Updated: Aug 30, 2021
Healthy eating for a healthy heart
As a nutritionist, a question I hear all too often is what are the best foods to keep our hearts healthy? The reason why this is such a common question is that there’s an ever-increasing rate of heart disease across the globe.
The role of the heart is to pump blood around the body to different organs, tissues and cells, we can call this the circulatory system. Heart disease is a result of this system being disrupted. Blood clots form within the walls of the arteries which over time can stop the circulation of blood, resulting in a cardiovascular event.
There are many reasons why it’s important to look after our hearts, yet there’s so much conflicting information online it can be really confusing to know what to eat. I will hopefully try and clarify a lot of this confusion for you, and provide you with evidence-based healthy eating tips for a healthy heart.
The link between fat, cholesterol and heart disease
Dietary fat receives the most attention and ultimately causes the most controversy. Fat influences our circulating cholesterol levels. While cholesterol has many vital roles for the body, too much low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, commonly referred to as ‘bad’ cholesterol, can leak into the artery wall and then build-up, a pivotal step in the development of heart disease (1).
Nutritional strategies to help reduce heart disease risk focus on improving the cholesterol profile by reducing LDL cholesterol and elevating the ‘good’ high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol which clears up excess LDL cholesterol from our circulatory system.
Fats, good or bad?
Fat is an umbrella term for different types of fatty acids which each have unique properties and individual roles & responsibilities. Fat is an essential component of a healthy diet, and there’s some which are undoubtedly more beneficial, and others that are not so much.
You may also be aware of a particular fat called omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3’s are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) which is abundant in fresh fish, eggs and meat, but also found in walnuts and avocados.
Omega-3 intake has shown to reduce the risk factors associated with heart disease. It’s important to know that omega-3 from fish has a much higher bioavailability compared to non-fish foods. Bioavailability refers to how much of a nutrient our body can use. Incorporating fish once or twice a week is a great way to boost your omega-3 intake and keep your heart healthy (2)!
Mediterranean foods and diets have long been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. These foods typically boast a high amount of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) which are thought to contain a variety of heart-protective properties.
Foods like extra-virgin olive oil, olives, avocado and nuts are a great source of MUFA, in addition to other benefits nutrients. These foods also contain plenty of antioxidants from polyphenols, a bioactive compound thought to contain numerous health benefits (2).
Saturated fat & heart disease
Saturated fat has received a lot of scrutiny over recent years. Consuming large amounts of saturated fat from sources like butter, lard and meat fats will increase your risk of developing heart disease by raising circulating LDL cholesterol levels (3).
It’s important to remember, however, not all foods containing saturated fat will increase LDL cholesterol. The reason for this is nutrients interact with each other, and foods contain many different nutrients.
Let’s take cocoa, for example, cocoa is high in bioactive compounds called polyphenols. Cocoa is also high in saturated fat, however, cocoa intake has shown to improve the risk factors associated with heart disease despite containing a large amount of saturated fat. This protective effect is thought to be down to its anti-inflammatory polyphenol content (4).
This is important to keep in mind, just because a nutrient influences the risk of an outcome, like heart disease, does not mean all foods containing this nutrient influence the risk. So, there’s certainly nothing wrong with enjoying some cocoa with your breakfast to keep your heart healthy!
Greens & beans:
Foods high in fibre such as leafy greens, pulses and beans are also associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. With the abundance of beneficial nutrients within these foods, including fibre, it’s certainly worth making sure you’re incorporating a variety of them into your diet (5). More controlled research is certainly needed, although the early evidence is promising!
Diet plays a huge role in keeping our hearts healthy, and there’s lots of exciting research showcasing the beneficial properties of certain foods and diets. Balance is key, and incorporating a variety of nourishing foods is essential to keep our hearts and body healthy!
Joe specialises in appetite regulation, weight loss and personalised nutrition. He is our associate nutritionist with the AfN & also works as a health coach looking at lifestyle factors that influence eating behaviours. Please contact us to request Joe's expertise.