Most people know that the foods we eat can impact the risk of heart disease, heart attack and heart failure, but it can be hard to navigate which foods are good and which are bad when it comes to keeping our ticker healthy.
For example, the Heart Foundation recently changed some of their dietary recommendations and now say that full-fat milk, yoghurt and cheese – which were previously considered bad for heart health – neither decrease or increase the risk of heart attack and stroke in healthy people. Similarly, the American Heart Association says diets higher in plant foods and lower in animal foods are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and death.
Speaking to Starts at 60, nutritionist and chef Zoe Bingley-Pullin says people looking to improve their heart health should switch to a Mediterranean Diet – a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, beans, wheat and rice, but limited in red meats and poultry.
“We’ve got high nutrient density-type food, we have a good fibre content. We want to have an active bowel so we’re not loading up our liver, kidney and gallbladder and putting more pressure on the overall body to actually get rid of toxins,” Bingley-Pullin says. “But also what we have is all this incredible good fat.”
Good fats have an anti-inflammatory effect which is important not just for heart health, but for other functions of the body. Good fats are found in foods such as nuts, seeds, oily fish, hemp oils and extra virgin olive oil.
“These foods feel good to eat, they smell nice when we cook them. What we tend to find if we have a diet high in these good fats is we tend to eat less of the bad fats and ultimately, less of the wrong foods as well,” Bingley-Pullin explains.
This doesn’t mean consuming a diet of just nuts and seeds and it’s all about finding the right portion. Bingley-Pullin says over-60s should aim for two to three serves of good fat a day, which could be consuming a quarter of an avocado, a quarter of a cup of raw, unsalted nuts or seeds and no more than two tablespoons throughout the day of high quality extra virgin olive oil or hemp seed oil.
In contrast, people should be avoiding trans fats, which are commonly found in fast foods, snacks, baked goods, butter or fried foods. These fats can also be found in vegetable oils and can be harder to detect in foods because food products sold in Australia don’t need to label trans fats.
“You need to be a little savvy. You need to be a bit of a food detective and you need to look at the ingredient list,” Bingley-Pullin warns. “When it comes to saturated fat, it’s absolutely fine to have saturated fats in the diet, it’s just not having too much of them.”
Similarly, while evidence shows it’s the plant-based foods that are best for heart health, it doesn’t mean cutting out meat completely. Bingley-Pullin recommends restricting animal fats to just one meal a day, while also introducing meat-free meal days where people add flavour to dishes with beans, lentils and other nutritious vegetables.
And just as reducing the quantity of meat in a diet is important, it’s also vital to pick the best quality of meat for heart health, with Bingley-Pullin explaining: “It’s better to go for a steak as opposed to something like mince because mince is more likely to have a little bit of fat in it.”
She adds: “It’s trying to avoid your fried foods and your obvious things like spring rolls which might have meat in them. Just go for the purest form.”
In terms of sugar, processed sugars should be avoided where possible and people should pick foods where no more than 10 per cent of the product is coming for sugar. Similarly, sodium should be reduced and people should consume no more than 120mg per 100g. Aim for better quality salts such as rock salts, sea salts or Himalayan salts and be aware that too much carbohydrate and processed sugar can negatively impact heart health.
“It’s not direct, but what happens is it increases weight and therefore increases cholesterol, therefore it’s putting load on the heart as well,” Bingley-Pullin says.
Also be aware that alcohol is another contributing factor to poor heart health and people should consume no more than 10 units a week. A unit is considered to be 100ml of wine, a midi of beer, a nip of spirit or a small glass of champagne. This means that a bottle of wine would be a week’s worth of units and shouldn’t be consumed in one sitting.
It’s important to know that age, gender, ethnicity and family history can also impact the risk of a heart disease and in these cases, diet changes will unlikely reduce the risk. Still, it’s always important to talk about your heart health and heart disease risk with a health professional so they can offer advice based on your individual circumstances.