8 tips for a heart-healthy diet

February 1, 2017 in Leslie's Featured Content

8 tips for a heart-healthy diet

February marks Heart Month, a time when North Americans are urged to take inventory of their personal risk factors for heart disease.

In Canada, it's estimated that 9 out of 10 people have at least one risk factor for heart disease such as family history of early onset heart disease, smoking, high blood cholesterol, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, abdominal obesity, and physical inactivity. Research has determined that an overwhelmingly large proportion - 90 percent - of first heart attacks can be attributed to these risk factors.

No one is immune to heart disease - male or female, young or old. Especailly worrisome is the unprecedented growing number of young adults with major risk factors for heart disease.  Since 1994, the number of adults in their 20's and 30's with high blood pressure has almost doubled.

Coronary heart disease is caused by a build-up of fatty plaques on the inner lining of the arteries. Over time, plaques cause hardening and narrowing of the arteries, which can lead to angina (chest pain), heart attack, sudden death, and abnormal heart rhythms.

The good news: what you eat - and don't eat - can have a powerful impact on the likelihood you'll succumb to risk factors for heart disease and heart attack.  The right diet, along with regular exercise, helps control weight, lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, reduce elevated blood pressure, fight inflammation and improve blood sugar levels in people with pre-diabetes and diabetes.

Related: What to eat to lower your blood choelsterol

The following strategies can help you modify - or prevent - risk factors for heart disease that you have control over.

Choose heart-healthy fats

No doubt you've heard it over and over but it's worth repeating: a steady intake of saturated and trans fats can raise LDL cholesterol.  Worse, trans fats, found in many commercial baked goods, snack foods and deep-fried foods and certain margarines, also decrease HDL cholesterol.

Choose lean cuts of meat, poultry breast and low fat dairy products (2% milk fat or less).Read the Nutrition Facts box on packaged foods; choose foods with no trans fat.  Foods with a daily value (DV) of less than 10% for saturated + trans fats are low in these fats.

Emphasize unsaturated fats such as polyunsaturated fats (e.g. canola oil, sunflower oil, grapeseed oi, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts) and monounsaturated fats (e.g. olive oil, peanut oil, avocado oil, avocado, almonds, almond butter). These fats can help lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (blood fats), increase HDL cholesterol and reduce inflammation.   

Eat fatty fish

Salmon, trout, sardines and Arctic char contain DHA and EPA, omega-3 fatty acids linked to protection from heart attack.  These fats make the blood less likely to form clots, reduce inflammation and protect against irregular heartbeats that cause sudden cardiac death.

Experts recommend a daily intake of at least 500 milligrams of DHA and EPA (combined) to help prevent heart disease - a target that most of us don't achieve. To increase your intake, eat fish twice per week (6 to 12 ounces in total). If you don't like fish, consider adding a fish oil supplement to your regime.

Reduce sodium

Study after study has linked excess sodium with elevated blood pressure. The problem: Canadians of all ages are consuming too much of it. Adults need no more than 1300 to 1500 milligrams of sodium per day for health. The safe upper limit is 2300 milligrams. If you have borderline or high blood pressure, limit your daily intake to 2000 milligrams.

Read nutrition labels and choose foods with a lower daily value (DV) for sodium. Foods with a DV of 5 % or less are low in sodium.

Limit your intake of restaurant meals and processed meats such as bologna, ham, sausage, hot dogs, bacon and deli meats. Rely less on convenience foods such as canned soups, frozen dinners and packaged rice and pasta mixes.

Increase potassium

People who consume too little potassium are more likely to develop high blood pressure and suffer a stroke. The mineral is thought to help blood vessels relax and cause the kidneys to excrete sodium which prevents blood pressure from rising.

Adults need 4.7 grams (4700 milligrams) of potassium each day. To boost your potassium intake, eat more legumes, fruits and vegetables. (One-half cup of cooked spinach provides 443 milligrams of potassium; one banana has 422 milligrams and ¾ cup of chickpeas delivers 343 milligrams.)

Go whole grain

People who eat the most whole grains (at least 3 servings per day) have been shown to have a risk of heart disease or stroke that's 20 to 40% lower compared to folks whose diets contained little or no whole grains.

Aim for at least 3 whole grain servings per day, and preferably more. One serving of whole grain is equivalent to 1 slice of 100% whole grain bread, ½ cup cooked oatmeal, ½ cup of cooked brown rice or whole wheat pasta.

Choose breads, cereals and crackers made from 100% whole grain (check ingredient list). Try pasta made from whole wheat, brown rice, whole spelt or whole kamut. Substitute cooked bulgur, quinoa, wild or brown rice for potatoes and white rice.

Increase soluble fibre

If your LDL (bad) cholesterol is high, you need to consume at least 3 grams of soluble fibre each day to lower it. You'll find it in oats, oat bran, psyllium-enriched breakfast cereals, ground flaxseed, barley and legumes. One cup of cooked oat bran, 1.5 cups of cooked oatmeal and 1/3 cup of Kellogg's All Bran Buds all provide 3 grams of soluble fibre.

Add beans, lentils and nuts

Eating more legumes (e.g. chick peas, kidney beans, lentils) and nuts can help lower blood pressure, reduce LDL cholesterol, and keep blood sugar levels in check.  Researchers attribute the cardio-protective effects of legumes to their vegetarian protein, folate, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and antioxidant content.

Include legumes and nuts in your diet at least four times per week. Add legumes to soups, salads, chili and tacos. Toss nuts into a stir-fry, sprinkle over hot cereal or enjoy them as a snack.

Take vitamin D

Growing evidence suggests that having a suboptimal vitamin D level boosts your risk of heart disease and heart attack.  The nutrient helps keep heart cells healthy, maintains normal blood pressure, and reduces inflammation in the body.

Since Canadians don't produce enough vitamin D from sunlight October through March - and very few foods contain it - you need to take a supplement.

Adults should take 1000 IU (international units) of vitamin D each day in the fall and winter (children should get 400 IU per day). Adults over 50, people with dark coloured skin, those who don't go outdoors often should take the supplement all year round. 

All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.