A selection of healthy foods

Eat to beat 6 common health problems

Research suggests that eating a well-balanced diet and including certain foods may help improve your general health both now and in years to come. Registered nutritionist, Jo Lewin, offers practical tips.

1. Cardiovascular disease

Too much cholesterol in the blood may increase your risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke and vascular dementia. Cholesterol is is a fatty substance that is transported in the blood, the majority is made naturally in the liver. In fact cholesterol is essential for health but too much can be detrimental to health. Reducing the total amount of fat, especially saturated fat, you eat may help reduce your total cholesterol level and protect your heart.

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Being a fat, cholesterol has to be transported by a carrier in the blood, these carriers are protein complexes called lipoproteins. You’re probably familiar with them because they are often confusingly referred to as ‘bad’ cholesterol or Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL) and ‘good’ cholesterol or High Density Lipoproteins (HDL). As with most things, it’s not as simple as that – these lipoproteins are not themselves cholesterol, and both LDL and HDL will be present in a variety of different forms – the smaller, denser of which appear to pose the greater risk. Your unique mix of LDL and HDL and their sub-types depends on your combination of genes, as well as your lifestyle.

Your blood fats, including cholesterol level, can be measured by a simple blood test. You can read more about how to get your cholesterol checked on the NHS website.

What to eat

  • Choosing healthier fats may help protect your heart. Cut back on saturated fats (butter, hard cheese, fatty meat, biscuits, cakes and cream) and replace them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (oily fish, olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds).
     
  • Reduce your intake of refined carbohydrates and sugar, replacing them with wholegrains and low GI carbohydrates.
     
  • Eating a wide variety of fruit and vegetables may help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Fruit and vegetables contain vitamins and phytochemicals that help prevent the oxidation of cholesterol, which reduces the chance of it being deposited in the arteries. They also contain carbohydrates which give the body energy, but are low in fat so are helpful for weight control.
     
  • Beans, pulses and porridge oats are high in a type of fibre that encourages the body to excrete cholesterol before it can be reabsorbed into the bloodstream. A high-fibre diet also keeps you full up so you are less likely to snack on fattening foods.
     
  • Nuts help increase levels of HDL or so-called ‘good’ cholesterol, as does oily fish which contains omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. Omega-3 can help protect the heart by preventing the blood from clotting. They may help to reduce the risk of heart disease too, by encouraging the muscles lining the artery walls to relax, improving blood flow and regulating heart rhythm.
  • There is evidence that substances called ‘plant-sterols’ and ‘stanols’ – which are added to certain foods including certain margarines, spreads and yogurts – may reduce blood cholesterol levels. Even if you do eat sterol-enriched foods, it is still important to make sure you follow a healthy diet.
     
  • Soya is a good source of protein, fibre and unsaturated fats, all of which may help to lower cholesterol. Soya products – for example soya milk, soya yogurts, tofu and miso – are of high nutritional value; they contain lots of vitamins, minerals, are high in polyunsaturated fats and low in saturated fat. Recent studies have indicated that eating 25g soya protein a day can lead to a 10% reduction in both total and LDL cholesterol.
     
  • Minimise your intake of trans- or hydrogenated fats (often found in shop-bought biscuits and cakes); these are thought to be one of the most dangerous fats for the heart.

Heart-healthy tips

  1. Aim for a minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
  2. Have oil-rich fish at least twice a week.
  3. Choose unsaturated fats rather than saturated.
  4. Keep your weight within a healthy range for you.
  5. Aim to do at least 30 minutes exercise at least five times a week.

For more information, visit The British Heart Foundation.

2. High blood pressure


People with high blood pressure have an increased risk of having a heart attack or stroke. High blood pressure means your heart has to work harder to pump the blood around your body. A reading of 140/90mmHg (140 systolic and 90 diastolic) is considered to be hypertension. Ideally aim for a blood pressure reading below 120/80mmHg – speak to your GP or healthcare provider if you are concerned.

Recommendations to help control blood pressure

  • Fruit and vegetables contain potassium, which can help manage blood pressure by counteracting the effects of too much salt (sodium). If you have high blood pressure, aim to eat at 7-9 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables each day, focusing on vegetables.
     
