If you have the irregular heartbeat of atrial fibrillation, eating a balanced diet is an important part of protecting your heart health. A study published in September 2014 in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health found that eating vegetables was associated with a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
You can reap the benefits if you start each meal by filling half your plate with vegetables, says Cristina Rivera RD, a board certified sports dietitian in Garden, City, New York. But with atrial fibrillation (afib), be careful which veggies you choose.
Certainly some food choices are healthier than others, but when it comes to vegetables, aren’t they all good for preventive care? The answer is no. Here’s what you need to know about vegetables and heart health.
Caution With Kale and Vitamin K
Kale is a nutrient-dense vegetable, but if you're taking a blood-thinning medication called warfarin (Coumadin, Jantoven), your doctor may tell you to limit how much kale you eat. Green leafy vegetables like kale have high amounts of vitamin K that can counteract certain blood thinners like warfarin, explains Kevin R. Campbell, MD, a cardiologist at Wake Heart and Vascular in Raleigh, North Carolina. If there's too much vitamin K in your body, it may prevent warfarin from working properly — putting you at risk for blood clots that can lead to stroke.
Dr. Campbell noted newer blood thinning medications work differently than warfarin and aren't as easily affected by vitamin K in the diet.
Legumes Lower Cholesterol
A study published in May 2014 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that eating one serving a day of beans, peas, chickpeas, or lentils can lower “bad” cholesterol by approximately 5 percent — and significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Legumes like these are an important part of a plant-based diet for preventive care because they're a low glycemic index food, meaning they break down slowly in the body. And as your body digests legumes, these foods also reduce or displace the “bad” fats and animal proteins.
Potatoes Help With Blood Pressure
When atrial fibrillation is a concern, it’s important to keep blood pressure under control. Your doctor may recommend the DASH diet ("Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension") to help keep your numbers in line. The DASH diet was created based on the science of how certain vitamins and nutrients in food can help to reduce blood pressure, explained Rivera. This diet is rich in fiber, fruits, and vegetables but restricts salt. Potassium, which is found in potatoes, is beneficial for lowering blood pressure because it helps reduce the effects of sodium from salt.
RELATED: My Vegan Heart: How Changing My Diet Changed My Life
Spinach Is Rich in Vitamin K
Leafy green vegetables like spinach also fit well in the DASH diet plan because they contain high amounts of magnesium — which plays a role in the regulation of blood pressure. Spinach is overflowing with healthy vitamins and nutrients — carotenoids, magnesium, fiber, iron, and more. But if you take blood thinners that are affected by vitamin K, like warfarin, your doctor may recommend limiting the amount of spinach you eat, and keeping it consistent each day. While the FDA recommends only 80 micrograms of vitamin K daily, one cup of cooked spinach can contain over 800 micrograms. Other vegetables that are very high in vitamin K include collards and greens from turnips, mustard, and beets.
Broccoli Offers Heart Benefits
If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, broccoli is an excellent choice to add to your menu. Not only does broccoli have a good amount of calcium — which has been associated with reduced blood pressure, it also contains fiber, which can help lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol, says Rivera.
Keeping cholesterol levels under control is especially important for people with atrial fibrillation. Broccoli doesn't contain as much vitamin K as kale or spinach — one cup of cooked broccoli has 162 micrograms of vitamin K — but it can still interfere with certain blood thinners. If you have afib, ask your doctor whether you need to limit the amount of broccoli you eat in one day.
Avocado Provides 'Good' Fats
It’s essential to eat an adequate amount of heart-healthy unsaturated fats, says Rivera, and avocados are perfect for that. The unsaturated fat in avocados can help raise good cholesterol and also act as a natural anti-inflammatory, she adds.