Eating for a healthy heart
Watching what you eat is one of the most important things you can do to prevent heart disease and stroke. What you eat, how much you eat and how often you eat can affect your cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Equally, what you eat has a direct effect on your weight. Eating less of certain foods (e.g. foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar) and eating more of the other foods (e.g. high-fibre foods, fruits, vegetables and fish) will help protect your heart and keep your body healthy.
Healthy eating is important for everyone in the family. The key thing is to have a balanced diet with everything in moderation. A Mediterranean style of eating is known to be cardio protective (i.e. protects your heart and blood vessels). A Mediterranean style of eating is based on lots of fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, olive oil, fish, alcohol in moderation, eating with family and friends and reducing stress. Below are some of the main principles of the Mediterranean diet that can be followed for overall health as well as heart health.
Top tips for following a Mediterranean Style Diet:
- 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 cheese, butter, cream, full fat dairy, meat, fast food, pastries, cakes, biscuits, mayonnaise, cream sauces etc.
- Reduce or cut out butter completely, especially if you have high LDL-cholesterol. Cutting down on the amount of butter you use (e.g. one small foil packet of butter should cover two slices of bread), switching to a low fat or olive oil based spread or cutting out butter completely will help to lower cholesterol levels.
- Limit cheese to a small matchbox size twice per week as it is very high in saturated fat and salt. Cottage cheese is one of the better cheese options.
- Limit the amount of biscuits, cakes, pastries and buns you eat. One or two biscuits every evening may not seem like much but over time these extra calories can lead to weight gain. Sometimes we are unaware of the amounts of these foods we eat, keeping a food diary can help with this.
- Be mindful when eating out. Opt for grilled, baked or steamed options and ask for sauces on the side. Try to avoid cream based sauces which are often high in saturated fat, choose tomato based sauces instead.
- Try to avoid fast food as these are often high in calories, saturated fat and salt which can lead to weight gain, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
- 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 and is helps to remove ‘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, herring or fresh tuna).
- Use rapeseed oil for cooking and olive oil in salads and dressings.
- Include avocados in salads or meals but limit to ¼ to 1/3 of an avocado as they are high in calories.
- Add pumpkin, sunflower or flaxseed/linseed to your porridge, yoghurt or salads.
- Snack on a small handful of plain unsalted/unroasted nuts daily (about 30g).
- 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 so you won’t need as much.
Most of the salt we eat is already contained in foods. 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.
Aim to consume less than 5g of salt per day.
- 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 (either 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. 80g or ½ cup is considered one portion. Most people have vegetables with their dinner but it is important to also include some at lunchtime.
- Increase your fibre intake:
Fibre helps to lower cholesterol, keep us feeling full, prevent constipation and improve blood glucose control. Fibre is found in foods such as wholegrain rice, wholegrain bread, brown pasta, potato with skins on, porridge, beans, chickpeas and lentils. 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, and 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.
- Try to avoid sugar sweetened drinks and drink alcohol in moderation:
- Avoid sugar sweetened drinks. These are high in calories and sugar which can lead to weight gain.
- Limit your intake of alcohol. Alcohol can have a number of adverse health effects but also contains calories which can lead to weight gain.
- For more information on alcohol and to calculate your alcohol intake visit drinkaware.ie.