  • Dietary sources of magnesium, calcium and folic acid such as green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, pak choy and broccoli), wholegrain cereals, nuts and seeds are essential for blood pressure control.
     
  • There is a link between having too much salt in your diet and high blood pressure. The body only needs a very small amount of sodium to function properly, and we eat much more than we need. Minimise your salt intake to less than 6g per day – that’s the equivalent to 1 tsp per day. Read more about low-salt diets.
     
  • The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) includes low-fat dairy and wholegrains, while avoiding meat and sugary foods. It is a proven effective treatment for hypertension.

Blood pressure busters

  1. Eat at least two servings of fruit or vegetables at each meal.
  2. Take regular exercise and if you smoke, quit. Visit the NHS website for support.
  3. Schedule time into your day to relax – stress increases the risk of high blood pressure.
  4. Limit your salt intake to 6g per day.
  5. If you are overweight, try to lower your weight into the healthy range. Being physically active plays an important part in this.

For more information about blood pressure, visit the British Heart Foundation.

3. PMS

Countless women experience premenstrual syndrome, and many believe its unpleasant symptoms are unavoidable. Common complaints include low mood, anxiety, headaches and fatigue. There are many theories about the causes of PMS, including hormone levels, vitamin and mineral deficiencies and blood sugar imbalance.

If you suffer from PMS

  • Opt for low-GI, carbohydrate-rich foods, like oatcakes and wholegrains which keep blood sugar levels stable and provide a sustained source of energy. This may also help with cravings, irritability and mood swings.
     
  • Research suggests that vitamin B6 (found in cereals, baked potatoes, bananas, chicken, beef and avocado) and magnesium (found in spinach, pumpkin seeds, salmon, sesame seeds or white fish) may improve a number of PMS symptoms, including those affecting your emotions.
     
  • Calcium-rich foods can make a difference, and women with high levels of calcium in their diet tend to experience fewer symptoms. Choose dairy products, leafy green vegetables, soya, celery, cereals, dried fruits and almonds.
     
  • High-fibre foods help prevent constipation and bring down oestrogen levels in your body by preventing them from being re-absorbed in your gut. Porridge oats and dried fruits are good sources of fibre.
     
  • Foods containing phytoestrogens may help alleviate hormonal imbalances, but are not effective for all women. Foods rich in these natural compounds include flaxseeds, fermented soya products like tempeh, tofu and miso as well as beans and pulses like chickpeas and lentils. These foods are thought to help reduce the influence of oestrogen in your body, reducing symptoms such as breast pain.
     
  • Eat less sugar, salt and saturated fat. Cutting back on salt can help to offset the bloating and fluid retention commonly associated with PMS.
     
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol which can aggravate symptoms. Aim to reduce your intake, especially in the two weeks before your period.

PMS-busters

  1. Eat a healthy, balanced diet, with plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals.
  2. During the last two weeks of your cycle try eating a carbohydrate-rich snack or meal every two to three hours.
  3. Exercising regularly can encourage the release of endorphins which promote a feeling of well-being.
  4. Minimise stress. Find what works for you – whether that’s yoga, meditation or exercise – and incorporate regularly within your lifestyle.

4. Low mood


There are many situations that can trigger low mood or depression, which can have physical as well as psychological symptoms: lack of energy, sleep disruption, change in appetite, constipation and menstrual changes. One in 10 people will experience depression at some stage in their lives. If you are concerned about your mental health, help is available – speak to your GP or visit the NHS website to find out more.

Foods to eat

  • Omega-3 fatty acids may help to lift low moods. Increase your intake of oily fish to two or three portions a week, and add some nuts, seeds and avocadoes to your diet. Use olive, rapeseed or walnut oil for cooking and dressing salads.
  • Folate (folic acid), vitamins B6, B12 and magnesium deficiencies have all been linked to depression so get plenty of wholegrains, pulses, dairy products, eggs, nuts, dried apricots and dark chocolate.
     
  • According to one study, aspartame, the artificial sweetener found in low-sugar products such as fizzy drinks and chewing gum appears to make symptoms worse.
     
  • Alcohol is a known depressant. Avoid alcohol, caffeine and too much sugar as they play havoc with blood sugar control.
     
