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A healthy diet and lifestyle are your best weapons to fight heart disease. Remember, it’s the overall pattern of your choices that counts. Make the simple steps below part of your life for long-term benefits to your health and your heart.
The key to healthy eating is to base your diet around foods that are as close to how they are found in nature as possible. This means eating plant-based foods more often and choosing highly-processed foods less often. You may also choose to include non-processed lean meats, poultry and/or dairy. This style of eating is naturally low in saturated and trans fats, salt and added sugar and rich in wholegrains, fibre, antioxidants and unsaturated fats. Everyone should aim for a well balanced diet. The best way to understand it is to think of foods in the following food groups.
This is one of the most important diet habits. Vegetables and fruits are delicious, convenient and packed with nutrients (antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre) that help protect against heart disease, stroke, Type 2 Diabetes, and some cancers. They also help you maintain a healthy weight by keeping you full longer.
Wholegrain foods include wheat, corn (maize), rice, barley, oats, rye, millet and quinoa. These grains can be eaten whole or processed into products like couscous (wheat) and polenta (maize). They are prepared using the entire grain. Wholegrain foods have more of their nutrients, like protein, B vitamins, vitamin E, and healthy fats to help you stay healthy and full longer. They’re also rich in dietary fibre which is important for bowel health and helps improve cholesterol and glucose levels. Choose wholegrain options instead of processed or refined grains (e.g. white bread, white flour, sugar, bakery items, low-fibre cereals). Refined grains have been heavily processed and contain fewer nutrients, less naturally occurring fibre, and their energy is used up quickly. Most adults should aim for four to six serves of wholegrains a day.
When choosing protein foods, variety is the key. Foods rich in protein include fish and seafood, legumes (such as beans and lentils), nuts, seeds, eggs, tofu, lean meat and poultry. These foods are a good source of protein, which the body uses for growth and repair. They also supply iron, zinc and B vitamins to help support a healthy heart. Most people should aim for 1-3 portions per day. Opt for low-fat options, such as lean meats and other plant based sources with high levels of protein. Legumes, for example, can pack about 16 grams of protein per cup and are a low-fat and inexpensive alternative to meat.
These foods are a good source of calcium, protein and some carbohydrate. Calcium is important for bone health. Opting for the reduced fat varieties is recommended if you have high blood cholesterol or are trying to lower your kilojoule intake. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend 2-4 serves of reduced-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt each day for most people over 2 years old.
Nuts, seeds, avocado, olives and healthy oils (other than palm and coconut oil) contain heart healthy poly- and mono-unsaturated fats (omega-3 and omega-6) that help to reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL) and increase ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL). Unrefined oils, or those which are called ‘cold-pressed’ or ‘extra virgin’, have undergone very little processing. Therefore these oils have higher levels of many beneficial compounds, such as antioxidants.
Eating a lot of saturated fat increases your blood cholesterol, in particular, the bad (LDL) cholesterol which raises the risk of heart disease. Saturated fat can be found in the visible fat you can see on meat and chicken, processed foods like biscuits, pastries and takeaway foods that have used ingredients like butter, palm oil (often simply called vegetable oil), cheese and meat. While butter may be seen as a more ‘natural’ option than margarine spread it actually contains around 50% saturated fat and 4% trans fat. Coconut oil has also been linked to health claims such as being a ‘superfood’ but scientific evidence has found that it raises your total cholesterol (both good ‘HDL’ and bad ‘LDL’) and it contains 92% saturated fat. The research suggests coconut oil may be better than butter in how it affects blood cholesterol, but it’s not as good as other plant oils like olive and canola oil.
Eating less manufactured trans fats means eating less processed foods. Trans fats are found most commonly in foods containing partially hydrogenated oils and in some bakery and pastry products, popcorn, potato crisps, takeaway foods, and breakfast bars. These types of fat raise the ‘bad’ cholesterol and your risk of heart disease.
Take a minute and think about what you drink in a typical day. Unless you are a true water lover, you may be getting some extra, unneeded calories through sweetened soft drinks, energy and sports drinks and alcohol. Some research suggests that when you drink calories, you aren’t as satisfied as when you eat the same amount of calories in food which potentially can lead to weight gain.
Your body is composed of about 60% water which makes drinking it essential to good health. Keeping hydrated helps flush out toxins, improve skin complexion, promotes weight loss, increases energy levels and more. As a general rule, it is recommended to drink about 2 litres a day. Plain tap water is the best choice as it’s cheap and has no kilojoules but it’s also fine to have these drinks in moderation: plain soda water, unflavoured milk, herbal tea and tea or coffee. While eating your fruits and vegetables whole is ideal, it’s also ok to have a small glass (125 ml or about ½ cup) of 98% fruit or vegetable juice sometimes. Try adding sparkling or still water to make the drink last longer.
Cut back or avoid, if possible, sugary drinks like: soft drinks, cordial, fruit drinks (less than 98% fruit) and sports and energy drinks. These drinks are very high in sugar and kilojoules and provide little, if any, nutritional value.
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. The Australian Guidelines recommend healthy adults should drink no more than 2 standard drinks on any day and a max of 4 standard drinks on a single occasion. Drinking alcohol above these recommendations increase the risk of heart disease and stroke as it can cause high blood pressure and raises triglyceride levels (a type of bad fat in the blood). As alcohol is high in calories and sugars, it can also lead to weight gain and an increased risk of diabetes. Alcohol is not recommended in the following conditions:
If you think you may be drinking too much, or know someone who has a drinking problem talk to your doctor or practice nurse. Helpful information can also be found on these websites: