Steps to a healthier heart
Many people understand that regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can combat weight gain, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol; giving you a healthier heart that's at less risk of cardiovascular disease (heart attack and stroke).
Eating for general health and wellbeing
A healthy heart diet is as much about what you eat, as how much you eat. In particular, foods high in saturated fat are a major driver of high blood cholesterol; and too much salt in your diet can contribute to high blood pressure. These conditions are both significant risk factors in cardiovascular disease.
So, what kind of diet is good for your heart? Generally, we would aim to:
- reduce 'bad' fats (saturated and trans-fatty acids)
- reduce salt (sodium)
- 'right-size' your calorie intake
Reducing 'bad' fats
There are four main kinds of dietary fat. All are high in calories, so will contribute to weight gain. However, not all are 'bad' in terms of heart health.
Saturated fat and trans fats (or trans-fatty acids) are bad. These fats stimulate your liver to produce 'bad' cholesterol which enters the blood stream and attaches to artery walls, leading to narrowing and hardening of the arteries.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are much healthier types of fat that increase levels of 'good' cholesterol which play a role in removing artery deposits. So, replacing bad fats with good fats has been consistently shown to lower levels of 'bad' cholesterol and increase 'good' cholesterol in the bloodstream.
For this reason it's important to be able to distinguish between 'good' fats and 'bad' fats'.
Saturated fats ('bad')
Meat fat, whole milk, butter, cream, fatty cheeses, coconut and palm oils, cocoa butter.
Trans-fatty acids or trans fats ('bad')
Mainly found in hydrogenated vegetable fats typically used in snack foods like crackers, cookies, chips and pastries to create a longer shelf life.
Monounsaturated fats ('good')
Olive oil, canola oil, avocados, most nuts and nut butters
Polyunsaturated fats ('good')
Soybean, sunflower and safflower oils, oily fish such as sardines
Here are some simple steps you can take to remove saturated fat from your diet:
- reduce your butter intake and/or replace butter with margarine or olive-oil based spreads
- replace full fat milk with reduced or low fat milk, or milk alternatives like soy milk
- trim the fat off your meat and remove the skin from chicken
A high salt (sodium) intake is associated with raised blood pressure. Simple ways to reduce dietary salt could be as simple as identifying food options that contain less sodium, and rather than adding salt to your own cooking, use herbs and spices to add flavour.
Healthy heart exercise
One of the most important potential benefits of regular exercise is prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD) i.e. heart attacks and strokes. New Zealand has one of the worst CVD death rates in the world - a statistic strongly linked to the fact that 9 out of 10 adult New Zealanders have high blood cholesterol levels and 3 out of 4 have high blood pressure.
Regular exercise can help comeback these CVD risks by:
- raising 'good' blood cholesterol which transports fat away from the artery walls
- reducing blood pressure levels. The higher your blood pressure, the greater the improvement you're likely to see as a result of regular exercise
- reducing weight by increasing energy expenditure
Exercise is not only good for a healthy heart. It's good for the whole body - brain, bones, muscle tone. Studies have found regular exercise:
- increases blood flow to the brain
- boots 'feel good' chemicals called endorphins
- helps in memory functioning
- reduces risk of type 2 diabetes
As we become older, exercise has also been shown to:
- reduce the risk of dementia among older men (by walking three kilometres a day)
- maintain muscle strength and help prevent falls
Starting an exercise programme
A good exercise programme starts with the aim of incorporating some moderate intensity physical activity into most days of the week. Some experts say you should start with a minimum of 30 minutes a day, but any regular daily increase in exercise is worthwhile. Plenty of activities qualify, including walking, housework, shipping or gardening. Once you've started, you can pick up the pace, increasing the intensity of your exercise and, with it, your overall fitness.
For ideas about how to implement a healthy diet, a dietitian or doctor can assist. For more information and delicious recipes check out these healthy heart recipes.
The above information is necessarily of a general nature. If you have any concerns with your health kiosk results always seek medical attention.
Southern Cross Medical Library, Healthy heart exercise, August 2013
Southern Cross Medical Library, Healthy heart diet, January 2017