Eating for a Healthy Heart
A heart-healthy diet in a nutshell
A third of the food you eat each day should be fruit and vegetables. The more colours you include on your plate, the more different vitamins, minerals and antioxidants you'll get, as well as fibre and water. A portion is roughly a handful (80g). Fresh, tinned, frozen, in juice or as smoothies, all count so add those portions to soups, stews, puddings or have as a side dish.
You need a little fat in your diets to give you energy and also provide some important fat-soluble vitamins, however fat is high in calories, so eating too much can lead to weight gain and put our heart under pressure. What's more, the type of fat you eat can also affect your cholesterol levels so replace the 'bad' fats with 'good' fats.
‘Good’ fats promote healthy cholesterol levels and can reduce inflammation in your arteries. They include mono-unsaturated fats, found in olive and rapeseed oil, almonds and avocados, and polyunsaturated fats that provide us with essential fatty acids such as omega 3 fats in oily fish, walnuts and rapeseed and flaxseed oils.
'Bad' fats include saturated and hydrogenated fats. Eating too much saturated fat increases LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol levels that increase the risk of developing heart disease. Foods high in saturated fats include bacon, ham, pork, lamb, butter, hard margarine, hard cheese and whole milk. Hydrogenated fats, also known as 'trans fats', are found in some processed foods and should be avoided as they raise LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol and lower HDL ‘good’ cholesterol levels.
Eating at least one portion of oily fish a week is good for heart health, especially as oily fish is a good source of omega-3 'good' fats. So add fresh tuna, mackerel, sardines, salmon, pilchards and shellfish like oysters and mussels to your weekly menu. Remember that while tinned tuna is a good source of protein and other nutrients it doesn't contain omega-3, so try tinned salmon in your sandwiches instead or go for grilled fresh tuna.
Eating too much salt can lead to a raised blood pressure, which increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. Adults should eat less than 6g of salt per day, that's around a teaspoon; children should have even less. 75% of our daily salt intake comes processed foods so watch out for salt hidden in foods like cereals, ready meals and even bread by reading the food labels.
Download our 'High blood pressure and the heart' leaflet to find out more about the effect of salt.
Making sure your diet provides enough fibre is good for your heart and body. Fibre in foods can help you feel fuller for longer, helping you to keep your weight healthy and avoid unhealthy snacking. Some fibre, also known as soluble fibre, that is found in porridge oats and pulses such as beans and lentils, can help lower cholesterol levels and regulate glucose levels. So fibre up by boosting your intake of fruit and veg, porridge oats, wholegrain cereals, beans, lentils and brown rice as part of your heart-healthy diet.
Plates and glasses are getting much bigger and helpings are often more generous nowadays, which can easily increase your energy intake and lead to weight gain. Reduce your portion size gradually by using smaller plates and cooking smaller quantities. When having take-aways order a starter size and try to only have them once a week. Cook in bulk and divide and freeze small portions so your freezer becomes your source of healthy, home-made take-aways and ready-meals.
Alcohol is high in calories (almost as much per gram as fat) and too much of it can lead to weight gain and a higher blood pressure. You are also more likely to eat more and less healthily after drinking too much, spelling bad news for your heart in the long term. So stick to the recommended units: 2-3 units a day for men and 1-2 units for women; watch those generous glass sizes; check the alcohol content on bottles to find lower strength drinks and alternate with a soft drink, lower calorie one or have a shandy when out.
Add a Meditteranean flavour to your diet so you can reap the well-known benefits for your heart . The key is in the combinations of foods that ensure a healthy balance of good fats, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and satiating protein. Plenty of colourful fruit and vegetables, seafood, dairy products, legumes, nuts and other plant foods. Find out more about our 'Mediterranean Diet Revisited' conference in association with the Fishmongers.
Use those food labels to your heart's advantage by sussing out levels of salt, total fat, saturated fat and sugar in a portion and then choosing foods and brands that give you more 'greens' (the colour indicating low levels) in your shopping trolley wherever possible. Click here for more information on what those labels tell you or don't.