8 diet tips for a healthy heart
Diet is one of the foundations of optimal health, with a ‘poor diet’ being linked to many health conditions, including high blood pressure, osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity and more. A healthy heart is at the centre of our being, fuelling so many vital areas of our bodies, so if there’s one area we might be looking at to improve our health, the heart is a good place to start.
Let’s look at eight ways we can use food to keep our hearts healthy.
1. Cut down on your total trans fat intake
Reducing the amount of trans fat you consume is highly beneficial when trying to prevent heart disease. Trans fats are a form of unsaturated fats and raise your level of ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol which if left unchecked, hardens in the arteries and is a large contributor to heart disease.
Trans fats are created by artificial means, using hydrogen to harden them to resemble butter, and is a highly popular process in the low-fat food industry. Often, people deem artificially produced margarine or spreads as healthier than butter, fearing butter’s fat content, but this isn’t the case. When choosing produce with ‘healthier’ alternatives, nutritional therapist Sasha Paul says to be mindful of food labels, and to “look out for phrases such as ‘partially hydrogenated oil’, ‘partially hydrogenated fat’ and ‘trans fats’ on product labels.”
Foods that contain high levels of artificial trans fat include:
- meat pies
- fatty cuts of meat
- frozen pizza
Instead, opt for foods that are high in unsaturated fats as they improve levels of ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol. These include:
- oily fish (e.g. sardines, mackerel and salmon)
- nuts (e.g. walnuts, pecans and almonds)
- vegetable oils (e.g. olive and rapeseed)
- seeds (e.g. pumpkin, sunflower and linseeds/flaxseeds)
Also, boiling, microwaving, steaming, grilling or poaching your food instead of frying or roasting limits the amount of extra fat you need to add when cooking.
Interestingly, trans fats can be found naturally occurring in some foods, such as dairy products and meat, however, more research is needed to determine if these fats are as harmful as artificial trans fats.
2. Reduce your sugar intake
Aim to cut down on the amount of sugary food and drinks in your diet. ‘Free sugars’ typically reside in biscuits, cakes, sweets, chocolate and some soft drinks. Free sugars are types of sugar that are added to drink or food, as well as the sugars that are naturally found in syrups, unsweetened fruit juices and honey.
Food and drink with added sugars tend to be calorific, so consuming too much of them can lead to weight gain. Weight gain, especially around the abdomen, is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, which in itself is a risk factor for coronary heart disease.
3. Cut down on salt in your diet
Try to limit the amount of salt in your diet. While your body does need salt, too much of it can cause high blood pressure, which is heavily linked to heart disease.
The daily recommendation is around one teaspoon, so avoid adding extra salt when cooking and keep it away from the dinner table. When out shopping, check food labels to evaluate the salt content in your food. Food is considered to be high in salt if it contains more than 0.6g of sodium or 1.5g of salt per 100g.
4. Add fish to your weekly shop
For a rough guideline, try to eat two to three portions of fish every week. This includes a portion of oily fish such as mackerel or salmon. Pregnant women, however, should avoid eating more than two portions of oily fish a week. Fish contain high levels of omega-3 that contains fatty acids essential in reducing inflammation, which is linked to cardiovascular health.
If you don’t like eating fish or are a vegetarian, include some flaxseed oil or flaxseeds/linseeds in your diet.
Alongside omega 3, nutritional therapist Margaret Moss recommends a good balance of magnesium and vitamin E to support artery health, as all three have anti-clotting properties. “Omega 3 fats from fish and flax, magnesium and vitamin E prevent the blood from clotting too readily. Vitamin E is in avocados, nuts, and seeds. If you take vitamin E supplements, they need to have plenty of gamma-tocopherol, the vitamin E that helps the heart. Cheap supplements have little or none of this. Magnesium is in green vegetables, nuts, and seeds.”
5. Snack on nuts and seeds
Snacking on a mixture of seeds and unsalted nuts are also beneficial for heart health as they contain unsaturated fats; mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fat which is ideally where most of our daily fat intake should come from, advises nutritional therapist Angela Loftus.
Angela recommends, “Nuts and seeds including their butter (e.g. almond butter), milk (e.g. hemp milk) and oils (e.g. flaxseed oil).” Aim for a small handful every day.
6. Eat more soluble fibre
Soluble fibre helps to lower cholesterol by binding to the cholesterol particles in the small intestine, preventing them from entering the bloodstream and travelling around the body. Soluble fibre is also linked to lowering blood pressure.
Aim to eat a mix of high fibre foods on a regular basis, including fruit and vegetables, oats, pulses (beans and lentils) and whole-grain products (pasta, bread and rice).
7. Try soy
Early studies have shown that the protein found in soy products is effective in lowering LDL cholesterol, and has similar effects to that of soluble fibre. The suggested intake is approximately 25g of soy products per day.
Sources include soya mince, tofu, milk (make sure it is fortified with calcium if you swap with dairy milk) and yoghurts. Check the labelling for the amount that they offer.
8. Eat some plant stanols and sterols
You could also add some plant stanols and sterols to your diet which help reduce the amount of cholesterol absorbed in the gut and is instead expelled from the body in bowel movements. These need to be eaten every day to have the effect of lowering cholesterol and you’d need between 2-3g per day. They can be found in special spreads, milk or yoghurt drinks.
Plant stanols and sterols do reduce cholesterol, but more research is needed to determine their effectiveness in reducing strokes and heart problems. These products can be expensive, so if they aren’t affordable, it is more helpful to focus on other dietary changes and this should always be done with the supervision of a nutrition professional or GP.
If you’re planning to make changes to your diet, it is always important to discuss this with your doctor or nutrition professional to ensure you get the correct amount of vitamins and minerals to support whole-body health.
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