Essential Nutritional Counseling After Heart Attacks Misses Many

5 min read

June 21, 2024 -- Heart disease reigns as the leading cause of death in the U.S., a stark reality fueled largely by our daily choices. 

Among these, diet stands out as the foremost contributor to premature deaths from cardiovascular conditions. But many people aren’t getting important nutritional counseling after surviving a heart attack that could prolong their lives. 

In a study published last week in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers found that fewer than 1 in 4 patients received any nutritional counseling within 90 days of being hospitalized for a heart attack, cardiac bypass, congestive heart failure, or a stent.

“Nutritional counseling is key to the prevention of future events, but not enough patients are getting it,” said lead study author Eric Brandt, MD, an assistant professor in the division of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, MI. 

We know that diet is critical to future heart health and that dietary counseling is an important tool for changing habits, yet several barriers hinder most patients from getting any nutritional guidance at all.

Why Nutritional Counseling Works

After a cardiac event, patients are presented with an urgent opportunity to make changes in their lives that can have a significant impact on their future heart health, said Barbara Olendzki, director of the Center for Applied Nutrition and an associate professor of medicine at the UMass Chan Medical School in Worcester, MA. In effect, this is the “sweet spot” when it comes to changing poor habits -- a time to adjust diet in ways that lower cholesterol and blood pressure to reduce the future risk arterial blockages. 

“After a heart attack, you’re frightened for your life, which gives patients around 6 months of motivation to make the kinds of changes necessary to prevent future events, but not enough patients take advantage of that time,” said Olendzki.

Research has shown that medium-to high-intensity dietary counseling for patients with elevated cardiovascular risk factors can help them make significant changes toward a healthy diet that reduces cardiovascular events, blood pressure, cholesterol, and obesity-related outcomes, according to an article published in the November 2020 edition of JAMA Network

Patients are taught the importance of eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and healthy sources of monounsaturated fats like olive oil. They’re also taught to choose low-fat dairy and lean or plant-based sources of protein while avoiding saturated fats, sweets, and red meat, as well as moderating alcohol consumption. 

The type of counseling matters. Its effectiveness is dependent on format and frequency, according to a study published in the September 2019 issue of theJournal of Clinical Medicine. Just one meeting isn’t going to change habits. Rather, it takes time to establish trust with a clinician as well as identifying the changes that will have the most impact on heart health.

It isn’t just about preaching a healthy diet, “it’s about identifying barriers that are keeping a patient from making positive dietary changes so that they can find ways around them,” said Geeta Sikand, a registered dietitian and associate professor of medicine in cardiology at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine in Irvine, CA. 

For example, if you make poor dietary decisions when you get busy or anxious, consider having healthier foods prepared rather than reaching for unhealthy grab n’ go foods. If you tend to eat the least healthy when you drink alcohol, consider controlling consumption. And if you choose unhealthy foods at the grocery store, opt for grocery delivery services instead. 

“It’s about going on the journey with patients rather than them feeling like they’re being judged by their clinician,” said Sikand. 

Why Patients Aren’t Getting Nutritional Counseling

Still, the largest barrier to nutritional counseling isn’t the quality of it but the complete lack of any sort of guidance. Cost, time, and motivation keep most patients from getting the care they need, said Brandt. And after the initial 6 months after a cardiac event, many people settle back into their bad habits if they havent already attempted to alter them.

Counseling with a registered dietitian is the gold standard because dietitians are trained not just in nutrition but in the behavioral components of healthy eating. For example, why people eat the way they do. Unfortunately, one of the biggest hurdles for patients is cost since this type of counseling isn’t covered by insurance unless a patient has kidney failure or diabetes.

“Many patients don’t receive dietary counseling either because their provider doesn’t have enough time to cover it during an office visit or dietitian services aren’t covered by insurance,” Brandt said. 

Heart attack patients can get limited nutritional counseling as part of their cardiac rehabilitation plan, which also involves exercise training, emotional support, and education around better heart health. But it tends to be more limited in scope and frequency. Still, this is the most counseling that many patients will get. Only about 5% of patients in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics study got counseling outside of cardiac rehab.

Expanding Nutritional Services to Cardiac Patients 

The hope is that better access will increase patient participation. A new bill currently in Congress could improve access to nutritional counseling by expanding coverage to patients with Medicare. HR: 6407: The Expanded Medical Nutrition Therapy Act will expand the availability of medical nutrition therapy services under the Medicare program to include cardiovascular disease and a range of other chronic diseases. Once that happens, private insurers will follow the government’s lead when deciding what to cover, said Sikand. “But as of now, despite its benefits, many people are left without care.”

Still, it’s also true that some choose not to go to counseling. They may wrongly conclude that genetics is the leading driver of cardiovascular health— and that there isnt much they can do if their family history dooms them to die of a heart attack. Or they might not have time because they need to get back to work, said Jean Copeland, a clinical dietitian nutritionist with Dartmouth Healths Heart and Vascular Center. 

“As a result, many patients fall prey to fad diets, resulting in them developing more and worsening health conditions in future years,” Copeland said. 

For patients who don’t have the time or transportation to do cardiac rehab, there’s also remote rehabilitation that may work for some, said David Jeremy Davidson, MD, director of medical weight loss and lipid clinics at NorthShore University Health System in Highland Park, IL. “This can help bridge the gap for patients who can’t do the therapy in person,” he said. 

Counseling apps that are nutrition focused like Noom, for example, provide nutritional counseling but also cognitive behavioral therapy, although these are also not covered by insurance. While they might not be as good as in person medical diet therapy, they do add a level of accountability and help patients recognize what they’re really eating, Davidson said. 

We now know that lifestyle changes can prevent cardiac events, and in fact those born into families with poorer cardiovascular outcomes are not destined to that same fate. But the next step for both patients and insurance providers are to recognize the important, cost-effective role of nutritional counseling in saving the lives of those with heart disease.