  • Eat regularly, don’t skip meals – especially breakfast. Skipping meals sets the scene for fluctuating blood sugar levels

Mood enhancers

  1. Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
  2. Start the day well by having protein and carbohydrate at breakfast. This prevents blood sugar, energy and mood plummeting mid-morning leaving you reaching for a pick-me-up such as sugary snacks or coffee.
  3. Poor appetite is a common symptom of depression; if your appetite isn’t what it could be, it’s worth taking a vitamin and mineral supplement.
  4. Drinking relaxing herbal teas, such as chamomile or borage can often help you to feel calm and relaxed.
  5. Regular exercise may be effective and offer mental health benefits.

For more information, visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation.

5. Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis occurs when your bones become weak, fragile and more porous, leading to fractures. The risk of developing osteoporosis increases steadily with age. After the age of 35, we naturally lose bone density making it increasingly important to eat the right foods.

Eat plenty of the following:

  • Studies show taking calcium and vitamin D supplements lowers the rate of fractures. But they should be taken together. Calcium-rich foods include dairy products (milk, cheese and yogurt), green leafy vegetables, almonds, salmon, mackerel, sesame and sunflower seeds. Vitamin D, vital for the absorption of calcium, is found in very few foods. However, oily fish, egg yolks and liver all provide useful amounts.
     
  • Magnesium may have an important role to play in helping to keep bones healthy. Good sources include brazil nuts, sunflower and sesame seeds, almonds, bananas and dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach.
     
  • Studies have found that women who have a good intake of vitamin K have denser bones and fewer hip fractures, so add kale and broccoli to your diet.
     
  • Eat less salt, comsume less alcohol and fizzy drinks. A high salt intake may cause calcium to leach from the bones and be excreted by the body. Excessive alcohol intake may damage the cells that make new bone.
     
  • Taking too much vitamin A is thought to weaken bones over time – studies suggest that an average of 1500mcg a day, over many years, may affect the density of your bones and make them more likely to fracture.

Support your skeleton

  1. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, which contain the minerals potassium and magnesium that can encourage your bones to absorb key minerals such as calcium. Fruit and vegetables also contain vitamin C and zinc, which are required for bone health.
  2. Take regular weight-bearing exercise and quit smoking. Smoking leaches calcium directly from bones.
  3. Stick to government guidelines on alcohol consumption and enjoy at least two alcohol-free days each week. Visit the Drink Aware website for more information.
  4. Make sure you get plenty of natural sunlight, particularly in the winter months. Vitamin D, which is vital for bone health, is synthesised in sun-exposed skin.

6. Vision loss

There is a strong link between diet and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cataracts and glaucoma, three of the most common causes of impaired vision and blindness in people over the age of 60. 

To maintain good eyesight, eat more of the following:

  • Several studies have shown that those who eat a diet rich in fruit and vegetables are less likely to suffer from AMD and cataracts.  Vitamins A, C, E, selenium and zinc should all be consumed. Additionally, the phytochemicals carotenoids and lutein are believed to help protect the lens of the eye from damage by free radicals.  Choose spinach, kale, broccoli, kiwi fruit, oranges, blueberries and peppers.
     
  • Those who eat a lot of fish have a 12% lower risk of developing cataracts, and it seems to help reduce AMD too. A good intake of omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish, may also help to protect against glaucoma.
     
  • Eat less salt and reduce your saturated fat intake. High blood pressure is believed to increase the risk of glaucoma. Cut back on red meat and full-fat dairy products. Trim the skin off poultry and remove the fat before cooking meat.
     
  • Caffeine increases pressure in the eye, and people with glaucoma should avoid caffeine. Excess dietary protein and trans-fatty acids are also associated with increased risk of glaucoma.

For optimal eyes

  1. Make sure you eat your five-a-day of fruit and vegetables.
  2. Eat oil-rich fish at least once a week.
  3. Smoking and obesity both increase the risk of AMD, so quit smoking and keep your weight within the ideal range.
  4. Protect your eyes in the sun by wearing UV-blocking sunglasses.
  5. Get your eyes checked regularly. For more information, visit the visit National Eye Institute.

This article was last reviewed on 23 September 2019 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food

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