Your diet can help improve heart health
For a healthy heart, focus on eating protective wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, then add in smaller amounts of lean meats, chicken, fish and alternatives, plus reduced-fat dairy foods. Favour healthy fats and oils in spreads and cooking and keep your salt and sugar intake in check.
If you have existing heart-related conditions you should also incorporate any expert advice from your health professional. For example, if you have high cholesterol levels you may be advised to decrease sources of saturated fat in your diet and increase your intake of foods that can actively help lower cholesterol.
Fish, chicken, lean meat and alternatives
Protein from fish, chicken, red meat and alternatives (such as eggs, legumes and nuts) is essential for good health but chances are you are eating more than you need (one-quarter of your plate is plenty). For heart health, regularly enjoy fish (without crumbs or batter), eggs and choose lean meat and chicken (trimmed of visible fat). Limit processed meat (such as sausages and deli meats) and aim for at least one meat-free meal a week.
Omega-3s are polyunsaturated essential fatty acids that are believed to reduce inflammation in the body (which can damage blood vessels) and may decrease triglycerides, lower blood pressure and reduce blood clotting. Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines, followed by other fish and seafood, are the main sources of long-chain omega-3s in our diet, with eggs and lean red meat providing smaller amounts. Fortified foods are also available. In fish, omega-3s are categorised into two types – EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) – but levels differ widely due to canning methods, age and species of fish. Favour a brand of canned fish that clearly lists the total omega-3 content (DHA plus EPA) on the label and has at least 500mg per serve.
WW expert advice: A good rule of thumb is to aim for 2-3 serves of oily fish per week (baked, steamed or grilled is best).
Nuts have made a healthy comeback in recent years with research revealing that regular nut nibblers can reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease. Nuts are rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fats, dietary fibre and phytonutrients that can help prevent ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol from becoming oxidised or ‘sticky’. In general, you can achieve an 8.3 per cent reduction in the risk of death from heart disease with each weekly serving of nuts.
WW expert advice: Try incorporating a handful (30g) of healthy unsalted nuts as a snack or in meals and cooking every day.
Grain (cereal) foods
The evidence for the role of wholegrains in reducing coronary heart disease risk is compelling. Research has shown 2–4 serves of wholegrains a day can reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 40 per cent – equal to the effect of statin or cholesterol-lowering drugs. Wholegrains are those that have undergone minimal processing so they still contain all three important layers of the grain: the bran, germ and endosperm. Think brown rice, rolled oats and corn. They offer superior nutrition benefits, including higher dietary fibre and antioxidant activity, compared to refined grain foods (such as white flour and rice).
Oats are rich in beta glucan soluble fibre that actively helps lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol by stopping it from circulating in your bloodstream. Oats also contain potent phytochemicals in the outer layer of the grain, which reduce heart disease risks such as damaging inflammation.
WW expert advice: Bircher muesli and porridge for breakfast, plus add rolled oats to healthy baking.
Fruit and vegetables
With dietary fibre to help you feel fuller for longer, eating plenty of vegies and a couple of pieces of fruit a day can help you achieve a healthy weight and lower cholesterol. Due to their high phytonutrient content, fruit and vegies also offer high antioxidant activity, which decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Dark leafy greens
Spinach, kale, chard and other dark green vegies are rich sources of many vitamins and minerals, such as folate, which can help reduce high levels of homocysteine (an amino acid that can be a risk factor for heart disease). Vegies are also packed with fibre, which helps reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol.
WW expert advice: A wide variety of fruits and vegetables as each different colour offers different health benefits. Try to clock up at least five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruit a day.
Dairy and alternatives
While dairy foods can be a source of saturated fat (believed to raise ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol), recent research shows mixed relationships between dairy and heart health. Some studies are even indicating that eating cheese may offer heart-health protection. Certainly, you still need daily dairy for strong bones (so you can stay active in later life) but until results are more conclusive, Australian Dietary Guidelines still recommend choosing mostly reduced-fat dairy. So enjoy a minimum of 2-3 serves of dairy foods every day (mostly reduced-fat varieties) or seek out calcium and vitamin D fortified alternatives.
Natural yoghurt has no added sugar or flavourings and is a good source of calcium and protein. It also contains natural probiotics (friendly bacteria) that help balance gut health and is often easier for people with lactose intolerance to digest.
WW expert advice: Use natural yoghurt as an alternative to sour cream in dips and on Mexican dishes and jacket potatoes. It also makes a healthy dessert when teamed with the natural sweetness of fresh fruit.
Healthy fats and oils
What’s a healthy oil? Unrefined polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils that come from plants are generally best, such as olive, sunflower, safflower, canola, linseed, soybean and nut oils. When it comes to spread on your bread, try swapping butter for alternatives such as avocado, peanut butter (without added sugar or salt) or tahini (sesame seed paste).
Extra-virgin olive oil
Although scientists have known for a long time that olive is one of the healthiest oils when it comes to a healthy heart, research is now uncovering why. It appears the phenolic or antioxidant compounds in extra-virgin olive oil have anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting factors that may improve the health of your blood vessels.
WW expert advice: Researchers recommend extra-virgin olive oil (the greener the better) as it does not go through as much processing and therefore retains more beneficial components.
"Compounds in extra-virgin olive oil have anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting factors that may improve the health of your blood vessels."
Plant sterols are naturally occurring plant compounds found in small amounts in nuts, seeds, legumes, vegetable oils, breads, cereals, fruits and vegetables (although in these margarines the plant sterols are commonly derived from pine oil). When eaten in the right amounts, plant sterols have been shown to lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol by up to 10-15 per cent when combined with a healthy lifestyle. This is because they block the body’s ability to absorb cholesterol from the intestines.
WW expert advice: Use spreads made from plant sterols instead of butter on your toast, in sandwiches and in cooking. Additionally, peak to your health professional for specialist advice.
Confused about cholesterol?
It was once mistakenly believed that cholesterol found naturally in foods such as eggs and seafood was the main cause of high blood cholesterol levels. However, we now know that saturated fat is the main culprit.
Take eggs for example – the majority of fat in eggs is unsaturated and enriched varieties contain good levels of omega-3s. Therefore around 6 eggs a week is fine for most people.
The key to lowering cholesterol is to cut down on saturated fats in unhealthy takeaways, fatty meats (such as processed deli goods) and commercial cakes, biscuits and pastries, plus make the switch to healthier oils and spreads.