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Eating for a Healthy Heart Inverness

Recent studies have suggested that eating a heart-healthy diet can cut the risk of developing heart disease or stroke by 80%.

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Eating for a Healthy Heart

Recent studies have suggested that eating a heart-healthy diet can cut the risk of developing heart disease or stroke by 80%.

Weight control and exercise are the first steps to a healthy heart, but there are additional ways to boost the body’s immunity to heart disease. Take a closer look at how specific food choices impact our ability to help manage or prevent heart disease and high blood pressure— two of the biggest health challenges we face today.

Healthy heart diet: the basics

While age and genetics play a role, doctors have identified six controllable risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, physical inactivity, and obesity. The first steps in preventing heart disease are to quit smoking and incorporate exercise into your life. The rest of your heart healthy plan can focus on your diet – what you eat, and what you don’t eat.

Coronary heart disease is caused by blockages in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. When the blood supply is obstructed, the heart muscle becomes deprived of oxygen and essential nutrients needed to function properly, which can result in angina (chest pains) or a heart attack. The primary substances responsible for narrowing of the arteries are cholesterol and fatty deposits – making dietary cholesterol and saturated fat the two major dietary culprits that affect your heart health,

In order to protect your heart, certain foods should be drastically reduced or eliminated from your diet, while increasing foods that support cardiovascular health.

Eat More

Healthy Fats (raw nuts, olive oil, fish oils, flax seeds, avocados)


Colourful, nutrient-loaded fruits and vegetables

Fibre rich foods (whole grains and legumes)


Eat Less

Refined carbohydrates (white starches).

Processed food (foods that come in a package); foods high in sodium

Damaged fats (trans fats from partially hydrogenated foods, deep fried foods); saturated fats (whole-fat dairy; red meat).

Red meat

Fruit juices, soda

Healthy Eating: Tips for a Healthy Diet What exactly is an overall healthy diet?

A well-rounded, nutrient-rich diet can help protect you from many diseases and health problems, including heart disease. But for many of us, trying to understand what constitutes good nutrition can be overwhelming

Healthy Eating: Tips for a Healthy Diet offers simple tips to help you get started on a delicious and nutritious eating plan to support overall good health.

Cholesterol, diet, and heart disease

Cholesterol is a waxy substance present throughout the body, and is involved in the production of hormones, Vitamin D, and the bile acids used for digestion. Your body gets cholesterol in two ways: by producing the substance organically, and through the food you eat. The body makes enough of the stuff on its own, so most of the cholesterol we eat is excessive. This is why, if you are at risk of heart disease or have high cholesterol levels in your blood, it is vitally important to cut out the “unnecessary” cholesterol from your diet.

Since cholesterol can’t dissolve in the blood, it must be “chauffeured” to and from the cells by carriers called lipoproteins. There are two types of lipoprotein: low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, is known as “bad” cholesterol. High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is known as “good” cholesterol.

HDL is considered good because high levels of this substance seem to protect against heart disease.

On the flip side, “bad” LDL cholesterol can speed up the buildup of dangerous plaque in the arteries, which can lead to a dangerous medical condition called atherosclerosis. This occurs when too much LDL circulates in the blood, which is why your doctor might encourage you to cut down on the cholesterol you are consuming.

Lowering cholesterol levels

If you are trying to lower LDL cholesterol, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Avoid high glycemic, refined carbs, which causes the body to overproduce cholesterol and raises the body’s insulin level. High insulin levels are a big risk in heart disease. How many “high cholesterol” people do you know that stay away from fat and cholesterol but are sugar addicts?

2. Eat more soluble fibre, which binds with the cholesterol, enabling the body to remove it.

3. Stay away from trans fats (partially hydrogenated foods), and saturated fats, which raise the amount of cholesterol in your blood.

4. Stick to recommended daily guidelines for heart health – the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends eating less than 300 mg of cholesterol, less than 2400 mg of sodium, and only 7% of your daily calories from saturated fat.

