I’m trying to eat healthier so I can manage my afib better. What is the best diet for atrial fibrillation?
This is a great question – which is why it’s this week’s question and answer!
When it comes to making lifestyle changes to manage afib, eating healthier is probably the most effective thing you can do.
While I’m not a believer that a “perfect diet” alone can cure afib, I do believe it can lessen the overall burden of afib and can possibly even delay its progression.
There are two challenges with following a diet, however. One, there are so many diets and theories that it can be very confusing to determine which one is best for afib. Second, no matter which diet you choose it’s often very difficult to stick to it over the long term!
Let me address these challenges…
There Are So Many Diets to Choose From – Which Diet is Best for Afib?
The diet that has helped many afibbers eliminate or significantly reduce their atrial fibrillation burden is…drum roll, please…The Paleo Diet.
Now before you clear your refrigerator and pantry to make it Paleo friendly or stock up on foods that make up the Paleo diet, there are a few things you should know.
The Paleo diet, in my opinion, is a very restrictive diet and is probably one of the most challenging diets to stick with. I realize the Paleo diehards strongly disagree. But let’s break down the Paleo Diet and you tell me if it’s restrictive or not.
Paleo Diet (aka “Caveman Diet” and “Hunter-Gatherer Diet”)
In a nutshell, the philosophy of the Paleo diet is if a caveman didn’t eat it, neither should you. –NerdFitness.com
That means all grains, dairy, and processed foods are off limits! Pasta, rice, bread, cereal, soda, and candy will have to go too. Instead, you’ll eat meat (grass fed only), fowl, fish, eggs, vegetables, oils (olive, coconut, avocado), fruits (in moderation), nuts (in moderation), and “tubers” (sweet potatoes and yams).
Of course it goes without saying that the die-hard Paleo dieter will eat mostly organic (again, think of the caveman days when there were no pesticides). Because the Paleo diet requires mostly (if not all) organic foods and grass-fed meats, it can be an expensive diet to follow as well.
The good news is, this diet allows you to eat as much as you want whenever you want. There is no calorie counting or portion control, and there are no “eating rules” such as eating small meals every few hours.
What Makes the Paleo Diet so Effective for People with Atrial Fibrillation?
According to an indepth article on afibbers.org titled, “Examining Success of Paleo Diet in Afibbers,” a convincing case is laid out as to why the Paleo diet might be so effective in helping afibbers and it comes down to grain elimination, specifically grains containing gluten.
Side Note: Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Some people are sensitive to it so it can cause gut irritation, digestive problems, and a host of health problems. Those with celiac disease, a serious genetic autoimmune disease, are especially sensitive to it and have to avoid it entirely.
As the author of the article states, the primary benefit of following the Paleo diet is that you’re almost guaranteed to lose weight (and thus be healthier) by simply reducing carbohydrates.
However, the key element to the success of the Paleo Diet for people with atrial fibrillation might be the elimination of gluten. The author goes into great detail on the effects of gluten and how eliminating it can potentially help with a host of health problems not just atrial fibrillation. The author also references other lesser known diets to consider such as the Rosedale Diet and the Schwarzbein eating plan discussed later in this article.
I strongly encourage you to read that article as there is a lot of information to digest (no pun intended).
Of course there is another obvious reason why the Paleo diet might be one of the best diets for people with atrial fibrillation. The fact that the diet eliminates all processed foods including soda, candy, and cereal (basically eliminating sugar and various chemicals from your diet) almost guarantees you’re going to lose weight and be healthier!
In fact, I would argue that you could just make that one change in your diet – eliminate (or at least severely limit) processed foods, soda, and candy – and you’d be healthier and would likely see a significant reduction in your afib burden.
A good book on the Paleo Diet is the, “Practical Paleo, 2nd Edition: A Customized Approach to Health and a Whole-Foods Lifestyle,” which can be found on Amazon.
If you can muster up the will power and make such dramatic lifestyle changes the Paleo diet requires, you’ll no doubt lose weight, be healthier, and will experience a reduction in your afib burden – if not a total elimination of your afib for a period of time.
But what if you’re reading this and you’re saying, “This Paleo diet is crazy. There is no way I can follow that diet!” There are other diets to consider.
The Mediterranean Diet is often coined the “heart-healthy” diet so many people with atrial fibrillation tend to think of it first when considering the best diets for afib.
