Spotlight on… heart disease
Coronary heart disease is the single biggest killer in the UK today. While some risk factors are non-modifiable, there are many lifestyle choices you can make that can help to keep your heart healthy. Nutritionist Jo Lewin explores the effect different foods have on heart health and suggests recipes to help you on your way…
We all know that a varied, balanced diet may improve our health, both now and in the future – this is as relevant for heart disease as it is for many other chronic illnesses. Maintaining a healthy weight also benefits your blood pressure and other heart disease risk factors.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease or cardiovascular disease (CVD) includes all diseases of the heart and circulation including coronary heart disease (angina and heart attack) heart failure and stroke. CVD and stroke may be caused by the process of atherosclerosis, which happens when the arteries (that supply the heart and brain with oxygen-rich blood) become narrowed by a gradual build-up of fatty material. In time, the arteries narrow and are unable to deliver enough oxygenated blood to the heart muscle. The pain and discomfort this causes is known as ‘angina’.
A heart attack can cause permanent damage and happens when a narrowed coronary artery becomes blocked by a blood clot, so oxygenated blood cannot reach the heart. A stroke happens when a blood clot blocks an artery that carries blood to the brain or when a blood vessel bursts and bleeds in the brain – starving brain cells of oxygenated blood.
What causes heart disease?
There are certain things about you and your lifestyle that can increase your risk. These include:
- Being a smoker
- Having high cholesterol
- Having high blood pressure
- Being overweight
- Having diabetes
- Being physically inactive
Risk factors that you can’t control include:
- Family history of cardiovascular disease
- Your ethnic background
- Your age – the older you are, the more at risk you are of developing cardiovascular disease
- Your sex – research shows that men are more likely to develop CVD at an earlier age
What can I eat for a healthy heart?
1. Get your 5-a-day
Eating a diet rich in plant foods including a wide range of fruit and vegetables may help lower the risk of heart disease. Fruit and vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fibre and other nutrients, all of which may play a role in helping to reduce your risk of illness. Fresh, frozen, chilled, canned or dried fruit and vegetables along with beans, pulses and 100%, unsweetened juice (not from concentrate) all count. Aim to eat at least five portions a day.
One reason fruit and vegetables are so beneficial is that they are rich in antioxidants as well as the mineral potassium, which may help control blood pressure and regulate your heartbeat. Fruit, green leafy vegetables and root veg are also rich in folate, which is essential for the formation of blood cells and helps control levels of a compound called homocysteine. There is growing evidence that people with high levels of homocysteine may be at a higher risk of CVD.
Get all five of your 5-a-day in one dish with our 5-a-day recipes.
2. Choose your fat wisely
Saturated fat is frequently vilified, because historically it has been linked to cardiovascular disease. Red meat, butter, cheese, burgers and sausages, are all high in saturated fat, as are ghee, coconut and palm oils.
More recent studies, however, suggest it’s not quite as clear cut as we once thought with saturated fats from certain foods such as those in dairy products including cheese, having a neutral or even positive effect on heart health. This may be because of other nutrients, like calcium or the fermentation process itself, that modifies the effect of these saturated fats.
However, guidance remains that we should aim to keep saturated fat within Reference Intakes (RI) and focus our intake on heart-friendly fats. These include the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds (and their oils) as well as oily varieties of fish.
3. Heart healthy fish
Guidelines suggest we eat at least two portions of fish per week, at least one of which should be an oily variety. These include herring, mackerel, pilchards, sardines, salmon and trout. Oily fish provides the richest source of omega-3 fatty acids, which may help lower blood triglyceride levels.
If you have an allergy to fish or are unable to eat it for other reasons, there are vegetarian sources of omega-3 fats. These include flax seeds, chia seeds, rapeseed oil and walnuts. The type of omega-3 fats in these plant foods is in a less potent form, so you will need to eat these foods regularly.
4. Fill up on fibre
Fibre may help reduce blood pressure and the amount of cholesterol absorbed into your bloodstream. Useful foods include porridge oats, barley, beans, pulses, lentils, nuts, fruits and vegetables because they are high in soluble fibre, which may help manage cholesterol levels.
A high fibre diet also helps fill you up, making you less likely to snack on sugary foods.
5. Be salt savvy
Up to 80% of the salt we eat is hidden in foods such as packet/canned products, instant noodles, soups, ketchups, sauces and salty savoury snacks. In addition to this many of the everyday foods like bread and breakfast cereals are significant contributors.
6. Ditch the ultra-processed foods
The answer to this is to cook from scratch more often, using whole, fresh and if possible, seasonal ingredients. Batch cooking when you have the time and inclination will ensure you don’t need to fall back on take-aways or ready meals.
Never be caught out again with our top batch-cooking recipes.
7. Go easy on the alcohol
UK guidelines suggest we drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, ideally spread over three or more days. In practical terms that’s six medium (175ml) glasses of wine or six pints of 4% beer.
It is important to stick to these recommended limits for alcohol and avoid binge drinking. Alcohol is also high in calories and even a small amount can increase your appetite and so can be linked to weight gain. There’s no completely safe level of drinking, but sticking within these guidelines lowers your risk of harming your health.
For more information on healthy drinking habits, visit drinkaware.co.uk.
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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. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_
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