Fats are necessary and vital for good health; the type of fat you consume is what is important.

The good fats for heart health are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, which reduce bad cholesterol levels and provide nutrients that help our cells function properly. Polyunsaturated fats include the Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, which also benefit cardiovascular health. Easy sources of these good fats include nuts, seeds, fish, vegetable oils (especially olive oil) and avocados.

The bad fats when it comes to heart disease include saturated, trans fats, and damaged fats. Saturated fat is considered “bad” because it is unnecessary – our bodies produce sufficient amounts on their own, so there’s no need to eat additional saturated fat, which can spike LDL (bad cholesterol) levels. But even a good fat can become bad. Just like leaving meat out in the sun can cause it to spoil, a healthy oil or fat can be rendered unhealthy if it is damaged by light or heat. Examples of fat that has been damaged are partially hydrogenated oils, or anything deep fried.

However, when talking about unhealthy fats, there is one type that is the arch-nemesis of heart health: trans fats. Trans fatty acids spike LDL levels even more than saturated fats, as well as lowering the good HDL levels in your blood. Trans fats are found in many processed foods like cookies, crackers, fast food, some margarines, and in anything that contains partially hydrogenated oils, so read labels carefully and avoid deep fried fast foods.
Good fats for heart health

Rather than cutting all fat from your diet, it is better to replace the bad fats with good fats. Two of the most heralded fats are omega-6s and omega-3s. These are known as essential fatty acids (EFAs) because the body cannot manufacture them and they must be provided through the diet.

Read: Healthy Fats: Choosing the right fats for your diet
Fish: A great source of heart-healthy fat

Cold water fish like wild salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines are a great sources of omega-3 fat, which has been proven to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Since much of the fish we consume today has a high mercury content, mercury-free omega-3 fish oil can be taken in supplement form with all the same benefits. Other fish good for heart health that tend to have lower levels of mercury are lake trout, flounder, cod and mackerel.

If you are unable to eat seafood, try to consume more soybean products (like tofu), canola oil, walnut and flaxseed, which contain alpha-linolenic acid (LNA). LNA can turn into omega-3 fatty acid after it is digested.

The Bottom Line on Fats and Heart Health

1. Limit your intake of saturated fats - Replace red meat with beans, nuts, poultry, and fish whenever possible, and switch from whole milk and other full-fat dairy foods to lower fat versions.

2. Use liquid vegetable oils rich in (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats) in place of butter in cooking and at the table.

3. Aim to eat one or more good sources of omega-3 fats daily—fish, walnuts, canola or soybean oil, ground flax seeds or flaxseed oil.

- Adapted from Fats and Cholesterol: Out with the Bad, In with the Good, Harvard School of Public Health.
Carbohydrates and heart disease

Just like with fats, carbohydrates can both beneficial and detrimental to your heart health. Simple, refined carbohydrates like sugar and white flour can create a spike in blood sugar and insulin, which increases the likelihood that calories from these foods will be converted into fat and cholesterol. In addition, refined carbohydrates can lower your “good” HDL cholesterol, and boost triglycerides.

However, complex carbohydrates are one of the building blocks of a heart-healthy diet. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables take longer to digest, and do not cause the same rapid increase in blood sugar and insulin.

Rather than embarking on a “low-carb” diet, consider the glycemic index (GI) of your food. As a basic rule of thumb, foods that contain good fat, fibre and complex carbs will be lower on the glycemic index. High glycemic foods are typically white and processed with very little fat and fibre.

Using the GI, its best to choose low glycemic foods that are slowly digested and do not cause the extreme spikes in blood sugar associated with high-glycemic foods. High-glycemic foods have also been linked to a higher incidence of heart disease and diabetes, so try to choose low and medium GI foods (a GI of 55 or less ranks as low) as much as possible. An additional tip: if you know you are going to eat a high GI food, combine it with a low GI food for an overall medium GI meal. For example, combine white rice (high GI) with legumes (low GI).

