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What is a “Heart Healthy Diet”?

by Sarah Murphy

Let’s face it – the message is everywhere, on food packaging, in gyms and on the advertisements between our favorite TV shows….. yet despite governments around the world spending millions each year trying to educate us about cardiovascular health, the truth is, the message simply isn’t hitting home. When it comes to eating a balanced heart healthy diet, most people don’t seem to have a clue where to begin.

Heart disease is not to be taken lightly. According to figures provided by the World Health Organization, cardiovascular disease is responsible for a staggering 17.3 million deaths a year, and is currently the number one global killer.

Of course, the usual suspects, (physical inactivity, high stress levels and ill advised lifestyle choices such as smoking and drinking too much alcohol) are all contributory factors, but the number one cause of heart disease is without doubt poor diet.

Would you be surprised to learn that there’s evidence to suggest that heart disease can actually be reversed? Taking a good hard look at your eating / shopping habits isn’t easy, but the benefits of making even the smallest of changes can be huge. It could even save your life.

So what is a more effective heart healthy diet? Here are some surprising facts about what you should (and shouldn’t) be eating.

How to Have a Heart Healthy Diet

1. Reduce cholesterol

Cholesterol gets a lot of bad press. However, it’s a fact that your body needs it for a variety of functions, like maintaining cell structure and converting sunshine into vitamin D. Your liver makes most of the cholesterol your body needs, but a diet which includes too many animal products (red meat, eggs, cheese etc) causes cholesterol levels to build up in your bloodstream. This is bad news.

Over time, plaque accumulates in your arteries (atherosclerosis) causing blood to flow more slowly to the heart. Worst case scenario your arteries becomes blocked. Hey presto, you’re having a heart attack.

Many of the commercial “cholesterol lowering” spreads on the market contain plant sterols. These are similar in structure to cholesterol, and mimic its action in your body.  As they effectively compete with “bad” (LDL) cholesterol for absorption, it means that overall levels are, over time, reduced.

Plant sterols are found naturally in fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and oils such as olive, avocado or flax seed oil. Fresh raw garlic, oats and wholegrain brown rice have all been shown to have cholesterol lowering effects and should be included in a heart healthy diet.

Related: 4 Reasons to Eat More Plant-Based Foods

However, reducing your cholesterol isn’t the only thing you need to worry about. Surprisingly, it isn’t always high cholesterol that’s the problem, for some, inflammation of the arteries is a major concern. If you truly want to follow a heart healthy diet, it’s real important to get your daily quota of anti-oxidants.

2. Inflammation and heart health

Inflammation occurs wherever there is cell damage. This happens when you smoke a cigarette, are under too much stress, or overload your system with environment pollutants, (in particular chemicals and unnatural additives in food.) It’s these toxins that are responsible for the creation of free radicals, reactive chemicals that wreak havoc in your body, (a bit like a bull in a china shop.)

The good news is that there’s a really simple and effective way to combat free radical damage, and that’s to eat a heart healthy diet rich in anti-oxidants.

Anti-oxidants are found in colorful foods, so it’s important to try and eat a rainbow a day! Try a handful of blueberries with rice cakes and honey for breakfast, or make a free radical busting fruit smoothie with raspberries, apples, plums and blackberries. Walnuts, goji berries, pulses and green leafy veggies are also high on the list for heart health. Citrus fruits are high in flavanoids, which in studies have also been shown to help lower cholesterol.

Once again it seems that eating fresh, seasonal produce is one of the best ways to look after your heart.

Related: 5 Surprising Heart Attack Triggers

3. Avoid sugar

Finally, a heart healthy diet means avoiding refined sugar. New evidence suggests that eating a diet high in sugar can almost double your chances of going on to develop heart disease. According to research published just this week by JAMA Internal Medicine, it seems that people whose sugar intake accounts for more than 25% of their total daily calories are roughly twice as likely to die from heart disease than people whose intake is around 7%.

A word of warning, beware of pre-packaged diet foods claiming to be “low in fat”. Many of these products are often high in sugar to compensate for the lack of taste. Once again, fresh is best, but if you do purchase convenience foods then be sure to read the label.

Related: 5 Healthy Food Substitutions for Fat Loss

The Takeaway

As the saying goes “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The evidence is resoundingly clear. A heart healthy diet can prevent and even reverse heart disease. By eating fresh, organic, seasonal produce as nature intended, and skipping high-sugar foods, you can’t go far wrong. Your heart will certainly thank you for it.


sarah murphy

Sarah Murphy trained at the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London, England, where she specialized in Western Herbal Medicine and Ayurveda. She writes widely about natural health, and is passionate about empowering people to take better care of their own well-being.

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