Research suggests that diet can improve symptoms of congestive heart failure (CHF), such as fluid retention. Healthcare professionals may recommend reducing salt and fluid intake.

Diet is an essential complementary therapy to support CHF treatment. This diet involves reducing salt and fluid intake and choosing healthier dietary alternatives.

This article examines how diet affects CHF, including dietary tips for managing and preventing the condition.

A key symptom of CHF is excess fluid buildup, which occurs because blood flow through the heart is slower in a person with CHF.

This causes blood to back up in vessels that usually return blood to the heart and fluid to leak into the surrounding body tissues. Swelling, or edema, also occurs as a result.

Extra fluids from consuming too much salt and water can worsen fluid buildup in people with CHF. Therefore, experts recommend drinking less liquid and consuming less sodium — a chemical compound found in salt.

A 2020 study assessing the role of diet and nutrition in heart failure suggested that reducing sodium consumption can lower fluid retention and prevent worsening heart failure symptoms.

Learn more about CHF.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025 recommend that all adults consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium a day — and even less for children under 14 years. These guidelines center around the benefits of a reduced sodium intake on cardiovascular and hypertension risk.

However, the Heart Failure Society of America recommends that people with moderate to severe heart failure symptoms have a daily sodium intake of less than 2,000 mg a day.

A person can reduce their salt intake by trying the tips below.

Choose low salt foods

According to a 2015 study, choosing foods low in salt is an essential dietary strategy for limiting overall salt consumption.

Examples of foods that can contribute to a low salt diet include:

Avoid processed foods

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that 70% of salt consumption among American populations comes from prepackaged and processed foods that may not taste salty.

Most manufacturers add salt to food products for preservation and taste, so people should always check the label for sodium levels.

Use alternative seasonings

The body needs a small amount of sodium for bodily functions. However, consuming too much can adversely affect the body.

Table salt is a common seasoning. One teaspoon contains about 2,400 mg of sodium.

To reduce salt intake, a person can use alternative seasoning for flavor. Options include:

Check labels

Medical experts recommend that people check the ingredient list on foods and avoid any products containing high levels of salt.

When buying prepackaged, frozen, or prepared meals, a person can check the nutritional fact labels of foods to ensure that they contain no more than 600 mg of salt per serving. This is the upper limit of what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers a healthy serving of sodium in a main meal.

Another tip is to check nutritional labels to ensure food contains a lower percentage daily value (%DV) of sodium. The recommended amount would be 5% of the %DV of sodium or less.

Avoid adding extra salt

One teaspoon of table salt contains about 2,400 mg of sodium, which is over the recommended daily sodium intake for people with CHF.

Removing the salt shaker from the kitchen or dining table can reduce the temptation to add salt to dishes and significantly affect a person’s overall salt consumption.

Learn more about how much salt is excessive in the diet.

Tips for eating out

A person can try the following tips when eating out:

  • asking the server to avoid adding salt or extra salt to dishes
  • requesting low salt menu options
  • taking a small container of salt-free seasoning to restaurants

Watch out for hidden salt

Many preserved foods and condiments contain high amounts of salt. This includes mustard, lemon pepper, soy sauce, and steak sauce.

Prepared soups and salad dressings also contain unexpected levels of sodium, as well as canned foods such as canned vegetables and beans.

A person can rinse canned produce under running water to wash off excess sodium.

Learn more about the benefits of a low sodium diet.

Healthcare professionals may also advise limiting fluid intake to help prevent fluid retention.

Fluid restriction varies from person to person, but experts may recommend that people with CHF aim for 1,500–2,000 milliliters (mL) of fluid daily. This translates to six to nine 8-ounce (oz) cups of water. This also includes fluids at room temperature, including soups and ice cream.

The following tips can help a person limit their fluid intake.

Spread fluid intake across the day

People with CHF can distribute their fluid consumption throughout the day to meet their individual guidelines.

For example, if a healthcare professional recommends a person’s daily fluid limit is 2,000 mL, they could have 500 mL fluid with breakfast, lunch, and dinner and have two 250 mL drinks between meals.

Learn more about fluid retention.

Track your fluid intake

A person can track fluid intake by keeping a daily log of the fluids they consume.

Drink monitoring cups and hydration tracking bottles can also help a person monitor fluid consumption.

Weigh in daily

A person can check if their body is retaining fluid by checking their weight at the same time every day.

If someone consistently gains weight, they should speak with a healthcare professional. They can recommend other measures to maintain fluid balance.

Learn more about when is the best time to check weight.

Find alternatives

The following alternatives can moisten the mouth and help quench thirst:

  • sucking sugar-free sweets
  • swishing water around the mouth and spitting it out
  • rolling small ice cubes in the mouth

Learn more about fluid restriction for heart failure.

Healthcare professionals may recommend other lifestyle changes alongside diet to reduce risks associated with CHF.

Maintain a moderate weight

Maintaining a moderate weight can reduce the risks associated with CHF. The following tips can help people to maintain a moderate weight:

Learn about how much a person should weigh for their height and age.

Stop smoking

If a person smokes and is at risk of CHF, they may also want to consider quitting.

The CDC states that stopping smoking reduces the risk of many adverse health outcomes, including cardiovascular diseases.

A 2022 study also suggests that smoking cessation significantly reduces the risk of heart failure.

Learn about ways to quit smoking.

Limit alcohol consumption

If a person drinks alcohol, they may also want to consider avoiding excessive consumption to limit their risk of CHF.

The CDC states that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease.

A 2022 Korean study suggests that people with light to moderate alcohol consumption had a lower heart failure risk than those who drank more excessively. It also found that reducing alcohol consumption from a heavy intake is associated with reduced heart failure risk.

A person should speak with a healthcare professional if symptoms of CHF do not improve after making dietary modifications and following tips to maintain a moderate weight.

They will assess a person’s symptoms and recommend the best treatment.

There is no specific diet to treat CHF. However, healthcare professionals may recommend that people with CHF make specific dietary changes. This includes reducing salt and fluid intake.

Choosing low salt foods, avoiding processed foods, and using alternative seasonings can help to restrict salt consumption.

People with CHF can limit fluid intake by spreading it throughout the day using tracking bottles or monitoring cups.

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