A dietitian’s guide to eating your way to a healthy heart

In recent years, there has been plenty of attention paid to headlines that mention “keto”, “fasting” and “paleo” while interest in “eating for a healthy heart” has waned.

Yet, the stark reality is that heart disease remains one of Australia’s most prevalent diseases, and cricketer Shane Warne’s premature death at just 52 of a reported heart attack has been a powerful reminder for many of the importance of heart health.

For many of us, it’s a reminder that we can take action and make some easy, yet important adjustments to our diet, and reduce our heart disease risk, now.

Mediterranean is where it’s at

Of all the dietary evidence available, when it comes to living a long and healthy life and most importantly with a healthy heart, it is the Mediterranean diet that consistently comes in as the most protective diet against heart disease. Unfortunately, eating Mediterranean is not a matter of adding extra virgin olive oil to everything we eat, or including a glass of two of red with each meal.

Rather, this style of eating has a huge focus on fresh food, encouraging seven to 10 daily servings of fresh fruit and vegetables along with very little processed food. This means no fast food or takeaway, nor any processed snacks, biscuits, bars or pastries. Rather, your daily vegie intake can be complemented with small portions of legumes, dairy and lean protein all cooked with quality extra virgin olive oil.

Focus on fresh food, including seven to 10 daily serves of fresh fruit and vegies, along with very little processed food.

Get your fat balance right

When we talk about heart health, good fat and omega-3 fats in particular are often mentioned. What is less frequently discussed is the importance of getting the right mix of fats in the diet: the fat balance that naturally works to reduce inflammation in the body.

Diets that have a high proportion of processed foods, also have a high proportion of the fats that are pro-inflammatory, largely a resultant of vegetable oil in the diet. On the other hand, a Mediterranean diet, in which the primary sources of fat come from natural whole foods such as nuts, seeds and extra virgin olive oil along with a high intake of omega-3 fats from oily fish helps to protect the heart from damage and reduces the risk of heart disease developing.

Achieving the right fat balance is as simple as including oily fish Atlantic salmon and sardines in your diet at least three to four times each week; using only extra virgin olive oil as an added fat, snacking on a handful of nuts each day and avoiding processed vegetable and palm oil in processed foods as much as possible.

Tick ​​the fiber box

We often hear about the importance of dietary fiber for digestive health, but dietary fibre, and soluble fibre, in a particular play an especially important role in helping to regulate blood cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber can be found in legumes, oats, vegetables and fruitt and helps to reduce the absorption of cholesterol in the blood steam, helping to lower LDL levels, or the “bad” cholesterol in the body.

Fewer than half of all Australians get their daily recommended intake of 30 grams of dietary fibre, which will help to reach the 5-10 grams of soluble fiber shown to improve LDL levels. Alternatively focusing on a daily serve of oats, legumes and fruit such as apples and pears will help you reach those daily soluble fiber targets.

Get your weight under control

As an independent risk factor for heart disease, if you are overweight or obese even losing just 5-10 per cent of your body weight, or as little as 5-10 kilograms will help to reduce inflammation and heart disease risk, but the key is to lose weight in a safe and sustainable way.

Extremely low-calorie, restrictive, liquid diets and fasting regimes may result in relatively quick results on the scales, but they are also likely to result in a significant amount of muscle loss. As the heart is a muscle, wasting body tissue via starvation is not an ideal way to lose weight. Rather, more moderate regimes that reduce the overall number of kilojoules and specifically refined carbohydrates and result in losses of half to one kilogram a week is a much safer weight-loss option.

In general, once you add the seven to 10 servings of vegetables into your daily diet, with two to three cups of vegetables or salad at both lunch and dinner, you will also see safe, sustainable weight loss simply as you will be eating fewer kilojoules overall. Or, if you are looking for more rapid results, consult a dietitian to guide you through a formulated meal replacement program in which you can lose weight at a faster rate, but without compromising your muscle mass to do so.

Foods to eat more of

– Fresh fruit and vegetables, especially those high in fiber like apples and pears

– Legumes (like chickpeas, lentils and soy)

– Oily fish like sardines and Atlantic salmon

– Good quality extra virgin olive oil

– Oats

– Nuts (limit to a handful a day)

Foods to eat less of

– Processed foods

– Biscuits

– Pastries

– Foods containing palm oil

Susie Burrell is an accredited practicing dietitian and nutritionist and holds a masters in coaching psychology.

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