Heart health: eat well, move more, and live long

February was Healthy Heart Month, so here are a few fun facts regarding our heart. Did you know that your heart is roughly the size of your fist; it pumps about 115,000 litres of blood a day and weighs less than a pound? Its most important role is to pump blood around the body, so it makes sense that the health of our heart affects the health of our whole body and therefore is a very good reason why we should take good care of it. For people who have a genetic predisposition to certain heart health issues, such as high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol, it is even more important as lifestyle factors can have a huge impact on heart health.

A healthy heart is not just about nutrition but also lifestyle factors, such as sleep, stress, and activity levels, which all can help in preventing heart health issues, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, and atherosclerosis. With some simple lifestyle changes, you can very easily improve your heart health.

We often tend to think of sleep as a luxury when in fact it is one of the most important factors in maintaining good health, as this is an important time for the body to repair and regenerate. Individuals who sleep less than an average of 7 hours a night are more at risk of developing health issue, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, all of which influence our heart health. Simple changes, such as being physically active during the day, are hugely beneficial to improving our sleep and can be easily achieved by simply walking for half an hour a day. During the winter months, it is vital to be exposed to natural light as this helps our bodies regulate their internal sleep/wake cycle. Keeping to a regular sleep schedule and avoiding eating large or heavy meals two to three hours before going to bed are also factors that will help to improve the quality and length of our sleep.

Stress is the body’s natural 'flight or fight’ response to a situation. It allows us to react and make sure that we can get to safety. However, unhealthy stress is when the body is constantly in a situation of ‘fight’ with no way out. This constant stress is known to have negative consequences on our heart health, as our nervous system is overactive with our bodies producing excess cortisol, which is a factor known to increase our susceptibility to heart health issues. Taking time for ourselves by either participating in community activities or hobbies, such as reading, walking, or listening to music, is an effective way to help reduce stress levels. Making sure that we have good relationships, is another important factor in stress reduction.

People often assume that we need to exercise to be healthy, when in fact being active is just as important and more easily achievable. Walking, gardening, working outdoors are all activities which get our bodies moving, making the heart work just a little harder than normal, and as the heart is a muscle, this is like a gentle workout.

When looking at nutrition, it is important to look at not just what we are eating but the portion size as well. Plate sizes have increased by three inches in the last 40 years, we tend to overeat without even realizing it. Therefore, looking at portion size can be just as important if not more so than calories, as it is known that not all calories are equal.

Including plenty of whole grains is very beneficial for our heart health: they help to reduce dietary cholesterol, which is vital for those with a genetic predisposition to heart problems. In addition, whole grains, such as flaxseed, are vital for reducing inflammation in the body.

Eating a diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables is one of the best ways to increase our intake of vital vitamins and nutrients, which are so important for our heart health, as they help maintain the elasticity in our veins and arteries, which in turn helps to reduce blood pressure and increase circulation.

For those with a predisposition to high cholesterol, focusing on eating lean meats such as chicken and turkey while reducing the consumption of saturated fats, such as those found in red meats, will help to regulate dietary cholesterol. Trans fats, which are labelled as partially hydrogenated oils, are used in many baked goods found in the grocery store. They are known to increase our ‘bad’ cholesterol. Instead look introduce more healthy fats, such as avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil, which are known to reduce inflammation and support good heart health.

This simple red cabbage salad with chicken is a great option, it is easy to make and will provide you with a satisfying and healthy meal with healthy fats, lean protein and plenty of vegetables, ideal for supporting your heart health.

Send your nutrition questions to susan@susanalsembach.com