It's National Heart Week: Learn How Food Plays a Role in Heart Health

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National Heart Week is more than seven days of education and focus on this vital organ. It’s a time to really consider how you treat your heart. Your heart works hard to deliver nutrients to your body. But what are you doing to keep your heart healthy? The National Heart Foundation sponsors this week, seeking to inform all Australians about the importance of heart health. It’s critical to get the entire country involved because heart disease is the single biggest killer of Australians, according to the Foundation. This Heart Week, beginning April 29 through May 5, we wanted to share more about how food impacts heart health, offering tips on how to choose more beneficial options and why certain foods impact your heart, for better or worse.

What to Include: Heart Healthy Food Choices

You always have the power to change your diet, versus other risk factors like genetics or pre-existing conditions. What you put into your body is something you can control to reduce your risk of heart disease. First, it’s key to understand what nourishes your heart. Heart-friendly foods include:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Fibre and whole grains
  • Good, lean protein: fish, seafood, poultry, legumes, nuts and seeds
  • Appropriate fats: nuts, seeds, avocado, olives and their oils
  • No-salt seasoning

Eating a good balance of these foods is just the fuel your heart needs to keep working optimally. Here’s why your heart loves these foods.

Fish: Omega-3 Fats Help the Heart

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Heart Research Australia recommends three fish dishes a week. Fish are rich in omega-3 fats, which are known to lower cholesterol and be a natural hindrance to blood clots. The best fish for heart health include tuna, salmon, mackerel, mullet, trout, swordfish and white fish.

Fruit and Veggies: A Few Pieces a Day

Your heart and the rest of your body will welcome daily intake of fruit and veggies. Try to get two servings every day of fruit and three or more of vegetables.

Fibre: Lower Cholesterol and Regulate Glucose

Soluble fibre helps to lower cholesterol reabsorption, which in turn allows the body to regulate blood glucose levels.  It’s also found in legumes like beans and lentils. Fruits and vegetables also contain fibre. Getting fibre from these sources is usually a better option than brans, grains, or oats.

Legumes: Lots of Reasons to Love Them

Legumes include chickpeas, lentils and other beans. They are considered a superfood and have so many benefits for your heart and entire body. They are versatile and can be served in so many ways. This food group is full of rich protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Consider them as a great side to go with a lean meat for dinner, or add them to your salad at lunch. They also make a great snack.

Nuts: Nature’s Favourite Snack

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Nuts are a great addition to a heart-healthy diet. Experts agree that regular consumption of nuts can help lower cardiovascular disease risk. They work so well against this because they have the good unsaturated fat, fibre and plant protein. However, remember unsalted is the better option. Not only are they perfect snack, you can also add them to other dishes for texture and extra flavour.

What to Avoid: Your Heart Thanks You

There are quite a few foods that can harm your heart. When your body consumes too much of these types of food, it can increase your risk factors for heart disease. If you already have other risk factors or have had a previous heart attack, then you need to be a bit more rigid on limiting your intake of these foods. If you are otherwise healthy, it’s not a "never can you eat these". It’s more like moderation is recommended, but starting healthy habits early is always a good thing. You should work to reduce or eliminate these foods:

  • Saturated and trans fat: pork, fatty beef, processed meats, whole milk, butter, hard cheeses, fried foods
  • Processed carbs: white bread, white rice, sweets and sugar
  • Salt

Saturated Fat: Rising Cholesterol

These fats are mainly found in animal meat. When you eat foods high in saturated fats, the total level of cholesterol in your blood rises, more specifically the LDL, which is bad cholesterol. Eating habits that include lots of saturated fat can lead to blocked arteries.

Processed Carbs: Limit Sugar 

These carbs have one thing in common, sugar. They spike blood sugar levels. Why? Because processing has stripped the carbs of their healthy components and the food’s natural structure is destroyed in the processing. Limit your indulgences for a better working heart. There are alternatives that don’t contain fructose. It’s not easy to skip over these treats; choose instead to have these sparingly.

Salt: Both Obvious and Hidden

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If you think salt is a harmful flavouring, think again. Salt is actually very dangerous because of what it contains. Salt is not exactly the culprit. It’s more the sodium, of which salt has plenty since it’s sodium chloride.

Your body does need some sodium to be healthy, but it’s a very minute amount. You can find it naturally in the good heart foods like vegetables and seafood. The biggest impact salt has on the body is the threat of increased blood pressure.

The salt you don’t see may be the biggest threat to your heart health. Much of the salt consumed comes from processed foods. Whilst you may have stopped adding extra salt to freshly cooked foods, if you eat pre-made foods, salt is inherent. In fact, it’s often foods that you may not even consider salty that have the most sodium. Bread and rolls have high levels of sodium, so it’s best to be aware of its effect on the body. You may be shocked to learn that one piece of bread has more salt than a pack of chips, but that’s exactly what a research project by The George Institute revealed.

The amount of salt the body takes in should be much less than where most levels are. The recommended daily allowance is 5 grams, per the World Health Organisation (WHO). But the average intake of salt for Australians is 10 grams for men and 7 grams for females.  

The best course of action to take for reducing your sodium intake is to first not add salt to foods; try alternative herbs and spices. Avoid or greatly reduce processed foods in your diet. If you aren’t sure about whether or not a food is high in sodium, read the labels and learn more about what goes into the food you’re eating. Australia, with other WHO member states, has committed to reducing the average population salt intake by 30 percent by 2025.

Cholesterol: Keep the Good, Ditch the Bad

With two kinds of cholesterol, it can be confusing as to what the rules are. HDL is the good cholesterol and is a great supplement for heart health. HDL helps remove other forms of cholesterol from the bloodstream; it’s your own personal Roomba! For an HDL boost, eat beans, olive oil, avocado, fruit, flax and nuts among others. These same foods represent other heart-healthy benefits as well.

When it comes to cholesterol, high LDL numbers are dangerous and can lead to many health-related problems. You should monitor your cholesterol levels regularly, with at least an annual check. More so, if you have other risk factors. Avoid trans fat, which has high LDL. 

Eggs, which have been debated back and forth, are now considered to be a great option for protein and healthy fats. The Heart Foundation even recommends eating six to seven a week, with no increased risk of heart disease. You can even expect to see a reduction in your cholesterol from eating eggs.  

Diabetes and Heart Disease

Diabetes is a huge risk factor for heart disease. It also can be better maintained by eating the right foods. You should already be avoiding sugars, processed foods and saturated fats. Just be aware that being diabetic significantly raises the chance of heart disease. You need to vigilant about what you’re eating and how your sugar levels, cholesterol, and blood pressure are all interconnected.

Resources for Heart Week

The Heart Foundation offers lots of healthy eating tips to encourage heart health. You can find information on how to make healthier meals along with new recipe booklets. These resources should help you plan out meals that have high taste and great value to your cardiovascular system. While your three main meals a day are the normal focus of eating better, don’t forget about snacking. 

As a snacking culture, Australians enjoy mid-morning and late afternoon snacks, especially while at work. So, it’s important to have selections for snacking that fit in with a healthy heart diet, which means high fibre, good protein and low sodium and sugar. There are lots of snacks that fit these requirements and really do taste good. You can find great ideas in our recent post, A Guide to Healthy Snacking at the Office. Read it today, and celebrate Heart Health Week not just for seven days but for all your days.

Conor Reynolds