Risk factors may be individual, but we can all improve our chances against heart disease, says Anna Blewett
“Women fear dying from breast cancer but we are almost three times more likely to die from heart disease,” says Dr Catherine Dickinson, consultant cardiologist at Leeds General Infirmary and spokesperson for Heart Research UK. “The good news is that by taking a few simple steps we can reduce the likelihood of developing heart disease.” Staying active and lowering cholesterol are Dr Catherine’s recommendations, so take some steps to improve your own heart health.
Reach for wholegrains…
Whole cereals offer a package of fibre, vitamins and carbohydrate, so why settle for refined grains? “We know people who eat wholegrains tend to be leaner and have a lower risk of heart disease,” says Tracy Parker, heart health dietician at the British Heart Foundation. “They’re good for digestive health and particular soluble fibres can help lower cholesterol, reducing the risks of heart disease.” Government data suggests we’re eating around half the recommended 30g daily. Upgrade the white pasta, rice and bread to wholewheat, brown and wholemeal for increased fibre, B vitamins and other nutrients
... And check labels
There are lots of brown-coloured bread and other products that are labelled as multigrain or cracked wheat when they are actually made from refined white flour,” says Tracy. “The only reliable way to be sure is to look at the ingredients list – if the term ‘whole’ or ‘wholegrain’ is high up in the list, that food product will have a good amount of wholegrain in it.” Tracy recommends particular caution with breakfast cereals: “You have to be careful. There are wholegrain cereals that have chocolate or honey added, so although you’re getting the whole of the grain, there are other ingredients you don’t want if you are trying to lose weight.
Swap bad fats for good
“Fat is a controversial topic, but the overarching message is cutting back on saturated fat is good as long as you’re careful about what you’re swapping it for,” warns Tracy. “We know that when you exchange it for unsaturated fats, that lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease. The problem is replacing saturated fat with refined carbohydrates,” While evidence shows these carby replacements do nothing to cut the risk of heart diseases, ingredients rich in poly and mono-unsaturates do make a difference. “People think low-fat options hold the key, but evidence suggests the type of fat you’re eating may be more significant than the amount.”
Sling out salt
If you have high blood pressure you’ll know that the physical stress placed on your arteries and heart increases your risk of heart disease or stroke. One dietary danger identified by Heart Research UK is salt, a daily favourite perhaps but one which you should give a second glance. “Salt’s an acquired taste, so once you start cutting down or avoiding it your taste changes,” says Barbara Dinsdale, head of lifestyle at Heart Research UK. “Reduce it gradually and next time you eat something really salty you’ll think ‘Ugh’. Our advice is don’t cook with it and don’t add it at the table. After all, many foods, including bread for example, have already got salt in. When you’re cooking we recommend using black pepper, herbs and spices to get flavour without adding salt.”
A little of what you fancy does you good, but are those special little treats you love becoming regular fixtures in your diet? “It’s about frequency,” says Tracy. “We all use food as a reward, thinking “I’ve been good, I can have a bit of cake’. While that’s fine infrequently, we need to think about changing regular habits that are creeping in.” Being overweight carries an increased risk of heart diseases, so cravings for calorific treats should be kept in check. “It’s a good idea to make swaps, so instead of chocolate, have a piece of fruit, or choose a few nuts or popcorn instead of crisps,” says Tracy. “Or maybe a yoghurt or a bowl of cereal. Breaking habits that aren’t very healthy can be about thinking of other ways to reward yourself.”
Track your alcohol intake
Do you keep a drink diary? Whether you’re celebrating, socialising or just unwinding at the end of a busy day, it’s all too easy for the units to stack up. The Department of Health states maximum recommended intake at 14 units a week in a bid to help reduce diseases associated with drinking “As well as liver disease that’s high blood pressure, high cholesterol and weight gain” says Barbara. “Government guidelines suggest a maximum of one to two units a day with at least two consecutive alcohol-free days.”
Experiment with oily fish
Government recommendations on diet suggest we eat two portions of fish a week (a portion being 140g when cooked), with one of those servings being an oily species. “Omega-3 has heartprotective benefits, “ says Barbara. “With oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, pilchards and sardines, it’s fine to opt for tinned as well as fresh. Tuna must be fresh though, as the canning process depletes the omega-3s.” The fats in such fish have been proven to reduce cholesterol, prevent the formation of blood clots and reduce the risk of heart arrhythmia.
Ditch fad diets
“Fad diets have been coming and going for a long time. The problem is they’re not sustainable,” points out Tracy. “They can bring good results but they’re not easy over a long period of time. Our recommendations are largely consistent with the Mediterranean lifestyle – more fish, pulses, fruit and veg, less red meat, better fats. There’s evidence linking that style of eating with low rates of heart disease, and weight loss.”
Tracy Parker is a heart health dietician at The British Heart Foundation. To find out more, visit the website bhf.org.uk
Barbara Dinsdale is the head of lifestyle at Heart Research UK.