Eat to beat 6 common health problems

Research confirms that eating a well-balanced diet and including certain foods can help improve your general health both now and in years to come. Nutritional therapist, Jo Lewin, offers some practical advice...

roasted vegetables and feta tostada

Foods to fight...cardiovascular disease

Soya shakeToo much cholesterol in the blood can increase your risk of getting coronary heart disease. Cholesterol is made in the liver. Reducing the total amount of fat, especially saturated fat, you eat can help reduce your total cholesterol level and protect your heart. When cholesterol and protein combines they are called lipoproteins. Low density lipoprotein (LDL) is commonly known as 'bad' cholesterol, while high density lipoprotein (HDL) is commonly known as 'good' cholesterol. LDL carries cholesterol from the liver to the cells whereas HDL carries the cholesterol back to the liver to be broken down.

What to eat...

  • Choosing healthier fats can 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).
  • Eating a wide variety of fruit and vegetables can 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 which can help with weight control.
  • Beans, pulses and porridge oats are high in soluble fibre, which 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 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 yoghurts – 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 food source of protein, fibre and unsaturated fats, all of which may help to lower cholesterol. Soya products – for example soya milk, soya yoghurts, 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 at least 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 the ideal range.
  5. Aim to do at least 30 minutes exercise at least five times a week.

For more information, visit The British Heart Foundation.


SpinachFoods to fight...high blood pressure

People with high blood pressure have a high risk of having a heart attack or stroke. 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.

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 whole grains, 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.
  3. Learn to relax - stress increases the risk of high blood pressure.
  4. Eat no more than 6g of salt a 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.


GuacomoleFoods to fight...PMS

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

If you suffer from PMS, try the following...

  • Eat plenty of low-GI, carbohydrate-rich foods, like oatcakes and wholegrains which keep blood sugar levels stable and provide a sustained source of energy. They can 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, 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, so 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 wellbeing.
  4. Minimise stress. Find what works for you - whether that's yoga, meditation or exercise - and incorportate regularly within your lifestyle.


Basil & lemon chickpeas with mackerelFoods to fight...depression

There are many situations that can trigger 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 experience depression at some stage in their lives. As well as antidepressants and counselling, there is lots of lifestyle advice that may help as well. 

Foods to eat...

  • Omega-3 fatty acids can 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 seems to make symptoms worse.
  • Alcohol can make moods worse. It is a known depressant. Avoid 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 to feel calm and relaxed.
  5. Regular exercise may well be one of the most powerful antidepressants available.

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


Chorizo & soft boiled egg saladFoods to fight...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 lower the rate of fractures. But they should be taken together. Calcium rich foods include dairy products (milk, cheese and yoghurt), green leafy vegetables, almonds, and salmon, mackerel, sesame and sunflower seeds. Vitamin D, vital for the absorption of calcium, is found in very few foods. However, oil-rich 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 and fizzy drinks. A high salt intake can cause calcium to leach from the bones and be excreted by the body. Excessive alcohol intake can also 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 which 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.

Orange saladFoods to 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 foods...

  • 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 fait 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 26 May 2016 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.

A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

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18th Jan, 2018
Re depression, I think exercise has been found to be of some use in mild depression, but not in moderate to severe depression. See Also check out the Cochrane Website for good quality evidence. I think it is a bit dangerous to suggest that exercise may be one of the most powerful antidepressants - because the evidence does not support this.
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