We are what we eat
According to the World Health Organisation, cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a chronic lifestyle-related condition - which means it can be prevented. If you have cardiovascular disease it can be improved by engaging in positive lifestyle behaviours.
Changing your diet and making healthier food choices will give you the most bang for your buck. Dietary modifications prevent and treat five of the main risk factors for developing heart disease. High blood pressure, being overweight, cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and inflammation. Here are subtle but effective changes you can make to our lifestyle, starting today.
Much of our understanding of how diet impacts CVD comes from two populations: those who live around the Mediterranean, and the Japanese. Both of these cultures boast the lowest rates of CVD in the world. The Mediterranean diet is primarily vegetables, fruit, olive oil, nuts, seeds and fish. They enjoy a glass of red wine which is also cardio-protective, but the secret here is that they don't tend to binge drink. They are known to have a glass of red wine per day. They are fortunate to live closer to the equator and gain all the benefits that sunshine offers. Vitamin D is an essential vitamin for CVD.
Beetroot is packed full of plant chemicals that work in two ways to protect the heart and support cardiovascular function. It is abundant in nitrates which increase the concentration of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator which increases blood flow. Increased blood flow decreases blood pressure. Maintaining healthy blood pressure is one of the primary ways to support CVD. Beetroot also contains plant chemicals which prevent oxidative stress.
Dietary fibre is found in all plant foods. It is a vital nutrient for CVD. Fibre works in the gut to prevent the absorption of bad fats which lowers the level of cholesterol absorbed across the gut wall. Aim to include plant food at each meal. Oats are an excellent source as they lower circulating cholesterol levels as they contain beta-glucans. Choosing oats at breakfast is a great start, adding milled linseeds also increases the fibre content. Fruit, vegetables, pulses, beans and lentils give a great diversity of fibre.
Historically all fats were demonised. This was poor science and did little to reverse CVD. The nasty guys are called trans fats. Trans fats are man-made and do not occur in natural products except in small amounts in grass-fed animals. This fat is called CLA, and is a healthy fat.
Apart from CLA, trans fats are very unhealthy and should be avoided. The body has no way of breaking them down and they can block up arteries. I called these fats 'heart attack material'. They are found in hardened margarines made from hydrogenated oils. They are also in baked goods, cakes, biscuits, pizza, doughnuts. They are also found in fried foods such as chips, fried chicken, and fried snacks.
Fish omega 3
The king of all the fat family is a fat called omega 3 fats. One of the positive ways they work is by reducing the thickness of blood, thus reducing the risk of clotting. They positively affect heart rhythm and heart beat. They are scientifically proven to lower bad cholesterol. Best sources are mackerel, herring, trout, salmon, sardine, tuna and anchovies. To improve your heart health, aim to include oily fish three times per week.
Salt and blood pressure
Excess sodium in the diet is one of the key drivers of high blood pressure. Between 65-70pc of salt intake comes from processed foods. The main culprits are processed meats, brown and white breads, soups, certain pizza, crisps, MSG used in Chinese cooking, soya sauce, breakfast cereals and margarines. There are many healthy tasty alternatives such as celery salt, black pepper, garlic, ginger, lemons, limes, herbs, chillies.
All cholesterol is not equal. It comes in healthy and unhealthy forms. LDL and triglycerides are the two nasty fatty particles that travel from the liver in the blood. HDL is the good cholesterol and is protective against CVD. Increasing levels of HDL to protect the heart from damage is now the focus of much research. There are no drugs available to increase HDL. A recent study in the journal Circulation looked at adopting a Mediterranean diet. The results showed that those who consumed olive oil showed the most improvement in HDL levels. Olive oil is packed full of plant chemicals which protect the heart.
Keeping your blood glucose levels under control is very important. Ireland is in the midst of an epidemic of type 2 diabetes. Elevated levels of circulating blood glucose cause damage to the delicate arteries and veins. All carbohydrates are converted to glucose in the body. Processed carbohydrates are converted rapidly into sugar. To support heart health aim to remove the 'white carbohydrates'. Healthier choices are whole grains such as oats, barley, millet, buckwheat, fruit and vegetables. Sugar-sweetened soda drinks are detrimental to blood glucose levels. Recent research has also shown that artificially sweetened beverages increase blood pressure levels so should be avoided.
Eggs are possibly the most nutritious food on the planet. The humble egg has taken an unfair and unjustified bashing for its apparent role in the development of CVD. Thankfully this theory holds no truth. While the yolk of the egg does contain cholesterol it is no bad thing. Cholesterol is a vital substance in every cell in the body. Each cell needs a certain amount of cholesterol to function properly. Eggs are a healthy source of dietary cholesterol. The yolk also contains many other nourishing ingredients which are cardio protective. There is no need to restrict eggs in the diet.
- Gaye Godkin is a consultant nutritionist
Health & Living