Eating your way to a healthier ticker might be a lot easier – and tastier – than you think, says Abi Jackson.
You’re never too young to start thinking about your heart health. In fact, there’s growing evidence that the sooner you start with healthy lifestyle habits, the better off you’ll be further down the line.
We don’t like to sound morbid, but heart disease is among one of the biggest killers in the UK – and it can affect anybody. The good news is, there’s TONS of evidence that a healthy lifestyle can really help cut the risk of heart disease, heart attacks and stroke; and alongside maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, not smoking and being sensible with your alcohol intake, this means a healthy, balanced diet. And no, that doesn’t mean boring, bland and overpriced ‘health foods’.
Don’t believe us? Check out these seven heart-boosting foods – all super-good for your ticker, and super-tasty…
It’s often claimed that the Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest going – particularly in terms of lowering the risk of heart disease (and there’s plenty of science backing this up). Along with cholesterol-lowering olive oil and lots of oily fish, tomatoes are a key feature of this sun-drenched region’s fare – and they’re packed with antioxidants and vitamins A and C. But it’s their high contents of lycopene – the substance that gives them their bright red colour – that gives them an extra edge in the heart-health boosting stakes. Research has associated lycopene with a range of benefits, including lowering ‘bad’ cholesterol, and reducing inflammation and blood pressure – all things linked with protecting your ticker.
2. Dark chocolate
We’ve all heard it said that chocolate is good for your heart, and it really is true. But – and it’s a very BIG but – only the quality dark stuff with high cocoa content (we’re not talking sugar-loaded Dairy Milks, sorry). A modest serving of proper dark chocolate every now and then though could certainly count as a heart-healthy choice. As Dr Hazel Wallace, aka ‘The Food Medic’, notes: “Unknown to many, cacao is one of the most nutrient-dense foods in the world because of its rich source of nutrients known as polyphenols, packed with antioxidants. Cacao has also been shown to reduce the amount of both LDL (bad cholesterol) and total cholesterol, which reduces the risk of heart disease.”
Flaxseed – along with similar things like chia seeds and hemp – is a super-simple way to give your daily diet an extra healthy kick (sprinkle on your breakfast bowl, in smoothies, or even to add texture in soups and salads). Talking on behalf of UK milled seed and nut producer Linwoods (linwoodshealthfoods.com), Dr Wallace adds: “Flaxseed is a heart-health super food, full of fibre which helps lower cholesterol, and omega-3 fatty acids which can help improve your good cholesterol.”
4. Beans and Pulses
They’re not always the most appealing of foods, but beans and pulses truly are a star component of a healthy diet. When it comes to heart health, they’re proven to help lower LDL cholesterol (a 2016 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a daily serving of pulses can cut ‘bad’ cholesterol by 5%), and are a good source of low-fat protein and fibre – crucial for supporting overall wellness and weight management. Will Hawkins, a nutritionist at online GP service Push Doctor, adds: “They also keep you fuller for longer, so you’re less likely to reach for any unhealthy, fatty snacks.”
5. Oily fish
There’s a lot to be said for giving oily fish – such as salmon – a regular spot on your weekly menu. For starters, it’s a great source of lean protein, so will help with maintaining a healthy weight while ensuring you still feel satisfied and energised from your meals. Plus, as Hawkins says: “It contains omega-3, which has two key benefits. The first is it improves brain function; the second is it’s superb for heart health. Studies have shown omega-3 can keep blood pressure and heart rate in check, reduce your risk of heart attacks, lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL (good) cholesterol. Our bodies can’t make omega-3 either, so we need to get it from our diet.”
Nuts in general make for great healthy snacks (although go easy with those salted and roasted varieties). Almonds are an especially good choice when it comes to hearts, as they’re loaded with thiamine, a B vitamin that helps with cardiovascular function, plus linoleic acid which aids in maintaining normal blood cholesterol levels. A 2015 study published on behalf of the American Heart Association found that people who snack on a handful of almonds (as opposed to a high-carb snack with equivalent calories) had reduced belly fat and waist circumferences – two things associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Nutrition consultant, Juliette Kellow, says: “I recommend snacking on a handful (28 grams) of almonds a day, as this will supply you with several key nutrients that can help support a healthy heart.”
Dark berries – think blackcurrants, blueberries and strawberries – are jam-packed with heart-supporting vitamins, antioxidants and polyphenols, which have been found to be particularly useful in keeping arteries in good nick. And like tomatoes, the substances that give them their gorgeous colouring often mean extra heart-protecting benefits too. A study published in the journal Circulation found that a daily serving of berries, such as blueberries and strawberries, was linked with a lower heart attack risk. And because they’re naturally sweet and delicious – yet also super low-fat and low-calorie – they’re fantastic for helping maintain a healthy weight, while still keeping that sweet tooth happy.