We can often underestimate the importance of heart health and the amount of work that it does for us both at rest and during intense physical activity.
It also never sleeps, so we really should be kinder to it and feed it with the right fuel to keep it functioning at its best.
Here, Laurann O’Reilly, nutritionist and owner of Nutrition by Laurann, provides us with her top nutritional strategies and recommendations to optimise our heart health.
1) Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are found in oily fish and in some nuts and seeds. These good fats can help to reduce blood pressure and decrease cholesterol levels as they are a powerful antioxidant (reducing the accumulation of plaque in the arteries) as well as reducing heart related inflammation. Sources: Omega-3-rich foods such as oily fish (salmon, tuna, herring, sardines), walnuts, ground flaxseed, hemp seeds, chia seeds. Tip: Aim for 2-3 portions of oily fish per week
2) Limit your intake of saturated and trans-fat: Saturated and trans-fat consumption can lead to an increase in your LDL-cholesterol (the ‘bad type’ of cholesterol). High levels of this type of cholesterol in the blood can lead to a build-up of fat deposits in the arteries Saturated and trans-fats are found in foods such as cheese, butter/hard fats, cream, full fat dairy, meat, fast food, pastries, crisps, cakes and biscuits.
3) Reduce Your Salt: The salt habit is often a hard one to shake (forgive the pun). Too much salt in your diet is bad for your cardiovascular health as the extra sodium can increase your blood pressure. When the pressure inside your blood vessels stays at a high level for a long time, it can damage your heart and blood vessels and makes it harder for your heart to pump and work effectively.
4) Explore spices for flavour: Cooking for yourself enables you to have more control over your salt intake. Make use of the many delicious alternatives to salt. Try fresh herbs like basil, thyme, or chives. In the dried spices aisle, you can find alternatives such as turmeric, ginger, cinnamon or mixed spice blends to flavour your meal without sodium.
5) Reduce The Sugar: Recent studies have shown that diets which continuously spike our blood sugar levels (such as sweets or highly processed starches) are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. The mechanism behind this is that high blood sugar over time can damage blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart. Tip: Choose oats and brown/wholegrain bread/pasta/ rice/cereals over the white versions or foods high in sugar such as biscuits and sweets.
6) Increase your fruit and vegetable intake: Fruit and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre which all help protect our cells, blood vessels and heart and help reduce our risk of developing cardiovascular disease. They are also a source of potassium which can help to lower blood pressure.
* Have 2-3 portions of fruit per day (add to your breakfast, have as a snack or have chopped up with a spoon of yoghurt for a healthy dessert)
* Have 3-5 portions of vegetables or salad per day
7) Choose Heart Healthy Cooking Methods: A small change in the way you cook your food as well as what ingredients you use can make a huge difference to your heart health. Try to avoid cooking techniques such as frying or deep frying (if frying use coconut oil/rapeseed oil or extra virgin olive oil) and avoid sunflower oil, cheaper cooking oils, margarines or hard fats. Instead opt for oven baking, grilling, poaching or steaming as a healthier method.
8) Increase Your Fibre: Fibre not alone keeps us feeling full for longer, prevents constipation and improves blood glucose control but it also helps in controlling our cholesterol levels. Soluble fibre (such as chia and flaxseed) can help reduce the absorption of cholesterol into our bloodstream. Studies have found that increasing our fibre intake by as little as 10 grams per day can have a positive impact on our LDL (bad cholesterol levels). Fibre is found in foods such as wholegrain rice, wholegrain bread, brown pasta, potato with skins on, porridge, beans, chickpeas and lentils.
Tips: 1) Again, switching from white bread/rice/pasta cereals to brown or wholegrain versions as well as increasing your intake of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds is a good step to increase your fibre intake and 2) The perfect high fibre breakfast would be porridge oats, topped with fruit, 1 tablespoon of flax and 1 tablespoon of chia seeds.
9) Plant Sterols: Plant sterols are substances that occur naturally in small amounts in many grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Since they have powerful cholesterol-lowering properties, manufacturers have started adding them to foods. You can now get plant sterols in margarine spreads, and yogurts. They are also available in supplement form in your local pharmacy or health store.
10) Lecithin: This is a naturally occurring nutrient found in foods that is also sold in supplement form. Lecithin is a type of fat that helps maintain healthy cells as well as improving brain, nerve, liver function. However, one of the major benefits of lecithin is its ability to lower cholesterol. Whilst the most common is granulated soy lecithin (available in most health stores and some pharmacies) you can buy sunflower lecithin in both powder and liquid form, too. Tip: Add 2 Tablespoons of lecithin granules to a little yogurt with some fruit and flaxseed.
11) Garlic: Research has found that garlic has some powerful benefits in both protecting and improving your heart health. As a powerful antioxidant it helps to prevent the build-up of plaque in the arteries and reduces LDL (bad) cholesterol. It also has the ability to inhibit certain enzymes as well as having anti-clotting factors, making it one of the heart’s superfoods. Tip: Crush garlic into butter, into your meals or if you don’t like the taste of garlic you can buy ‘odourless garlic’ in supplement form in most pharmacies and health stores.
12) Turmeric: Contains the active ingredient ‘curcumin’ which has both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Studies have found that curcumin may improve endothelial (the thin membrane that covers the inside of your heart and blood vessels) function. This membrane has been found to play an important role in regulating blood pressure.
Tips: 1) Add curcumin to your curries, in smoothies/juices, 2) Mix with black pepper to improve the absorption of curcumin in the body or 3) You can purchase curcumin in supplement form in most pharmacies and health stores
13) CoEnzyme Q10 (CoQ10): Is a substance similar to a vitamin and is found in every cell of the body. CoQ10 is naturally present in small amounts in a wide variety of foods, but levels are particularly high in organ meats such as heart, liver, and kidney, as well as beef, soy oil, sardines, mackerel, and peanuts. Your body also makes CoQ10, and your cells then use it to produce energy (converting food energy into usable body energy). It also functions as an antioxidant (reducing the blocking of the arteries). Studies have found CoQ10 supplementation to be extremely effective in the prevention and treatment of heart conditions (alongside recommended medical advice). However, CoQ10 production can begin to decline from the age of 30 onwards and supplementation is also extremely important for anyone taking statins, as statins block CoQ10 production in the body. Recommendation: Pharma Nord BioActive Gold (CoQ10) 100mg is available in most health stores or pharmacies
14) Magnesium: Magnesium is an essential mineral found in the body. It is naturally present in many foods and is also available as a dietary supplement. It plays an important role in regulating blood pressure, heart muscle contraction and glycaemic (blood sugar) control. Foods which are rich in magnesium include, green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Magnesium is also available in supplement form and can be found in most health stores and pharmacies.
15) Green Tea: Studies have established a positive link between green tea consumption and cardiovascular health. Catechins, the major polyphenolic (antioxidant) active compounds in green tea have been found to have multiple heart protective properties. These include antioxidants (reducing the build-up of plaque in the arteries), anti-inflammatory, clot reducing and cholesterol reducing. Tip: Have a heart healthy brew by swapping out some of your teas and coffees to green tea instead.
Laurann O’Reilly is a qualified and experienced nutritionist with a BSc. Degree in Human Nutrition from University of Nottingham and a Masters in Public Health Nutrition from University College Dublin.