Glycemic Index: “Good” and “Bad” Carbohydrates

For a complete list of low and high glycemic foods, visit the Glycemic Index website.

High glycemic index (“bad” carbs”)

white bread (rolls, biscuits, bagels)
white potatoes
biscuits, waffles & pancakes
white rice
sugary breakfast cereals
processed foods
refined cereals
soft drinks
fruit juices
refined sugar

Low glycemic index (“good” carbs)

whole-grain breads and cereals
whole-wheat products
brown rice
whole fruits
legumes (beans, peanuts, peas)
bulgur wheat
certain fruits (apples, apricots, cherries, grapefruits, peaches, pears, plums, oranges)

The importance of fibre to heart health

Diets high in fibre lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. Fibre is classified as either insoluble fibre or soluble fibre depending on whether it dissolves in water. Soluble fibre is particularly important for lowering cholesterol since it binds with the cholesterol, enabling it to leave the body without getting reabsorbed back into the blood. Insoluble fibre acts like a broom to move food out of the intestines quickly, but does not seem to help lower blood cholesterol.

Food sources high in heart-healthy soluble fiber include the following:

  • Oatmeal / oat bran
  • legumes (chickpeas, northern beans, pinto beans, black, kidney, lima, navy)
  • grapefruit, orange, blackberries, pear, figs, apple
  • artichokes, brussel sprouts, winter squash, parsnips, carrots
  • flax seeds
  • psyllium husk

    When increasing fibre intake, do it gradually, a little more each day – eating too much fibre too quickly can cause gas, bloating and cramping. Try starting by adding a piece of fruit to meals, and using whole grain breads. Some people may need a fibre supplement if dietary changes aren’t sufficient, or if they have certain medical conditions. Check with your doctor if you need to take fibre supplements.

    Other elements of cardiovascular health: calcium, potassium & plant sterols


    According to Harvard University’s Healthy Eating for a Healthy Heart Diet, research suggests that low calcium levels may contribute to high blood pressure. A lack of calcium may cause your body to retain sodium, which raises blood pressure.

    Consuming calcium-rich foods and beverages (low- or nonfat yogurt, cheese, and milk, as well as nondairy foods such as salmon, broccoli, tofu, and legumes) may help lower your risk of heart disease, while protecting you from other health concerns such as osteoporosis and bone loss.


    Potassium, a mineral found in fruits and vegetables such as bananas, tomatoes, oranges, and spinach, as well as in plain yogurt and certain types of fish, helps lower blood pressure. It’s important to consult a physician before taking supplements or drastically increasing your potassium consumption (we only need about 4.7 grams a day), as people with certain diseases and conditions can be sensitive to potassium.

    Plant sterols

    Plant sterols and stanals are natural cholesterol-lowering substances. While they occur naturally in vegetables, fruits and other plant-based foods, they are not in large enough quantities to have a real effect on our bodies. However, they can be chemically modified and added to foods such as “heart healthy’ margarine spreads or granola, and used to lower LDL cholesterol up to 10%.

    Diets for preventing hypertension and stroke

    The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH diet, is a specially designed eating plan to help you lower your blood pressure, which is a major cause of hypertension and stroke. At its core, the DASH diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains, and low in saturated fat and cholesterol. While fish, poultry, and nuts are emphasized, red meat, sweets, and sugar-containing beverages are kept to a minimum. This makes for an eating plan low in saturated fat, cholesterol, total fat and sodium, and rich in protein, fibre and healthy nutrients (particularly magnesium, potassium and calcium).

    Three major clinical trials have proven this diet’s efficacy, and since DASH consists of an overall healthy eating plan, it is certainly worth a shot if you are at risk for these conditions. To learn more about the DASH diet, see Related Links at the end of this article.

    Visit Helpguide.org for more information