February is Heart Awareness Month in New Zealand, an important concept aimed at highlighting the significance of heart health and heart disease in our country. 1 in 20 NZ adults are currently living with heart disease and 1/3 of deaths annually are caused by heart disease - many of these deaths premature and preventable. This makes heart disease our biggest killer and an important issue to be aware of and discussed.
The good news is that the choices you make every day can change your risk of developing heart disease! These choices include...
In this article, we will look into what makes a heart healthy diet:
1. Plenty of Fruit & Vegetables
People who eat a higher intake of fruit and vegetables have been found to have a lower risk of developing heart disease. Fruit and vegetables are low in calories but rich in fibre, which helps to manage body weight by keeping us feeling full. Fruit and vegetables are also rich in nutrients called phytochemicals, which can be valuable in preventing certain diseases including heart disease (read more about phytochemicals here). Aim to eat at least 3 serves of vegetables and 2 serves of fruit every day.
2. Wholegrains & Starchy Vegetables
Studies have discovered that a fibre-rich diet from wholegrain carbohydrates and starchy vegetables (potato, kumara, corn, parsnip) can reduce heart disease risk by improving blood glucose levels and reducing cholesterol. Getting more fibre in your diet is as easy as swapping white bread for grainy bread, white rice for brown rice, and rice bubbles for oats. Aim to eat 1 fist-sized serving of a wholegrain carbohydrate or starchy vegetable at each meal.
3. Lean Proteins, especially Legumes & Oily Fish
Saturated fat (found in animal products) has been linked to higher levels of the harmful LDL-cholesterol and an increased risk of heart disease. To reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet choose lean meats (or remove fat/skin from meat and chicken), fish or legumes.
Fish, especially oily fish, is rich in anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to support a healthy heart. Aim to include 2 serves of oily fish in your diet each week.
Legumes (lentils, bean, peas etc.) are a great source of plant-based protein AND fibre, with studies indicating regular intake is linked to improved heart health. Aim to eat legumes 4-5 times each week.
4. Low-Fat Dairy Products
Milk and dairy products are rich sources of protein and calcium in our diets, and the Ministry of Health (NZ) recommends including 2 serves in our diet every day. Choosing low-fat, no-added sugar dairy products in place of full fat options and as part of a healthy diet has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by assisting with weight management, reducing cholesterol and lowering blood pressure.
5. Foods Rich in Unsaturated Fats
In contrast to saturated fats, a diet rich in unsaturated fat is linked to lower levels of the harmful LDL-cholesterol and higher levels of the beneficial HDL-cholesterol, therefore reducing heart disease risk. You can find unsaturated fats in foods such as chia, flaxseed, avocado, plant oils (olive, canola, peanut, sunflower, rice bran, sesame), tahini, seeds and nuts. Swap animal-based fats for plant-based fats for a heart healthy diet.
6. Reduce/Avoid: Added Sugar, Salt, Saturated & Trans Fats
- Avoid added sugar in your diet! Added sugars usually mean extra calories which can make it harder to maintain a healthy weight.
- Reduce salt in your diet! Having a high salt intake is associated with high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart disease. Most of the salt in our diets comes from processed meats, packaged foods and takeaways, so limit your intake for a heart healthy diet.
- Reduce saturated fat and avoid trans fats in your diet! By now you should understand the effect of saturated fats on heart health, but we also need to also be aware of trans fats. Trans fats, found in manufactured foods (crisps, crackers, biscuits and cakes) not only increase levels of harmful LDL-cholesterol, but also decrease levels of beneficial HDL-cholesterol, making this the worst kind of fat for heart health!
As you can see, there are many things you can do to take control of your nutritional health to eat a more heart healthy diet. Working with a NZ registered dietitian can also provide you with the guidance and support to help you make other changes for heart health including being a healthy weight and managing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
If you would like more information on how you can make changes in your diet to support a healthy heart click here to book your appointment with Sanctuary Nutrition, otherwise click here to download a copy of the NZ Heart Foundation's 'Healthy Heart' visual food guide (seen right).
Until next time,