Heart healthy diet: what one nutritionist eats for heart health
What we eat can make a big difference to our heart health and with cardiovascular disease being one of the biggest killers globally, its important for us all to take the right steps to care for our hearts.
Sometimes it can be hard to know what information to trust and where to start so I thought I’d share the steps I take to care for my heart.
Get the foundation right
There are no magic or super foods that can repair the damage done by long term unhealthy habits so getting the basics right first is really important. For me this means making sure you are aiming to maximize your fruit and vegetable intake – research shows that the best protection comes from eating five or more portions a day.1,2
It also means cutting through the recent media noise and getting the balance of fats right in your diet. Evidence indicates that the most heart healthy diet is one based on the Mediterranean diet,3,4 rich in heart healthy fats from plant and vegetables oils and those from oily fish. In fact, getting enough oily fish in your diet or taking an EPA plus DHA omega-3 supplement if you choose to avoid eating oily fish is one of the most important steps you can take for your heart health.5
Keeping a healthy weight and exercising regularly are the third and fourth pillars of our healthy foundations.
I eat a flexitarian type or plant-powered diet, which means basing meals on more plant foods and reducing our reliance on animal products, without having to go vegetarian. Enjoying more plant meals through the week utilizing proteins like beans, soy and nuts helps to reduce our intakes of saturated fat while still being able to enjoy good quality meat and fish a few times a week.
Load up on the good stuff
Research over the last 20 years has taught us a lot about certain foods that have powerful effects on heart health, particularly for lowering cholesterol. You can adopt some or all of these ‘extras’ to help get extra benefits.
Oats and barley are fantastic natural sources of this cholesterol-lowering fiber.6 You’d need to eat three bowls of oatmeal a day to get enough beta-glucan for the optimal effect, so think how else you can include more oats. I make three ingredient cookies using oats, ripe bananas and 100% peanut or almond butter and also make a mean fruit crumble using an oat crumble topping. These days we can get oat milk, oat cream, oat-enriched bread and many forms and there are also beta-glucan supplements or fortified cereals to make it even easier to achieve optimal levels.
Diets low in nuts and seeds are one of the top 20 global disease burden risk factors causing chronic disease and early deaths!7 Not only that but a handful of nuts a day – like almonds – helps to lower our cholesterol levels8 and even reduces heart-damaging inflammation.9
Cut down on heavily processed foods and learn to read labels
Heavily processed foods are often higher in sugar and saturated fat and lower in vitamins and minerals compared to fresh or minimally processed foods. Not only this, but up to 75 percent of the salt we eat comes from processed foods in the diet.10 Too much salt can increase our blood pressure,11 a key risk factor for heart disease.
Thankfully, the right diet for your heart is also best for overall health and not too complex to implement. That being said, it can be hard to change parts of our diets all at once while keeping it sustainable so you don’t just give up. Try working on a few things initially, like upping your fruit and vegetable intake and enjoying more oily fish, and then introduce more changes once these feel natural. That way, you can make each change long lasting and therefore effective in keeping your heart healthy throughout your whole life.
1. Oyinlola Oyebode, Vanessa Gordon-Dseagu, Alice Walker, Jennifer S Mindell (2014) Research report: Fruit and vegetable consumption and all-cause, cancer and CVD mortality: analysis of Health Survey for England data. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. Published Online First: 31 March 2014 doi:10.1136/jech-2013-203500
2. Hartley L, Igbinedion E, Holmes J, Flowers N, Thorogood M, Clarke A, Stranges S, Hooper L, Rees K. Increased consumption of fruit and vegetables for the primary prevention of cardiovascular diseases. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 6. Art. No.: CD009874. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD009874.pub2
3. Rees K, Hartley L, Flowers N, Clarke A, Hooper L, Thorogood M, Stranges S. 'Mediterranean' dietary pattern for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 8. Art. No.: CD009825. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD009825.pub2
4. Tong, T. Y. N., Wareham, N. J., Khaw, K.-T., Imamura, F., & Forouhi, N. G. (2016). Prospective association of the Mediterranean diet with cardiovascular disease incidence and mortality and its population impact in a non-Mediterranean population: the EPIC-Norfolk study. BMC Medicine, 14, 135. http://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-016-0677-4
5. Djoussé, L., Akinkuolie, A. O., Wu, J. H. Y., Ding, E. L., & Gaziano, J. M. (2012). Fish consumption, omega-3 fatty acids and risk of heart failure: a meta-analysis. Clinical Nutrition (Edinburgh, Scotland), 31(6), 846–853. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnu.2012.05.010
6. Rondanelli M1, Opizzi A, Monteferrario F, Klersy C, Cazzola R, Cestaro B (2011). Beta-glucan- or rice bran-enriched foods: a comparative crossover clinical trial on lipidic pattern in mildly hypercholesterolemic men. European Journal of clinical nutrition. 65(7):864-71
7. GBD 2015 Risk Factors Collaborators, and others (2015) Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 79 behavioural, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks, 1990–2015: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015. The Lancet, Vol. 388, No. 10053
8. Berryman CE, West SG, Fleming JA, Bordi PL, Kris-Etherton PM (2014). Effects of Daily Almond Consumption on Cardiometabolic Risk and Abdominal Adiposity in Healthy Adults with Elevated LDL-Cholesterol: A Randomized Controlled Trial. JAHA; doi: 10.1161/JAHA.114.000993
9. Rajaram, S., K.M. Connell, J. Sabate. (2010). Effect of almond-enriched high monounsaturated fat diet on selected markers of inflammation: a randomized, controlled, crossover study. British Journal of Nutrition. 103:907-912.
10. Consensus action on Salt and Health (2016) Salt reduction in the UK. Accessed from http://www.actiononsalt.org.uk/UK%20Salt%20Reduction%20Programme/145617.html Last Accessed 28th November 2016
Adler AJ, Taylor F, Martin N, Gottlieb S, Taylor RS, Ebrahim S. Reduced dietary salt for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 12. Art. No.: CD009217. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD009217.pub3
As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I would consider myself “Heart Smart.” I understand that having a healthy lifestyle can support the health of my heart.
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