A nutritionist guide to heart health
With February being National Heart Health month, there is an increasing public interest in how nutrition can have a positive impact on the health of your heart.
With cardiovascular disease being one of the biggest health issues in the westernised world; seeing increasing numbers of people suffering from conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, atherosclerosis and other heart problems; as a nation we should be aware of the things we can do to reduce our risks of developing conditions such as these.
As a nutritionist there are some key pointers that I recommend to people who are concerned about the health of their heart and cardiovascular system.
Be a healthy weight – we know that carrying excess weight, particularly around the middle has a negative effect on the health of our heart, requiring it to work harder to pump blood around the body.
Be active – like every other muscle in the body, it needs to be exercised regularly in order to stay in good condition. This means that we should aim to do some exercise that increases our heart rate regularly; therefore giving our heart a good workout.
Watch those saturates – a high intake of saturated fat in your diet increases your risk of heart disease by the increased likelihood that this fat will be deposited in the walls of the blood vessels, effectively hardening them by reducing their elasticity. This again means the heart needs to work harder to push the blood through these narrowed vessels.
Increase those fish oils – fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids which are an essential part of our diet. Omega-3 contains both eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are essential for hormone regulation and most importantly to reduce inflammation – a key component in cardiovascular disease. We know that omega-3 contributes to the maintenance of normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Aim for two to three portions of oily fish per week, or try incorporating flaxseeds or chia seeds into your diet.
Balance those blood sugars – excessive sugar in the blood can damage the blood vessels, particularly the small capillaries and the heart, additionally increasing the strain on the pancreas. Choose foods with a low glycaemic index such as sweet potato, vegetables and avoid foods with added sugar, such as many processed foods.
Relax – the more stressed you are, the more strain you put on your heart. Try to get 10 minutes a day of gentle relaxation, such as mindfulness meditation or yoga.
Sleep – ensure you get enough sleep. While we sleep our body is repairing the damage we have done throughout the day, so if you don’t get enough sleep your body will not be able to repair itself properly, this can have an impact on the health of your heart.
Watch the salt – excessive salt intake is directly linked to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Try not to add any salt to food during cooking or at the table. There is enough salt naturally in food to provide the vital sodium our body needs.
Plant sterols – if you have high cholesterol, a supplement containing plant sterols may help to reduce it. These are known to contribute to the reduction in high cholesterol and are most effective when used as part of a cholesterol lowering diet.
Nuts – walnuts in particular are known to contain a great source of nutrients, including good oils, protein and minerals, many of which contribute to the elasticity of the blood vessels and vital for maintaining healthy blood pressure.
Get tested – having your blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol levels checked regularly is a good way to look after your heart. The sooner elevated levels are found, the sooner you can act to reduce them and therefore reducing the negative impact on your cardiovascular system. Many pharmacys now offer free health checks, so there is no need to wait to see your GP to get checked.
Check-in - if you have any pre-existing health condition, then check in with your doctor if you are concerned and/or have had a health check which showed unhealthy levels. They will be able to advise you on the best course of action as they will have a full medical history in which to form a proactive plan.
One of the most important things that you can do to look after your heart is to follow a healthy, balanced diet and to ensure that you are getting regular exercise and activity. It is also a really good idea to have your blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol levels checked as early intervention increases your chances of a successful outcome.
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