Saturday 21 September 2019

Dietitian Orla Walsh: Which colourful foods should you be eating to protect your heart?

Do you know which foods pack the most powerful antioxidant punch? Our resident dietitian Orla Walsh on how diet can protect you from heart disease

Including colourful fruit and vegetables in your diet has many health benefits
Including colourful fruit and vegetables in your diet has many health benefits
Dietitian Orla Walsh

Heart disease is Ireland's number one killer of Irish women. Every two hours, it kills another woman. Most cases of heart disease and stroke are preventable through lifestyle change. One of the ways in which we can fight back is to eat more antioxidant-rich foods.

Antioxidants are thought to protect the heart from damage by engulfing molecules known as 'free radicals'. Free radicals damage the body's cells and cause the body to age. If free radicals are left to float around freely within the body, they can cause damage to blood vessels, leading to heart disease and subsequent heart attacks.

A good analogy is to think of your body as a car. The metal of the car can rust over a period of time when exposed to the oxygen within the environment. If you cover it with a protective coating, it doesn't rust as quickly. For the body, antioxidants are that protective coating.

A large prospective cohort study was conducted to see if antioxidants were correlated to heart-disease risk. A group of 56,030 women received a questionnaire asking details about their lifestyle such as how often they consumed particular foods and drinks. A total of 38,984 completed and returned the questionnaire. Women with cancer, diabetes and heart disease were then excluded, leaving 32,561 women within the study. This is a large number of people to include in a study, helping to provide more accurate results. However, this questionnaire only gives a snapshot view of how these women were eating at one time in their life. The results are based on the assumption that they maintain similar eating habits across the years.

Dietitian Orla Walsh
Dietitian Orla Walsh

The researchers used the results to assess the antioxidant content of these women's diet. They were grouped into four different groups based on how low and how high their diet was in antioxidants. They then followed these women across 10 years to see if the amount of antioxidants within the women's diets was associated with their risk of having a heart attack. As they followed up over a meaningful amount of time, the results provided can be interpreted with confidence. Obviously body mass index (BMI), smoking, age and exercise levels impact results. Therefore these variables were considered in the analysis.

The scientists found that women who ate lots of foods rich in antioxidants were 20pc less likely to suffer from a heart attack. Nearly half of the antioxidants within their diet (44pc) came from fruit and vegetables. Wholegrains also provided antioxidants and so too did coffee. What's important to note is that to receive these benefits you must actually eat the fruit and vegetables. Previous research showed that taking vitamins and supplements didn't have the same positive effect on health that eating a healthy, balanced diet had. In fact, supplements that contain a high dose of a single antioxidant may do more harm than good.

Variety is key too. The greater the range of foods you eat and get antioxidants from, the more you protect your health. The reason for this is that different types of antioxidants will act uniquely in the body and may compliment the action of other antioxidants.

We know that fruits and vegetables are good for us. The more we eat, the merrier. Each portion of fruit and vegetable that you eat each day will reduce your risk from dying of heart disease by 4pc. However, we still lack basic information on how they achieve this and what role the likes of antioxidants and other plant nutrients play. What these nutrients do in a test tube is different to their behaviour in the human body. More information about their bioavailability, metabolism, interactions with other compounds as well as fundamental knowledge on their mechanism of action needs to elucidated to be able to test particular quantities for specific outcomes.

The smartest recommendation is to continue to eat a wide variety of whole plant foods. How else will you get the triple whammy of macronutrients, micronutrients, and phytonutrients? Aim to eat a rainbow of fruits and veg with deep rich colours to maximise the antioxidant profile that you're eating. For example, something red, orange or yellow, white, green as well as blue, black or purple!

Which colourful foods should you be eating?

* Red


Red pepper



* Green



Green beans


* Orange/yellow


Butternut squash



* White




* Blue/black & purple





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