Diet and exercise

Long term conditions: Diet and nutrition

If you have heart failure a healthy diet and keeping as active as your condition allows is important. Some ways you can do this include:

  • Keeping your weight under control
  • Reducing your salt intake
  • Following advice about drinking alcohol
  • Monitoring your fluid intake
  • Taking exercise

Keep your weight under control

Your heart has to work harder if you are overweight. The usual advice to people who are trying to lose weight is to increase the amount of exercise that they are doing and reduce the amount of calories (from excess sugar and fat) they are eating. When you have heart failure it can be difficult to increase your exercise levels, although it is important to keep as active as your condition allows (this may vary from day to day). It is therefore particularly important that you try to eat as healthy a diet as possible.

If your appetite is low, you are troubled by nausea or vomiting, or you have recently been in hospital, please talk to your nurse or doctor about how to increase your energy intake as this can be very important. 

  • Try to reduce the amount of salt you eat as much as possible
  • Try to eat less fat - choose lean meat, fish and poultry
  • Avoid fried foods and pastry
  • Dairy foods (milk, butter, cream and cheese) are an important source of calcium - use low fat versions (semi-skimmed milk, half fat cheese, low fat spreads) as they contain the same amount of calcium and other nutrients but less fat
  • Eat more high fibre foods such as wholemeal bread, pasta and cereals
  • Try to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables per day (use fresh or frozen, avoid tinned vegetables if possible as they contain a high level of salt)
  • Try to eat fewer biscuits, cakes and sweet things.

Reduce your salt intake

If you eat too much salt (which contains sodium) it may affect the amount of fluid in your body, making you retain fluid. This could make your ankles swell and breathing worse.

Most foods contain low levels of salt naturally and this is usually enough for our needs. Therefore do not add any salt to your food during the cooking process, or at the table. There is hidden salt in items such as packet soups, stock cubes, sauce mixes, gravy granules, cheese, bacon and smoked meats, crisps, salted nuts and sausages. Also there can be high levels in processed foods such as tinned vegetables, sauces and ‘ready meals'. It is better to avoid these items altogether, but if this not possible, try to keep levels as low as possible, and use less of these items, eg use half a stock cube or make your own stock and use less gravy.

It is alright to use vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, pepper and other herbs and spices to make your food more interesting, especially if you have lost some of your sense of taste (a common problem in heart failure patients).

Do not use any 'salt alternative' products such as Lo Salt, as they contain high levels of potassium, which can react with your medication.

Alcohol

If you have been told not to drink, please don't. 

If you have been told you can have alcohol, then keep your consumption to no more than three units per day if you are a man and two units per day if you are a woman. You should have at least two alcohol free days a week. 

One unit of alcohol is equivalent to:

  • half a pint of normal strength beer
  • a pub measure glass of wine
  • a pub measure of spirits.

Fluid intake

The more you drink, the more your heart has to work to eliminate fluid. On the other hand it is very important not to drink so little that you become dehydrated. It is recommended that you drink no more than three pints (1.5 litres) of fluid every day in total (tea, coffee, fruit juice, squash, low calorie fizzy drinks, etc). In warm weather add a further pint (0.6 litre) unless you have been given specific advice by your doctor or nurse. If you find that you have a dry mouth try using refreshing mouthwashes or suck frozen fruit juice ice cubes.

Exercise

If your heart failure has made you inactive, you may gradually feel weaker and less able to do things. Try to keep as active as possible (what you feel able to do may change from day to day). Many people with heart failure have said that they feel better when they exercise regularly. Whatever you do (walking, swimming, cycling, dancing, golf) you must always be able to feel that you have enough breath to be able to talk to someone while you are doing it. If you feel that you are having difficulty talking, you must slow down a bit until you are able to hold a conversation.

Please talk to your nurse about exercise levels specific to you. If you wish, you can be referred to an appropriate exercise class.