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Time for a Drastic Diet Change?

By Kara Mayer Robinson
WebMD Feature

Finding out you have heart disease can be a big wake-up call for your diet. It's time to make some changes. But how far should you go?

Will a moderate change do, maybe cutting back on fat? Or do you need to make a much bigger change, like going vegan or trying a very low-fat plan?

These three questions can help you figure that out.

1. What Does Your Doctor Say?

Ask your doctor what your diet goals should be. Do you need to bring down your cholesterol level and your blood pressure? Do you also have diabetes? Do you have extra pounds to lose? Do you have to be extra careful because heart disease runs in your family?

These are just a few of the things your doctor will consider when advising you. They may also refer you to a registered dietitian who works with people who have heart disease.

2. What Are You Eating Now?

How much you need to change your diet depends on what you're used to eating.

Do you eat pretty healthfully now? Or could your diet get a lot better?

“If, for example, you have a cup of coffee, a fat-laden croissant or a breakfast sandwich in the morning, followed by a fast-food burger lunch [and] a drive-thru dinner to end your commute, then you need to clear the table entirely and start new,” cardiologist John Kennedy, MD, says.

But if you usually eat foods that are good for you and a few that aren't, you might just need to fine-tune your diet, rather than totally overhaul it.

3. How Motivated Are You?

Change, big or small, takes work. But if it's a huge change, you need to be really motivated to keep it up.

Former President Bill Clinton famously traded barbecue, burgers, fries, and doughnuts for a vegan diet with very little oil as part of how he manages his heart disease. But it took him two decades, and two heart procedures, to make the commitment. He met with Dean Ornish, MD, to talk it over first. Ornish has written several books on diets that are good for people with heart disease.

If you want to go for that but it seems daunting, you could make changes bit by bit, rather than overnight. For instance, instead of snacking on chips, try a handful of nuts. Trade soda for bottled water, Kennedy says.

Three Changes to Make for Sure

  1. Stop eating artificial trans fats right away. Even if a product says "0 trans fat" on the label, it may have up to half a gram per serving, which adds up. So also check the ingredients list. "Partially hydrogenated" ingredients are trans fats.
  2. Eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Experiment with meat-free meals that include beans or tofu as a protein source. You don’t need to be a vegetarian or vegan to do that.
  3. Limit salty, fatty, and sugary items. Just about everyone gets too much of those things.
Reviewed on June 28, 2014

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