, which leads to prediabetes or diabetes — a known risk factor for heart disease.
Ways to Eat Healthy for Your Heart
Decisions about what you eat are personal. Discussions about your diet should start with your physician or registered dietitan. Choosing healthy, well-portioned meals is one of the first steps to reducing your risk of heart disease and other health issues. Healthy eating habits may help you lower your blood pressure and cholesterol.
In addition to talking to your physician or dietitian, here are some ways healthy eating habits you can adopt:
- Drink more water. You should aim for six to eight glasses a day, possibly more or less, depending on your body size or heart condition. People with heart failure or people taking diuretic medications may need to restrict fluid intake. Talk to your doctor about the amount of water you’re drinking.
- Manage your portion sizes and read food labels to see what macronutrients you’re eating.
- Eat slowly. Studies show that eating slower can help make you feel more full, which helps you to make healthier choices.
- Plan and prepare your meals, including portions, ahead of time.