Many of us don’t give our heart health a second thought, that is until we are told that something has changed. That could be our blood pressure or cholesterol level. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the most common cause of death in Ireland with an estimated 9,000 people dying from it each year (1).
However, there are lots of factor that we can influence to reduce the occurrence of CVD like changes in our dietary intake, lifestyle and increased physical activity (2)
“Making some simple changes to your plate can keep your heart healthier!”
CVD is the term given to a group of conditions which affect our heart and circulation, but most commonly it refers to coronary heart disease (angina, heart attack), stroke and other blood vessel diseases. Other conditions include congenital heart disease, heart valve disease and disease of the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy) (3). Unfortunately, it is a normal consequence as we age and in response to poor diet or lifestyle e.g., high cholesterol.
There are many behavioural risk factors that influence CVD, these include an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, tobacco use and harmful use of alcohol. The symptoms of these may or may not be visible and may manifest in raised blood pressure, raised blood glucose, raised blood lipids. The presence of these can in indicate an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure and other complications (2). Therefore, its critical as we age that we are mindful of these and ensure that our blood pressure, cholesterol levels etc are regularly checked.
However there lots of choices we can make that can help support a healthier heart, in this months blog we are going to talk through some better food choices to support your heart health.
1. Choose foods high in fibre!
Increasing our dietary fibre intake has been shown to lower blood pressure and serum cholesterol levels (4). Certain types of fibre prevent cholesterol from being absorbed from the intestines into the blood stream and aids its excretion from the body. So, what foods can we choose that are higher in fibre, here are some options:
· Fruit and vegetables are a great source of fibre. Aiming for at least 5-7 portion a day and making at least one of these beans, peas or lentils. Strive to have half your plate made up of fruit, vegetables or salad. Fresh, frozen, dried or tinned fruit all count towards your intake.
· Oats and barley are grains rich in a of fibre called beta glucan. Eating 3g of beta-glucan a day as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle can help to lower cholesterol. Aiming for 3 servings of oat-based products or barley per day, this could be a bowl of porridge – which is 30g of dry oats or a sachet of instant porridge, 3 oatcakes or 75g cooked pearl barley in stews, casseroles or soups.
· Nuts are a good source of fibre and unsaturated fats and can make handy snack. 28-30g of nuts a day is a handful.
2. Opting for polyphenol and anthocyanin rich food
Anthocyanins and polyphenols have been shown to have a preventive effect towards the onset of CVD, this is due to their antioxidant and anti-atherosclerotic activity (5). These compounds are responsible for the red, violet, and blue colours of fruit and vegetables. Fruit and vegetables have rich sources, as do the following foods which can be a better option. So, choosing darker chocolate instead of milk chocolate, green tea instead of regular tea and adding more coloured berries to your breakfast, smoothie or yoghurt.
3. Considering your intake of salt
When our blood pressure is high this can put strain on our heart leading to diseases of the heart and blood vessels, including heart attacks and strokes. When this is combined with high cholesterol this can be even more problematic for our heart. Salt intake can be a significant factor for high blood pressure. So how can we be mindful of and reduce our intake, aiming for less than 6g/day
- Start to read food labels – check the label to see how much salt is in your food and how much it will add up to. For example, 1.5g in one meal or snack is quite a lot, but 0.3g should be fine.
- Choose low salt options – many sauces and flavourings are very salty, such as stock cubes, spice mixes and curry powders, gravy granules, soy sauce, mustard, Worcester sauce, salad dressings and ketchup. Look out for low salt options.
- Use spices and herbs instead of salt – can be a great way of increasing the flavour of food. Lemon, chilli, ginger, garlic, pepper, cinnamon, vinegar, and fresh herbs such as basil and coriander.
4. Know your fats!
There is much discussion around our fat intake and heart disease. However, the general consensus is that we need to replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats, in particular polyunsaturated fats (PUFAS). As these can reduce CVD and coronary heart disease risk, reduce total cholesterol and LDL-C. Therefore, this could mean choosing:
- Olive or rapeseed oil instead of butter or coconut oil when cooking.
- Nuts and seeds options for snacks instead of biscuits.
- Oily fish such as salmon, sardines, or mackerel 2 – 3times a week for dinner or lunch.
Overall, when we consider diets, the Mediterranean diet has the best nutritional pattern as it includes whole grains, pulses, fibres, PUFAs without completely excluding foods of animal origin such as meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, and limiting alcohol consumption.
It’s important to remember that CVD is a multi-factorial disease, while what we eat can help support a healthier heart it alone will not be sufficient. We also need to ensure that we are getting adequate physical activity and reducing stress, ensuring overall we take a balanced approach.
(1) Heart disease and stroke among leading causes of death in Ireland (2021) Irish Heart Foundation. Available at: https://irishheart.ie/our-mission/heart-disease-and-stroke-among-leading-casues-of-death-in-ireland/#:~:text=Cardiovascular%20disease%2C%20which%20includes%20heart,stroke%20and%20other%20circulatory%20diseases. (Accessed: 30 August 2023).
(2) Cardiovascular diseases (no date) World Health Organization. Available at: https://www.who.int/health-topics/cardiovascular-diseases#tab=tab_1 (Accessed: 30 August 2023).
(3) Cardiovascular disease (2023) Irish Heart Foundation. Available at: https://irishheart.ie/heart-and-stroke-conditions-a-z/cardiovascular-disease/ (Accessed: 30 August 2023).
(4) Anderson, J.W. et al. (2009) ‘Health benefits of dietary fiber’, Nutrition Reviews, 67(4), pp. 188–205. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00189.x.
(5) Migliaccio, S. et al. (2020) ‘What is the best diet for cardiovascular wellness? A comparison of different nutritional models’, International Journal of Obesity Supplements, 10(1), pp. 50–61. doi:10.1038/s41367-020-0018-0.