Coronary heart disease is the leading killer of New Zealand adults. As such, there is currently much debate over which ‘diet’ is best for reducing a person’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke, with each diet’s advocate claiming that their approach is the best.
Paleo, low carb, low fat, vegan, raw… It can all get quite confusing.
It’s actually not as complicated as it seems and I’d like to offer an alternative perspective. It’s actually more probable that all approaches are right… and wrong. All at the same time.
How could this be? I hear you ask.
Well, the truth is, a healthy diet, particularly one that reduces risk of heart disease, can actually take a variety of different forms. In other words, healthy eating applies to everyone but looks different for everyone.
This is because once your diet meets the basic principles of good nutrition, it can be however you need it to be. It can fit within your food likes and dislikes. It can fit within your daily routine and lifestyle and it can even include eating at your favourite restaurants and cafes. It could be paleo or it could be high carbohydrate. It wouldn’t actually matter!
I know! Pretty exciting stuff! If you’ve read online about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods or nutrients or perhaps read rules such as “you must eat 5-6 small meals a day” or “don’t eat carbs after 4pm”, you can breathe a sigh of relief because none of these have to be followed to be in good health. Nail the nutrition basics and you can eat however YOU want!
The reason this is true is because heart health and long term overall health is all about your overall diet quality. Not about the individual foods and nutrients. It’s about eating a variety of foods, rich in nutrients and finding a pattern that you can stick to long term. You may have downloaded an apparently ‘perfect’ meal plan to follow but if you can’t stick to it or it contains foods you don’t like to eat, how do you expect to follow it long tem? You won’t. And healthy eating only benefits you if you do it every day.
Here are the basics of nutrition, based on evidence, that will keep your heart in tip top condition! Get these right and you’ll be doing just fine!
1. Swap refined, processed grains for whole grains and legumes
Much of the dietary debate around heart disease is focused on blaming carbohydrate. Rather than singling in on the nutrient itself, the research suggests that dietary patterns of choosing carbohydrate rich foods is the best place to focus.
Patterns of eating that regularly include cakes, biscuits, chips, French fries, pastry, white bread and other processed foods have been shown to increase risk of heart disease. Swapping these foods for whole foods and creating a dietary pattern that regularly includes lentils, beans, chick peas, grainy breads and minimally processed grains has been shown to decrease risk of heart disease.
2. Choose healthy fats
These are fats that come from minimally processed foods or when you can, whole foods. The great thing about choosing whole food sources of healthy fat is that they also offer you lots of other heart healthy nutrients like fibre, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Include these foods daily if you can:
- Avocado – about ¼ is a good portion size
- Raw nuts (cashews, walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pine nuts, brazil nuts, etc) – about a small handful is a good portion
- Seeds (pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, linseed, chia, etc) – about 1 tbsp. is a good portion
- Olives – a small handful is a good portion
- Processed fats or products where the fat has been concentrated (vegetable oils, coconut oil, butter, cream, etc) are fine to be included, but keep your portion small and try not to eat them every day.
3. Don’t forget omega 3 fats
These particular fats have been well researched and offer lots of health benefits. The best source of omega 3s are from marine animals – fish and seafood. Including 2 or more servings of fish and/or seafood per week has been shown to decrease risk of heart disease. Omega 3s are also found in some nuts and seeds and fatty acids found in some vegetable oils can be converted into omega 3 by the body.
Include these foods regularly in your diet to meet your omega 3 requirements:
- Extra-virgin olive oil – about 1-2 tsp. is a good portion
- Walnuts – about a small handful is a good portion
- Linseeds – about 1 tbsp. is a good portion
Not a fan of seafood? An omega 3 supplement may be a good idea.
4. Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are the cornerstone of a healthy diet and a huge amount of research points to the fact that high intakes is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases. In particular, green leafy vegetables and vitamin C rich fruit and vegetables seem to have the most protective effect.
Adults should aim to include 5 serves of vegetables and 2 serves of fruit per day.
- 1 serve vegetables = ½ cup cooked vegetables or 1 cup raw (salad) vegetables
- 1 serve fruit = 1 large piece or 2 small pieces or 1 cup berries/melon
There are lots of ways you can include fruit and vegetables into your day. Here are some tips:
- Snack of raw vegetable sticks
- Add fresh fruit to your breakfast cereal or muesli
- Add half a plate of salad to any meal that you prepare, even if it’s pasta or pizza!
- Keep your freeze stocked with frozen vegetables, so they’re always on hand
- Swap pasta with zucchini noodles
- Swap rice with cauliflower rice
- Pop a banana, mandarin or apple in your bag for an easy snack each day
- Chop up your favourite vegetables in advance so you can quickly stir fry or steam them or pop them into meals and snacks.
So, if you’re tired of trying to find the ‘right’ diet for you, you can try no more. If you focus on including the advice above, into your diet in a way that suits you, you’ll be well on your way to good health and a happy heart!