What is a heart attack?
A heart attack, also known as myocardial infarction, is a serious medical emergency that requires immediate attention. It occurs due to a sudden blockage in the supply of blood to the heart, typically a blood clot.1 This loss of blood flow and reduction in oxygen can cause serious damage. The longer the patient is left untreated, the greater the risk of damage to the heart muscles.
Symptoms of a heart attack
The main symptoms of a heart attack are:
- Pain and discomfort in the chest: Most heart attacks affect the left or centre of the chest; this discomfort lasts for a few minutes or leaves and comes back. The discomfort can feel like squeezing, pain, or uncomfortable pressure.
- Shortness of breath: this frequently comes along with discomfort or pain in the chest
- Discomfort or pain in the neck, back, or jaw.
- Feeling faint or weak: can be accompanied by a cold sweat.
- Discomfort or pain in one or both shoulders or arms.
The most prominent heart attack symptom is angina (chest pain). Other symptoms of a heart attack can include unexplained fatigue as well as nausea. People assigned male at birth are less likely to have these symptoms.2
Can diet help prevent a heart attack?
An effective way to prevent a heart attack is through diet and lifestyle changes. Studies have shown unhealthy life choices and eating a diet high in fat will result in atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which increases the risk of a heart attack.4 Consuming high-fat foods will produce additional fatty plaques to build up in the arteries due to the presence of unhealthy cholesterol in fatty foods. Avoid foods comprising high levels of saturated fat since they increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in the blood.
Examples of foods containing high saturated fat:
- Cakes and biscuits
- Fried foods
- Sausages and fatty cuts of meat
- Foods that contain coconut or palm oil
- Hard cheese
Those at risk of a heart attack are advised to follow a Mediterranean diet composed of more fruit, fish, bread and vegetables, and less meat.4 Plant and vegetable oils should be used in replacement of cheese and butter. Taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements has also been found to prevent heart attacks in some people.
The best diet for preventing heart disease is a balanced one; all foods and drinks, including alcohol, should be consumed in moderation.5
What foods are safe to eat after a heart attack?
Making changes to what you eat following a heart attack can be overwhelming, and adopting new lifestyle habits after a traumatic event is challenging but necessary to safeguard your health. Here are foods to avoid when working towards an improved way of living after a heart attack:
- Caffeine: The heart needs rest after a heart attack; therefore, excessive stimulation should be avoided, and you should limit caffeine by reducing drinks such as tea and coffee.
- Sodium: This can increase stress on the heart as well as blood pressure since it can promote the build-up of fluids around the lungs.7
- Water and other fluids: Excess fluids can reduce appetite and cause shortness of breath, as well as make the heart work harder, especially after a heart attack. Doctors give patients a range of how much fluid they can consume in a day.
When should you contact a doctor?
It is important to remember that any sudden pain or discomfort in the chest requires immediate medical attention, as this is a symptom of a heart attack. This sudden pain and discomfort can range from squeezing or tightness in the chest to a sensation of pressure. Pain that spreads to your left or right neck, arm, jaw, stomach, or back can be another indicator of a heart attack and requires emergency contact with a doctor. Again, this can vary among individuals - for some, it is uncomfortable, while for others, it’s severe.6
Some people may feel sick, lightheaded, or sweaty, which can indicate a heart attack, though these may be signs of other illnesses such as panic attacks or food poisoning. Upon experiencing any new or unexpected feeling of sweatiness, sickness, or light-headedness, you should contact a doctor.
You should also contact a doctor if you notice increased swelling of the lower legs (ankles or feet), as this can be a symptom of heart problems. This warning sign shows that the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently around the body, which leads to fluid retention.6
Making an appointment with your doctor will allow you to be tested and assessed. In the UK, these assessments can be completed at the GP surgery, so it is not likely that travelling to a hospital would be necessary. It’s crucial to see a GP straight away because deferring treatment can lead to symptoms getting worse.
A heart attack, also known as myocardial infarction, is a medical emergency that requires timely contact with a doctor. It can have a range of explanations, but the underlying cause is the loss of oxygen and blood due to a blockage in the blood supply to the heart. The main symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue, and most importantly, pain or discomfort in the chest. This discomfort can continue for some minutes or end rapidly. Studies have shown nutrition and dietary changes can help prevent heart attacks, this is because some foods contain high levels of saturated fat and raise LDL cholesterol levels, which promotes atherosclerosis and exponentially increases the risk of a heart attack. It is important to note that having symptoms of this condition requires contact with a doctor as well as proactive changes to one’s lifestyle.
- Heart attack [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2017 [cited 2022 Sep 23]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/heart-attack/
- CDC. Heart attack symptoms, risk factors, and recovery | cdc. Gov [Internet]. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2022 [cited 2022 Sep 23]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/heart_attack.htm
- Warning signs of a heart attack [Internet]. www.heart.org. [cited 2022 Sep 23]. Available from: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/warning-signs-of-a-heart-attack
- Preventing a heart attack [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2018 [cited 2022 Sep 23]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/heart-attack/prevention/
- Harvard T.H. Chan, School of Public Health. Preventing heart disease [Internet]. The Nutrition Source. 2014 [cited 2022 Sep 23]. Available from: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/disease-prevention/cardiovascular-disease/preventing-cvd/
- Which symptoms mean I should seek urgent medical help? [Internet]. [cited 2022 Sep 23]. Available from: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/heart-matters-magazine/news/coronavirus-and-your-health/when-do-you-still-need-to-get-medical-help
- Lindsay C. What to eat after a heart attack [Internet]. 2020. Available from: https://www.communitymedical.org/about-us/news/what-to-eat-after-a-heart-attack.