As February is American Heart Health Month, I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to discuss how we can decrease our risk of heart disease through diet. Although genetics, age, environment and other non-diet related factors such as smoking and a sedentary lifestyle affect heart disease risk, I chose to focus on diet specifically for this article as up to 1/3 of mortality from cardiovascular disease is related to our dietary intake.

Below are 5 dietary lifestyle changes you can take to help promote a healthy heart throughout your lifetime. If you are interested in discussing an optimal diet for you in order to maintain a healthy heart, please contact me today at nicole.marchand@eatwellhalifax.ca or book online today at www.thefloatationcentre.ca.

1. Enjoy a well-balanced intake of protein, high fibre carbohydrates and fats.
A well-balanced diet is the simplest way to reduce the risk of heart disease for several reasons. Eating healthy meals and snacks throughout the day helps decrease the risk for obesity, which is a risk factor for heart disease. If you are prone to weight gain around the waist, it is vital to stay at a healthy weight as central obesity increases the risk for heart disease. Obesity is related to low HDL cholesterol levels (the good cholesterol), raised triglycerides (fatty acids in the blood) and LDL cholesterol levels as well as high blood pressure and glucose intolerance, which are all related to heart disease.

A well balanced diet also promotes the intake of all vitamins and minerals, each having its own role in heart health. For example, potassium found in meat and dairy as well as grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds, protects against high blood pressure. Calcium, found in dairy, nuts, fish bones, green vegetables and legumes, also reduces blood pressure. Folic acid and other B vitamins protect against CVD as they lower homocysteine levels in the blood, an amino acid linked to heart disease.

2. Increase intake of fruits and vegetables.
Fruits and vegetables are high in fibre, heart healthy vitamins and minerals and antioxidants as well as other disease fighting compounds such as polyphenols. Each colour of the rainbow found in fruits and vegetables represents various antioxidants associated with heart health. For example, Vitamin A, or beta carotene, found in orange and green vegetables is a potent antioxidant that reduces the oxidation of plaque on blood vessel walls.

3. Increase intake of dietary fibre and reduce intake of processed sugars.
Fibre is found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Both types of fibre, soluble and insoluble, play a role in preventing heart disease. Insoluble fibre increases satiation, decreases blood sugar spikes and controls stool transit time. Soluble fibre helps decrease LDL cholesterol levels, a type of cholesterol related to heart disease.
Although sugar is not directly linked to heart disease, refined sugar does increase triglyceride levels, (fatty acids in the blood). Furthermore, high sugar intake is linked to overweight and obesity which is also a risk factor for heart disease.  

4. Reduce intake of sodium.
As sodium promotes fluid retention, it influences blood pressure levels. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a risk factor for heart disease. Although we can safely consume up to 2300mg/day, most North Americans consume double that amount. Up to 75% of our total sodium intake comes from packaged, processed and canned foods. Choose fresh grains, fruits and vegetables in order to decrease sodium levels and to keep your heart healthy.

5. Replace saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats.
Focus on increasing intake of unsaturated fats such as mono and polyunsaturated fats instead of focusing on decreasing overall fat intake (unless your intake is more than 35% of your total calorie intake). Our bodies rely on fat for cell membrane structure, fuel reserves, brain and heart health and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, etc. Also, diets too low in fat reduce HDL, a protective form of cholesterol.

As saturated fat is converted to cholesterol in the body, it is important to take in saturated fats at no more than 10% total calorie intake. Although trans fats also increase LDL cholesterol levels, they also lower HDL levels and therefore, should be avoided as much as possible. Although a small amount is naturally found in meats and milk products, we can reduce our trans fat intake by avoiding partially hydrogenated oils and shortenings found in processed foods, commercial baked goods and deep-fried foods.

Unsaturated fats can help lower LDL cholesterol levels in the blood. Monounsaturated fat is found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils. Polyunsaturated fats, such as the well-known Omega 3’s, are found in fatty fish, some nuts and seeds, and vegetable oils. Although it is recommended to include 2 servings of fatty fish in the diet/week, you can get omega 3’s from supplements as well, just make sure the brand is from a sustainable, pure source such as from sardines and anchovies which are low in contaminants and more sustainable than larger fish. Not only do Omega 3’s decrease LDL, they increase heart healthy HDL levels, they have anti-inflammatory and blood-thinning effects and they lower triglyceride levels, all which reduce the risk of heart disease.

Happy reading and have a heart healthy month!

Eat Well, Halifax
Nicole Marchand, RD

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