The Mediterranean Diet is comprised primarily of plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, healthy whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. And while it is strongly plant-based it is not strictly vegetarian. Fish, shellfish, and some poultry are o.k. but shouldn’t dominate the core plant foods of the diet. Moderate wine drinking is also welcome (although for many afibbers wine is a common trigger). Coffee and tea are also o.k. but again these may be triggers for people with atrial fibrillation.
As you can see, this diet has a little more leeway than the Paleo diet as it allows you to have whole grains and even wine, coffee, and tea in moderation.
For an excellent book on the Mediterranean Diet, get a copy of “The Mediterranean Diet for Beginners” on Amazon.
The Zone Diet
Started by Dr. Barry Sears in the late 1990’s. The Zone diet is based on a set ratio of calories at each meal from carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats. The ratio is 1/3 protein, 2/3 carbs (stresses low sugar fruits and avoiding starchy vegetables such as potatoes and corn), and a “dash” of monounsaturated fats including olive oil, avocado, or almonds.
The idea is when you consume calories in this ratio, your body stays “in the zone,” meaning you have the proper balance of insulin and glucagon levels. As a result, your body does not store excess calories as fat but burns fat for energy instead.
Ultimately the goal with the Zone Diet is to reduce overall inflammation in the body. Reducing inflammation is especially important for people with atrial fibrillation as it is believed that afib is a result of the body being in an “inflamed” state. The theory is if you reduce inflammation in the body you reduce afib burden.
Of all the diets discussed here this is the only diet I tried in earnest but I couldn’t maintain it long-term. I always struggled trying to create meals that had the perfect ratio of carbs, protein, and fat. The diet does have this thing called “Zone Blocks” that makes it easier to follow the diet. How Zone Blocks work is your favorite foods are assigned so many Zone Blocks. For example, 3 whole almonds equals one “Zone Block” of fat. Once you know what your favorite foods are worth in terms of Zone Blocks, you assemble your meals in certain Zone Blocks.
You can get Dr. Sears book, “Enter the Zone: A Dietary Road Map,” on Amazon.
The Rosedale Diet was developed by metabolic specialist, Ron Rosedale, MD. His diet limits starchy, sugary carbs. He claims the body does not need carbs. Insulin is better controlled without them, he argues. To get some insight into the theory behind his diet, read the article he wrote a while back titled, “The Metabolic Effects of Insulin.” You can also find his book, “The Rosedale Diet,” on Amazon.
The Schwarzbein Diet was developed by Dr. Diana Schwarzbein. She is board-certified in both Internal Medicine and Endocrinology. This diet allows you to eat as much protein, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables you want. She says it’s important to eat enough food so when you reduce your carb consumption, you must increase proteins, fats, and non starchy carbs. Her eating plan does not totally eliminate grains. She allows brown rice, oatmeal, and other grains.
You can get Schwarzbein’s book, “The Schwarzbein Principle,” on Amazon:
What To Do When Diets are Impossible to Follow
Any of the diets discussed here are great for people with atrial fibrillation but let’s face it, following a diet isn’t easy as it requires wholesale changes in our lifestyles. That is why most people fail. They simply can’t make the lifestyle changes that are required for long-term success.
In addition, there isn’t a one-size fits all diet for anyone – including people with afib. We’re all different. Some of us are more carb tolerant than others so the Mediterranean diet might make more sense than the Paleo diet. Some are very sensitive to gluten so avoiding all grains is a must so the Paleo diet makes more sense in that situation. The key for long-term success is to pick one of these diets that most closely matches your lifestyle and personal preferences.
You also don’t have to follow any of these diets to the letter to have success. In fact, you’ll likely have more long-term success if you don’t! What I recommend you do is use the eating strategies in these diets as basic guides and then tailor them to fit your own needs and lifestyle. If you look closely at these diets they have five broad strategies in common including:
- Eliminate/limit simple carbs and instead load up on complex carbs (i.e. whole grains, non-starchy vegetables, low-sugar fruits)
- Eliminate/limit sugar and processed foods
- Eat protein
- Eat healthy fats
- Eliminate/limit alcohol
If your “diet” follows those five broad strategies you’re going to lose weight, be healthier, and you’ll see improvement in your afib burden!
There you go, Tara, that’s my very long-winded answer to your short and simple question. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please contact me.
Anyone that contacts me with a question will get a personal response from me whether I use your question in a future Q&A session or not so please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Do you follow any of these diets? Are there any other diets you recommend for people with atrial fibrillation? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.