Our hearts work hard to pump a lot of blood around our body. That job is made easier when we follow a healthy dietary pattern that includes all five core food groups in a balanced way, over days, weeks, months and beyond. What’s good for our heart is also good for the rest of our body, too.
The adult heart pumps around 5L of blood every minute –
that’s about 7200L every day
The heart’s job becomes harder if we have a diet that is consistently high in foods with lots of salt and saturated fat, or too low in foods with health-promoting nutrients like unsaturated fat, fibre, and antioxidants. A healthy diet is a key factor in preventing and managing cardiovascular disease, which is a group of diseases related to the heart and blood vessels (particularly coronary heart disease and stroke).
While prevention is better than a cure, it’s never too late to make changes to improve our heart health.
Too much salt
Too much salt in our bodies causes our blood pressure to go up- this is because more salt in our blood attracts more water to balance it out, and this means our total volume of blood is higher than it needs to be. Our hearts then have to pump a larger amount of blood around our body, but via arteries and veins that stay the same size. It’s like a balloon that you overfill with air – it’s the same amount of space, but more pressure. This pressure can weaken and damage our blood vessels, creating opportunity for fatty plaque build-up and blockages.
Too much saturated fat
Too much fat, or an imbalance in fats, is also problematic for our heart health. Too much saturated fat in our diet leads to higher LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood. Bad cholesterol comes mainly from animal fats like meat or the saturated and trans-fats used in processed foods (like pastries, potato chips, cakes, etc). HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol works to reduce our bad cholesterol. Good cholesterol comes from vegetables, seeds, and nuts (e.g. olive oil) as well as oily fish (e.g. salmon).
If our cholesterol levels are out of balance, we’re at increased risk of bad cholesterol building up in our arteries (like a fatberg can build up in a drain) which stops our blood from being able to flow through nicely. Untreated, this can lead to more serious problems down the track like heart attacks and strokes. Heart attacks and strokes can occur when part of the fatberg/fatty plaque detaches from the artery wall and travels to smaller blood vessels in our heart or brain where it blocks blood flow, depriving the organ of the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function.
The combination of high blood pressure plus imbalanced cholesterol further increases our risk of cardiovascular disease. But there’s good news….
Eat your way to a healthier heart
Fortunately there’s a lot we can do to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease, starting with a healthy, balanced diet and regular physical activity. Diet is also a key factor in the management of existing heart disease. Here’s a few ways to give your heart health a boost.
Reducing salt is an important step in reducing blood pressure. Check out this other article I wrote with tips to reduce salt intake.
Swapping saturated fats with unsaturated fats is a great way to boost our heart health. You don’t have to cut out every bit of unsaturated fat – that’s not realistic for most of us. What’s important is to choose heart-healthy foods more often, and keep the other stuff as ‘sometimes’ food.
Fats from plants, nuts, seeds, eggs and fish are smart for your heart
|Smart for your heart||Foods to reduce|
Vegetable and nut oils
Vegetable and nut spreads
Hydrogenated margarine and shortening
Cocoa butter, found in chocolate
Coconut, palm, cottonseed and palm-kernel oils
|Low-fat dairy products (milk, yogurt and cheese)|
Fish, especially fatty, cold-water fish, such as salmon
Soybeans and soy products (e.g. tofu)
Lean ground meats
|Full-fat dairy products|
Organ meats, such as liver
Fatty and marbled meats
Hot dogs and sausages
Meat pies and other pastries
Potato chips and other high-fat, high-salt snacks
Remember to keep your serve sizes in check, even with the heart-smart choices – you can definitely have too much of a good thing!
Eat more fibre
Eating more fibre will also help reduce fat and cholesterol absorption in our digestive system. Fibre binds to fats and dietary cholesterol in our small intestine and helps us excrete it rather than absorb it. Take a look at this article I wrote about great sources of fibre.
Eat more fruit and vegetables
Not only are they great sources of fibre, but they are also rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants are linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, as they may reduce ‘free radicals’ that help bad cholesterol form fatty plaques on our arteries. Green leafy vegetables are a great source of the antioxidant Vitamin E, while dark orange, red, and green veggies and fruits are the best sources of the antioxidant beta-carotene. Eat the rainbow – aka fruit and veggies of all colours – to get the full spectrum of antioxidants.
Regular physical activity is great for heart health. It’s never too late to start, and every little bit counts! Sitting less and moving more not only helps our heart work as it should, but it can also help with many other factors that increase our risk of cardiovascular disease (such as high blood pressure and being overweight). If you have heart problems it’s important to speak with your doctor first before beginning a new activity. Find out more about the benefits of physical activity in this blog post.
- VanPutte C, Regan J, Russo A, Seeley R, Stephens T, Tate P. Cardiovascular System, in Seeley’s Anatomy and Physiology, 10th Edition. New York: McGraw Hill.
- Heart Foundation – Food and Nutrition Guide, Get Active, Sit Less, Saturated and Trans-fat.
- Cleveland Clinic – Antioxidants, Vitamin E, Beta Carotene, & Cardiovascular Disease
- Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute – Blood Pressure and Your Health Fact Sheet (PDF)
- Mayo Clinic – Heart Healthy Diet
- Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash