How to eat your way to a healthier heart

An overwhelming majority of heart disease is preventable. Jaymie Hooper discovers everything your diet should – and shouldn’t – include to reduce your risk of heart disease

Every day, 48 Australians lose their lives to heart disease. A further 1.2 million are affected by heart or vascular conditions such as stroke or heart failure. And while you’re more likely to develop heart disease if you drink or smoke, have high blood pressure or cholesterol levels, or a family history of heart disease, research has found that what you eat can also be a major factor.

“90 percent of heart disease is preventable by not smoking, exercising regularly and eating a diet rich in plant foods, especially fresh fruit and vegetables,” explains Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos, author of The Heart Health Guide.

“Changing your diet can significantly improve your heart health and may even have an important role in reversing heart disease,” she tells Body+Soul.

Here’s what you need to know.

Like what you see? Sign up to our bodyandsoul.com.au newsletter to read more stories like this.

What to eat

According to The Heart Foundation, vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, lean protein (think fish, meat, and poultry), low-fat dairy, legumes, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils (like olive oil) are the staples of a heart-healthy diet.

This diet is closely based on the Mediterranean diet, which has been found to both protect and restore the heart. In fact, during one French study, researchers found that people who followed the diet after suffering a heart attack were 70 percent less likely to experience a second one.

“A healthy diet can improve heart health by reducing the risk factors that lead to heart disease, such as high blood pressure and abdominal obesity,” says Dr Itsiopoulos.

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet can also reduce your risk.

As Dr Itsiopoulos explains, “This diet is very similar to the Mediterranean diet, but includes low-fat dairy and is specifically focused on lowering salt to control blood pressure.”

Both diets are high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, which may protect your arteries from a build-up of fat that could cause heart blockages.

What to avoid

“A diet that is high in processed foods, saturated and trans fats, salt and added sugars and that is low in fresh fruit and vegetables is associated with increased heart-disease risk,” Dr Itsiopoulos tells Body+Soul.

“This type of eating pattern can lead to obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which increase the risk of heart disease.”

If you want to keep your heart in tip-top shape, it’s best to avoid takeaway foods that are fried or high in fat (like fried chicken and pizza), cakes and pastries, soft and sports drinks, and creamy desserts.

Dr Itsiopoulos adds: “Of course, you can enjoy these foods sometimes, but try to choose healthier options such as homemade pizzas and cakes made with extra-virgin olive oil and wholemeal flours.”

Heart-friendly eats

Add these three foods to your shopping list for a stronger ticker:

Extra virgin olive oil

“This oil is not processed and is rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients, which helps prevent low-grade inflammation, the first step in developing heart disease,” says Dr Itsiopoulos.

Oily fish

Tuck into salmon, trout, mackerel or sardines twice a week for your fill of anti-inflammatory and cholesterol-reducing omega-3s.

Leafy greens

“Rich in vitamin C, minerals and polyphenols, leafy greens can also help prevent low-grade inflammation,” explains Dr Itsiopoulos.