February is heart health month, the annual national campaign to raise awareness for heart disease.
Heart disease and stroke remain the primary cause of death, hospitalization and prescription drug use in Canada. Fortunately, heart disease and stroke can be prevented by adopting healthy lifestyles and behaviours.
With an estimated 1.6 million Canadians living with heart disease and death rates approximating 350,000 per year, it’s not too late to start a heart-healthy diet.
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, by adopting healthy behaviours, you can delay the onset of heart disease or stroke by as much as 14 years and up to 80 per cent of premature heart disease and stroke can be prevented.
As a dietitian, a large part of my job involves promoting ways to prevent heart disease through proper nutrition. Here are my top five nutrition related tips for optimal heart health.
Increased consumption of vegetables, especially non-starchy vegetables and fruits can reduce specific risk factors for heart disease including body weight, waist circumference, blood sugars, blood pressure and cholesterol. In fact, eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables can help reduce risk of heart disease and stroke by approximately 20 per cent and eating four or more servings of vegetables and fruit per day can add more than two years to your life. Further, most fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamin C, which can further cut your risk of cardiovascular disease by helping to reduce inflammation in the body: think red peppers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, berries, kiwi, oranges and pineapple.
Recent studies have shown that reducing intake of added sugars, primarily fructose, can reduce the risk of heart disease and hypertension. Food items such as high-fructose corn syrup, sugary fruit juices, punches, fruit drinks, some specialty coffees and cocktails are packed with added fructose. The American Heart Association advises limiting added sugars to no more than 100 calories per day for most women and 150 calories per day for most men.
Nuts and seeds offer plenty of heart-healthful benefits including tonnes of fiber, healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, plant sterols, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. Further, they are good sources of protein which helps keep us satiated. Aim for about a quarter-cup or a cupped palm-full for a good serving size.
Find the fat
Limit foods higher in saturated fats, such as fatty cuts of meat, bacon, lard, and other animal fats. Studies have shown that for every one per cent increase in animal-based fats in the diet, bad cholesterol increases by two per cent, increasing heart disease risk.
Avoid foods that are made with trans, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats such as fried foods, frozen prepared foods, crackers, chips, pastries, croissants and other baked goods. Those who eat the most trans fats can nearly triple their risk for heart attacks.
Instead, opt for vegetable-based fats, such as olive, canola, safflower, soybean or peanut oils, nut butters, avocados and fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines. Aim for about two to three tablespoons per day of these fats and fish twice a week.
Foods rich in fibre, especially soluble fibre, can help lower blood cholesterol levels. It works by binding to cholesterol in the small intestine and transporting it out of the body. Sources of soluble fibre include dried beans and peas, psyllium barley, psyllium husks, Metamucil and most fruits and vegetables.
In short, eating for heart health is not all that difficult! Incorporating these five easy tips can offer amazing health benefits and can help reduce risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases as well. This February, let’s feed our hearts the right way and fight the leading cause of death worldwide.
Jared Tam is the community dietician for the Fort Smith Health & Social Services Authority.