World Heart Day: Top Tips to Protect Your Heart
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Cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks, strokes, and coronary heart disease, are the leading cause of deaths worldwide, accounting for almost a third of all deaths¹. The good news, however, is that the main risk contributors are lifestyle and dietary factors that we have in our power to change. We’ve put together some information on how to help keep your heart healthy, in celebration of World Heart Day.
A traditional Mediterranean diet is often thought to be one of the healthiest, and studies have found that it can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease²,³. Typically, this diet would be low in red meat, and high in fresh vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, oily fish, olive oil and nuts. Food is cooked fresh rather than readymade or processed.
A major benefit to the Mediterranean diet is its high content of heart-protective antioxidants from a wide variety of plant foods such as fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts, and whole grains like barley and brown rice. For example, Vitamin C, one of our most important antioxidants, has been found to protect the lining of blood vessels from damage that can eventually lead to atherosclerosis⁴.
Phytosterols are compounds naturally occurring in all plants. They have a similar structure to cholesterol, and therefore compete with it for absorption in the gut, helping to lower levels in a natural way. Specifically, LDL-cholesterol, sometimes known as ‘bad’ cholesterol, has been shown to be lowered through intake of phytosterols⁵.
Plants are also a source of important minerals like magnesium and potassium. Magnesium is crucial for muscle function, including that of the heart, and it helps regulate the heart’s rhythm⁶. Low levels are associated with cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and atherosclerosis, and we know most people in the Western world don’t get enough⁷. Increasing potassium helps to decrease sodium – a risk factor for cardiovascular disease¹.
Fat has been demonised over the years, and traditionally we’ve been told to keep levels low to protect our hearts. It’s true that some fats like trans fats are harmful, but consumption of healthy fats is important, and this is another key element of the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fatty fish, nuts, and oils. In fact, one study found that people eating a Mediterranean diet supplemented with additional healthy fats from either olive oil or nuts, had a lower incidence of cardiovascular events than those on a low-fat diet².
Olive oil is strongly associated with a Mediterranean diet and is thought to protect against heart disease due to its high content of phenolic antioxidants, squalene, and oleic acid⁸. Opt for a good quality oil; check the label to ensure it is cold pressed and extracted from non-mechanical means to maximise the health benefit.
Oily fish like sardines and mackerel contain omega 3 fats in the form of EPA and DHA, which are important for all areas of health. They have been associated with lowered blood pressure and reduced risk of arrhythmias and heart disease⁹. If you don’t regularly eat oily fish, it’s a good idea to take a good quality supplement instead, like Feel’s Vegan Omega 3.
An interesting study conducted in Israel compared a low-fat diet with a low-carbohydrate, Mediterranean style diet. Participants in both groups lost weight but those in the latter group also reduced cardiovascular disease risk factors like waist circumference and levels of intrapericardial-fat: a form of fat known to effect heart health³.
You don’t have to cut out carbohydrates completely, instead try switching to healthier forms. Healthy carbohydrates include wholegrains like oats, barley, brown rice or quinoa, root vegetables like swede or sweet potato, and pulses like lentils and beans. These plant foods are all a source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytosterols, with all the benefits discussed above. Beans, lentils, and chickpeas are also a source of protein which you can use in place of meat. Avoid sugary treats which are not only unhealthy carbohydrate sources but also likely to contain unhealthy trans fats.
Reduce Alcohol and Cigarettes
We sometimes associate wine with a Mediterranean diet, but we should remember that traditionally it would have been consumed in very moderate amounts. High alcohol consumption, even on an occasional basis, has been shown to be detrimental to heart health¹⁰.
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths worldwide, and a third of smoking related deaths are from cardiovascular disease¹¹. Tobacco smoke contributes to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease through various mechanisms including increasing heart rate, impairing endothelial function, and increasing inflammation¹¹.
If you can reduce your alcohol consumption and stop smoking, then you will be helping your heart health.
Apart from eating the right things, getting moving is key to maintaining a healthy heart. Exercise helps heart muscle regenerate and protects against atherosclerosis and arrhythmias¹². The World Health Organisation recommended a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week, although it's estimated that we evolved to have much more¹². Resistance training to maintain muscle tone was found to lower risk of cardiovascular disease, by lowering blood pressure and body fat, and high intensity interval training (HIIT) is thought to be the best exercise for cardiovascular health¹². If that sounds too much for you however then you’ll be pleased to learn that even at low levels, any exercise at all will improve the health of your cardiovascular system¹².
Work related stress¹³, loneliness¹³ and depression¹⁴ have all been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and feelings of stress or anger can trigger cardiac events¹⁵.
On the other hand, positivity, optimism, and a sense of purpose have been found in studies to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, through lowered blood pressure and heart rate¹⁴.
If you are looking for something to help you de-stress, you could try yoga or meditation. They have been found to be beneficial in reducing stress and controlling cardiovascular disease risk factors like high blood pressure and obesity¹⁶. They could also help you stop smoking¹⁶ and provide an alternative to an after-work drink. Studies have suggested they could reduce cardiovascular events by 48%, and potentially halt or even reverse atherosclerosis¹⁶.