The number of people dying from heart disease in the UK has more than halved in the last 50 years and that’s in part down to increasing awareness of the role diet plays in lowering our risk. Here are five foods proven to keep your heart healthy – eat them often.
Walnuts, almonds and macadamias
Having 15-20 natural nuts a day of unsalted walnuts, almonds or macadamias can lead to a 50 per cent reduction in cardiovascular disease risk, says an analysis by the Harvard School of Public Health. There’s a caveat though: don’t have too many as they still contain plenty of calories. For example, 30 grams of walnuts packs in 173 calories, which would mean up to nearly 20 pounds gained in a year if you don’t cut back on something else. Have your nuts with breakfast or as a snack to replace chips or chocolate, and stick to a small handful a day.
Beans and lentils
Beanz meanz… A 20 per cent lower risk of developing heart disease if you consume them twice a week, says a study released last November. The researchers followed 41,000 Australians and found those who ate regular servings of baked beans, lentils and other pulses were less likely to have a stroke or heart attack. “Beans are high in soluble fibre variety which we know helps lower cholesterol by reducing the amount of LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol absorbed into the blood”, says Tracy Parker, a dietitian with the British Heart Foundation (BHF). “All beans and pulses are high in soluble fibre.’ So how do we identify a high-fibre product from a label? ‘The product should contain at least six grams of fibre per 100 grams,” she says.
Oats also contain soluble fibre, but it’s a specific type called beta-glucan also found in lesser amounts in barley, some yeasts, algae and mushrooms, explains dietitian Ian Marber, co-author of Eat Your Way to Lower Cholesterol. ‘Beta-glucan binds to cholesterol in the intestines preventing it from being absorbed in the blood,’ he says. A 2011 study rounded up all the evidence from 126 clinical studies and confirmed that nasty LDL cholesterol was lowered after regular consumption of beta-glucan rich foods. It also helped HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol levels rise. The studies found you need about three grams of beta-glucans a day to get the benefits.
We’re often told to eat a rainbow of vegetables for overall health but does it really make a difference? Yes. The largest and longest study ever done on the subject followed the eating habits of more than 100,000 people for 14 years, finding that those who ate five servings of different vegetables and fruits daily had a 20 per cent lower risk of heart attack and stroke than those who had less than three servings a day.
All fruits and vegetables played a part but the biggest hitters were leafy greens such as Swiss chard, spinach, lettuce and mustard greens, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bok choi and kale, plus citrus fruits and berries such as blueberries, lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruits. The secret is to mix it up everyday, says Tracy Parker. “The more varied in colour the fruit and vegetables, the more antioxidants you’re getting,” she says. “Antioxidants help protect your blood vessels from cholesterol building up.”
And yes… Olive oil
First, let’s get clear on fats and your heart disease risk. Researchers from Cambridge University this time last year published research looking at 72 studies relating to saturated fat and heart attack – and found no link between the two. But the study didn’t look at whether saturated fat is proven to increase bad cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease, says Parker. As a result, the BHF says we still need to reduce saturated fats from our diets, aiming for 20 grams a day from cheese, butter, cream, fatty meats, cakes and biscuits. It’s a good idea, too, to be aware of the surprising places saturated fat can lurk – for example, a 45gram milk chocolate bar contains a whopping 8.5 grams of saturated fat, more than double the amount in two grilled pork sausages. But happily, other fats help your heart love you back.
“Most of the fat we should eat comes from healthier unsaturated fats.” says Parker. These include monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) found in olive oil and olives, and rapeseed oil, as well as dark chocolate, avocados, walnuts and cashews. They also include polyunsaturated fats such as vegetable and sunflower oils, sesame seeds and oily fish. How much is enough? ‘When using high-fat foods such as nuts and oils, don’t forget the calories as even good fats can pile on the pounds and being overweight is a major risk factor for heart disease,’ says Parker. With oils, one teaspoon at each meal is perfect.