Eating for a healthy heart

Following a heart-healthy diet is one of the ways that you can reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. What we eat and drink affects our blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar levels and fat stores in our body – all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease if not controlled. Therefore, a healthy diet is important for everyone.

Eating for a healthy heart does not have to be overly complicated and we don’t have to be perfect all the time! It’s what we eat most of the time that really counts. As a general guideline, a Mediterranean-style way of eating is known to be very heart-healthy. It can help to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels and can also be helpful for weight management. For more information on the Mediterranean diet click here. Even if you don’t follow the Mediterranean diet, there are certain tweaks that you can make to your current diet to make it more heart-healthy.

Top tips for following a Heart-Healthy Diet:

  1. Limit your intake of saturated fat:

Saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol (the “bad type” of cholesterol). High cholesterol levels in the blood can lead to a build-up of fat deposits in the arteries which can put you at risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Saturated fat is found in foods such as meat (in particular red meat, fatty cuts of meat and processed meat), fast food, pastries, cakes, biscuits, mayonnaise, cream sauces, cheese, butter, cream and full-fat dairy, coconut oil, coconut milk, coconut cream, ghee and lard.

If you have high cholesterol, reducing your intake of some or all of these foods can help to lower your LDL cholesterol level. Switching to lower fat cooking methods can also be helpful. For example, grilling, baking, stir-frying, steaming, microwaving or air frying are better options than frying or deep frying. Using non-stick pans or using spray oil or water instead of oil are other low-fat cooking options.

  1. Increase your intake of unsaturated fats:

Unsaturated fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help raise HDL-cholesterol levels. HDL-cholesterol is often referred to as the “good” type of cholesterol as it helps to remove the “bad” type of cholesterol from the blood. Unsaturated fats are found in olive, rapeseed and sunflower oil, oily fish, unsalted nuts and seeds and avocado.

  • Have fish 1-2 times per week (make one of these an oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines or herring).
  • Use rapeseed or olive oil for cooking. Extra virgin olive oil is great as a salad dressing.
  • Add pumpkin, sunflower or flaxseed/linseed to your porridge, yoghurt or salads.
  • Include avocados in salads or meals.
  • Snack on a small handful of plain unsalted/unroasted nuts daily (about 30g).
  1. Reduce your salt intake:

Too much salt in the diet can lead to high blood pressure. To reduce your intake, try not to add salt to foods at the table or during cooking. Make use of herbs and spices instead. Your taste buds will adapt to lower salt levels over time (about 6 weeks) so you won’t need as much.

Most of the salt we eat is already contained in foods – and often it is found in foods we wouldn’t expect to be high in salt! Processed meats and bread account for more than 50% of salt intake in the Irish diet. The remainder comes from other processed foods such as packet soups and sauces, spreads, biscuits, cakes, pastries, confectionery, breakfast cereals and milk products (e.g. cheese).

Aim to consume less than 5g of salt per day – most people consume about 9-12g per day. In fact, a single takeaway meal can contain as much as 9g! To help you make informed choices, you can learn to read food labels using our Croí Shopping Card.

  1. 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. Many of us struggle to eat enough fruit and vegetables but even one or two pieces a day will give us health benefits. Why not try a new fruit or vegetable each week to see what you like. Also, remember that frozen is just as good as fresh and is very convenient!

  • Aim to build up to having 2-3 portions of fruit per day (either add to your breakfast, have as a snack or have chopped up with a spoon of yoghurt for a healthy dessert).
  • Aim for 3-5 portions of vegetables or salad per day. 80g or ½ cup is considered one portion. Aim for half your plate at dinner to be loaded up with vegetables and see if you can fit some into your lunch too!
  1. Increase your fibre intake:

Fibre helps to lower cholesterol, keep us feeling fuller for longer, prevent constipation, improve blood glucose control and help support a healthy gut microbiome. Fibre is found in foods such as wholegrain rice, wholegrain bread, brown pasta, potato with skins on, porridge, beans, chickpeas, lentils, fruit and vegetables. Beta-glucan, a particular type of fibre found in oats and barley, can be particularly helpful for lowering LDL cholesterol.

Switching from white bread, rice or pasta to brown or wholegrain versions is a good step to increase your fibre intake. When choosing bread and cereals try to go for versions that have more than 6g of fibre per 100g (for more information on reading food labels click here). Aim to eat about 24-30g of fibre per day. Increase your fibre intake gradually and make sure to also increase your water or fluid intake at the same time (otherwise it can cause constipation).

  1. Try to avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and if you drink alcohol, do so in moderation:

Drinking one or more sugar-sweetened drinks such as sodas, juices, energy drinks and even flavoured coffees (with syrup or sugar) is linked with an increased risk of heart disease.

Despite what you may have heard, it’s a myth that a certain amount of alcohol has health benefits – it doesn’t. Any amount of alcohol is harmful to health, including heart health. For more information on alcohol visit www.hse.ie/alcohol/.

Click to download our Healthy Eating booklet