While exercise is crucial in keeping heart in shape and medication can forestall repeated episodes of heart attacks or stroke, the food eaten by an individual is just as critical in determining the risk to heart disease.
It is important to understand the right foods and their correct method of cooking for a healthy heart, prevention or management of heart disease and improving the overall quality of life.
How diet affects heart
A healthy diet comprises of a good balance between protein (dairy products, lean meat, etc.), carbohydrates (bread, pasta), unsaturated fat, and fruits and vegetables. A healthy diet reduces the risk of heart disease through the following:
- Lowering blood pressure (a major risk factor of heart disease).
- Increasing HDL cholesterol, the good cholesterol that transports fat away from arteries and towards the liver for processing.
- Reducing LDL cholesterol levels, the bad cholesterol that forms fat deposits in arteries, leading to heart disease.
- Preventing formation of blood clots, a risk factor in heart disease and stroke.
- Maintaining normal blood sugar levels.
- Maintaining body weight to normal level.
Thus, individuals who have been diagnosed with heart disease or conditions like high blood pressure or high cholesterol that increase the risk of developing heart disease, can benefit by adopting a heart-healthy diet plan.
Diet principles in preventing heart disease
Many people often feel unsure where to begin. A key principle when formulating a healthy diet plan for the heart is to understand that the overall eating pattern and focusing on food groups is more important than worrying about individual foods. A single food cannot create perfect health; rather it requires incorporating a variety of foods cooked healthily and adopting them in one’s diet and lifestyle.
The following food groups must form part of the diet for a healthy heart:
Fruits and vegetables – A diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables protects the heart. They are good sources of fibre, vitamins and minerals, and most are low in calories, fat, sodium and cholesterol. Five or more servings of fruits and vegetables are recommended per day.
Whole grain cereals – Whole grains are unrefined and do not contain bran or germ. They consist of important elements like B vitamins, folic acid and fibre, all of which protect against heart disease. In comparison, processed grains like those used to make white bread and pasta do not provide the same benefits as wholegrain cereals.
Healthy protein – Meat, poultry, seafood, lentils, nuts, eggs and dried peas are good sources of protein, B vitamins, iron and vitamins and minerals. Milk and dairy products also contain protein, calcium, B vitamins riboflavin and niacin, and vitamins A and D. Low-fat or non-fat cheese, yoghurt and buttermilk should be used. Meats must be trimmed off of visible fat before cooking, and are better baked, broiled, roasted, steamed, boiled or microwaved rather than deep-fried.
Fat – Research shows that above-normal levels of fat in the blood are closely linked to an increased risk of coronary artery disease and heart attack. The abnormal level of fat in blood is related to the kind of food eaten. A diet rich in saturated fats (found in animal fats, cheese) and trans fats (oils that have been hydrogenated to turn into semi-hard fats; used in cookies, cakes, fast food) causes build-up of cholesterol in the arteries. Cholesterol is a waxy, soft substance that can clog or block arteries. This puts an individual at risk for major heart problems like heart attack, stroke, etc.
It is suggested that saturated fat intake must not exceed 10 per cent of total energy intake, and should be 7 per cent or less of total energy for those at risk of heart disease.
Diet must include unsaturated (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) fats, which are beneficial for good heart health. These can be found in vegetables, fish, nuts and seeds. Our body cannot synthesize essential fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6, which help improve cholesterol levels in the body. These can be found in nuts, seeds and oily fish.
Sodium – A diet rich in sodium is at risk of developing high blood pressure (hypertension). Hypertension is a major risk factor for heart disease. According to the World Heart Federation, reducing intake of sodium by 1g a day, or 3g of salt, can reduce the number of people needing treatment for hypertension by 50 per cent. It would also decrease the number of deaths resulting from stroke and coronary heart disease.
Fish – Oily fish such as tuna, salmon, sardines and mackerel contain omega-3 fatty acids, which decrease triglycerides and increase HDL-cholesterol levels, improve blood vessel elasticity and thin the blood making it less likely to clot.
Alcohol – It is believed that a moderate intake of alcohol may protect the heart. For example, red wine may contain protective factors like antioxidants, though research is still on-going to confirm it. Alcohol increases HDL-cholesterol that helps clear cholesterol from the body. However, excessive intake of alcohol increases blood pressure and level of triglycerides in the blood, increasing the risk of heart disease. Women should not have more than one alcoholic drink per day, and men should limit it to two drinks per day.
Heart healthy diet tips
- Eat regular meals – By eating small, more frequent meals, the blood sugar levels can be kept constant. This prevents high surges of sugar and helps control appetite by preventing overeating when one skips a meal. Starchy foods like potato, bread, rice, cereals and pasta release energy slowly and help keep sugar levels constant.
- Cut down on high-sugar food and drinks – Foods and drinks with high-sugar content release energy instantly, which can lead to greater hunger pangs once levels drop. Also, these foods and drinks are high in calories and lead to conversion of extra sugar into fat.
- Include five portions of fruits and vegetables daily – Fruits and vegetables are low in calories and high in fibre, and help reduce blood pressure, which is why they must form part of daily diet.
- Reduce salt and processed food in diet – Salt content of a food item is often listed as grams of sodium. Salt level in food should be modulated to keep blood pressure in check. Canned and processed foods have high salt content. Home cooking is the best way to control one’s salt intake.