Keeping our heart healthy is one of the best ways to increase longevity and keep heart disease at bay - but what is the best diet for heart health?May 30, 2022 5:54 pm March 31, 2022 4:22 pm
The human heart
Throughout our lifetime, our heart beats on average 3.5 billion times! The human heart moves blood around our entire body, carrying oxygen, hormones and other compounds that are essential to our survival. Our heart is the engine of our body and its workload is constant, it is incredible to think that it can perform so well for such a long time for many of us. Unfortunately this is not always the case and several factors can negatively impact it, including a poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, and genetics.
Atherosclerosis is one of the main conditions that affects heart health. This refers to the build up of cholesterol inside our artery walls. In fact, this build up is called plaque and it can block the blood flow through certain arteries called coronary arteries that reach our heart as well as other arteries around the body. Moreover, when a plaque breaks, it can trigger a stroke or heart attack.
Sadly many people will develop cardiovascular disease in some shape or form throughout their lifetime, especially as they age. However the good news is that we can prevent a large number of cardiovascular events through a healthy diet and lifestyle. Adopting healthy habits early on or making changes later down the track can help to combat conditions such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure before they lead to severe health consequences.
Eating the rainbow
If you’ve been following us for a while, you’ve heard me lauding the benefits of eating the rainbow more than once. And if you’re new here, welcome! Eating the rainbow simply refers to eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, ideally in as many colors as you can! Aim for 30 different plant foods a week, this has been linked to a variety of positive health outcomes.
In fact, researchers at the American Gut Project found that people who consumed over 30 plant foods per week benefited from a more diverse gut microbiome compared to those who consumed less than 10 per week. In fact, these gut bacteria produce short chain fatty acids which are linked to a lower risk of developing bowel cancer.
Moreover, researchers have extensively studied the effect of fruit and vegetable intake on risk of developing heart disease. One of the largest and most robust studies to date is a prospective cohort study on over 84000 participants. The researchers found a strong association between fruit and vegetable intake and risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). In fact, each daily serving of fruit or vegetables is linked to a reduction of CHD risk. In particular, green leafy vegetables and vitamin C rich fruit and vegetables seem to have the strongest protective effects on heart health.(1)
Know your fats
Knowing your fats is a great place to start when thinking about making heart healthy choices in your diet. In fact, some fats have been directly linked to an increased risk of heart disease whilst others have beneficial and protective effects.
First, let’s discuss which fats to avoid. The main types of fats which are associated with an increased cardiovascular risk are trans fats and saturated fats. You should avoid highly processed foods which contain trans fats as much as possible.These fats raise levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol which can lead to the formation of plaque in the arteries. Eat whole foods and avoid highly processed and deep fried takeaway foods, this is a good way to minimise trans fats.
In addition, saturated fats have also been linked to increased cholesterol levels and poor heart health. These types of fats are mainly found in animal products (for example butter) but also in some plant foods such as coconut oil. For heart health, it is best to replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats. In particular, replacing saturated fats with monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats can help to reduce bad cholesterol.
Some of the best sources of monounsaturated fats include extra virgin olive oil and almond oil. In fact, extra virgin olive oil consumption is linked to a reduction in LDL cholesterol, and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality.(2) In addition, pumpkin seed oil and black seed oil are great sources of healthy polyunsaturated heart healthy fats.
Skip the salt
Although salt may taste good and bring flavor to dishes, eating too much of it is linked to increased blood pressure. In turn, high blood pressure can increase your chance of developing heart disease. In fact, even a small reduction in daily salt intake can substantially reduce cardiovascular events and could save significant costs to the healthcare system.(3)
A good start is to try to not add salt to the table or to ready made dishes. In fact, most of the salt we eat is already found in foods, most ready meals, soups, breads and biscuits are laden full of salt and don’t need any further addition. Instead, try adding herbs and spices to your dishes, you will be surprised at how much flavor they can add even without any salt!
Not only is fish an excellent source of protein, it also contains a type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3. In fact omega-3 from fish and seafood has been linked to heart health. Fish-derived omega-3 is referred to as DHA and EPA. It appears that oily fish in particular is the most beneficial. Examples of oily fish include herrings, mackerel, sardines, trout, salmon and tuna. Pickled, canned and fresh varieties are all equally nutritious with regards to omega-3.
If you choose not to eat fish, there are alternative sources of omega-3 which are plant based. Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids (ALA) include green leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli, walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds. However, it is unclear whether fish-derived or plant-derived omega-3s are more beneficial for heart health and ideally both should be part of a healthy diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids lower triglyceride levels and increase “good” HDL cholesterol levels. They may also lower resting blood pressure, prevent coronary artery blockages and reduce inflammation in the body.(4)
“Extra virgin olive oil consumption is linked to a reduction in LDL cholesterol, and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality.”
We all know that fiber is essential for a healthy and regular gut. But did you know that eating high fiber foods can also help to lower your risk of developing heart disease? A systematic review and meta-analysis investigated the relationship between dietary fiber intake and risk of cardiovascular disease. The researchers found that insoluble fiber and fiber from cereal and vegetables sources were inversely associated with risk of coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease. In addition, intake of fiber from fruit was also inversely associated with the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.(5)
Include whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables into your diet to get all the heart friendly benefits of fiber. Substitute refined breads and cereals for their whole grain counterparts. In addition, soluble fiber specifically helps to lower bad cholesterol. The best sources of soluble fiber include oats, oat bran, kidney beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas. In fact, daily oat consumption can significantly reduce bad cholesterol.In fact, oats contain a soluble fiber called beta-glucan, which, if taken daily at doses of at least 3g, may reduce total and bad cholesterol by up to 10%.(6)
Powerful plant sterols
Plant sterols and stanols, also referred to as phytosterols, are cholesterol-like compounds naturally found in a range of plant foods. These include vegetable oils, breads and cereals, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruit and vegetables.
They play an important role in reducing LDL cholesterol in the blood. In fact, their similar structure to cholesterol means that they reduce the absorption of cholesterol in the gut so that more of it is excreted through faeces.
When in Rome
Ever heard of the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”? In this case, the Romans represent the Mediterranean diet which is the number one eating pattern recommended for a healthy heart. In fact, the Mediterranean diet contains all of the foods and nutrients that have been linked to heart health, including extra virgin olive oil, whole grains and cereals, oily fish, nuts, legumes, seeds, fruit and vegetables. The literature consistently shows that the Mediterranean dietary pattern is an effective and simple tool to prevent cardiovascular disease. The inclusion of extra-virgin olive oil and nuts particularly seem to play a major role in reducing the incidence of cardiovascular events.(7)(8)