Love your heart. How can you look after yours?

World Heart Day 2014 (29th September 2014) encouraged us all to reduce our risk of heart disease.

Now it’s National Heart Month – a chance to improve your heart health by joining the British Heart Foundation’s 10 Minute Challenge.

Take the heart month 10 minute challenge

If you sign up (click this link), you will be invited to complete 10 days of simple challenges between 16-27th February – just one challenge per day will arrive in your inbox. It might be a suggestion to try a new fruit or veg or simply walk a bit further. Either way, your challenge will take no more than 10 minutes but it could make all the difference to your ticker!

Heart disease is NOT a small problem – it kills 17 million people every year around the world, and the number is rising.

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There are a number of things you can do to look after your heart. Making small changes to your lifestyle can make significant improvements to your heart health and reduce your risk of developing heart disease.

Here are 5 things you can start to do this month:

  1. Cut down on saturated fats
  2. Choose unsaturated, healthy fats instead
  3. Eat plenty of fibre rich food (fruit, vegetables and wholegrains)
  4. Cut down your salt intake
  5. Be more active!

1. Cut down the saturates

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In a previous post I explained why we should be eating fewer foods that contain saturated fat because these raise our cholesterol levels. This relationship is true but the whole “saturated fat is bad for you” claim is now a pretty controversial area. Several reports last summer contested the involvement of saturated fat in heart disease and much of the blame is now being put upon sugar.  As far as saturated fat is concerned, there is not enough evidence yet to make me change my mind. I can’t agree that we can eat fatty meat, cheese and butter ad libitum as the rest of our diet is far from perfect. I am sticking with current dietary advice until it changes and who knows if that will ever happen!

  • Men should eat no more than 30g of saturated fat a day. 
  • Women should eat no more than 20g of saturated fat a day.

Foods high in saturated fat include:

  • meat pies, sausage rolls etc.
  • sausages, fatty bacon
  • fatty cuts of red meat and chicken skin!
  • butter, lard and ghee
  • cream, ice cream and other desserts
  • hard cheeses
  • cakes, pastries and biscuits
  • foods containing coconut or palm oil (used in South Asian and African cooking)

For more information about cutting down on saturated foods, please click this link to the NHS Choices page

2. Choose unsaturated fats


We don’t need to cut down on all fats. Unsaturated fats can actually help protect our heart and many of us should be eating more of them. Eating unsaturated fats instead of saturated can help increase the levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and lower our risk of cardiovascular disease.

Good sources of unsaturated fats are:

  • oily fish (mackerel, pilchards, sardines, herring, salmon and fresh/frozen but not tinned tuna)
  • vegetable and nut oils like sunflower, corn, linseed, walnut and olive oils
  • nuts and seeds – any type (as long as they are unsalted) like almonds, cashews, walnuts, peanuts and Brazil nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds.
  • avocados.

What we do need to remember however is that all fats are the same when we think about energy (Calorie) content. Fats contain over double the amount of calories compared to carbohydrates and proteins so we need watch how much fat we have. There are around 100 Calories in 1 tablespoon of olive oil so we should still remember to use fats and oils sparingly. Just because something is good, more is not necessarily better but it will certainly help if we swap the bad fats for the good ones!

3. Eat plenty of fibre rich food (fruit and vegetables)


Most fruit and veg are rich in fibre as well as important vitamins and minerals but one type of fibre is particularly well known for its cholesterol lowering effect (specifically lowering LDL cholesterol), when eaten as part of a low-fat diet. This fibre is called soluble fibre.  It can work in 2 ways:

  1. Most foods contain both soluble and insoluble fibre.  Soluble fibre absorbs water in the bowel forming a soft gel-like substance. This gel binds with cholesterol and therefore makes it easier to eliminate from the body.
  2. Another benefit from eating soluble fibre is that although we don’t digest it directly ourselves, the bacteria that live in our gut do.They break it down through a fermentation process that also releases short chain fatty acids.  Some of these have been shown to slow our body’s production of cholesterol, so again if combined with a healthy diet, soluble fibre can help lower our total cholesterol levels. Great stuff!

Foods rich in soluble fibre include:

  • oats – porridge is a great breakfast, particularly in the colder months!
  • bananas
  • apples
  • carrots
  • potatoes (white and sweet potatoes with the skins on!)
  • peas
  • beans (all varieties but watch those smothered in salty, sugary tomato sauce!)
  • lentils (all varieties – tinned versions are ideal, just rinse them before adding to the sauce pan!)

4. Cut down your salt intake


Please read my previous blog on salt but here is a quick summary about how to reduce your intake:

Adults should eat no more than 6g of salt a day (about a teaspoon). The current average salt intake however is just over 8g, and many are eating more than this, primarily a result of the amount of hidden salt we eat in processed, convenience foods. The World Health Organisation reports 80% of the salt we eat is hidden in everyday foods such as bread, cereals and cheese, increasing our risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

How can I reduce my salt intake?

  1. Don’t add salt to your food without thinking about it first. Many people sprinkle on salt automatically, but it’s often unnecessary. You can make you food just as tasty, you just might need to get used to other flavours.
  2. Use more dried or fresh herbs and spices in your cooking to add flavour.
  3. Try roasting and baking vegetables instead of boiling them to bring out their natural flavours.
  4. Choose reduced salt soy sauce, gravy and soups when available – little changes will help.
  5. If buying tinned vegetables and beans, choose ones with ‘no added salt’ on the label (look for the green traffic light food labels).
  6. Go easy on the sauces – ketchup, mustard and relishes are often very high in salt (avoid the red traffic light food labels).
  7. Snack on unsalted nuts, fruits and vegetables rather than salty savoury snacks or choose lower salt varieties of crackers.
  8. Salt is salt. It doesn’t matter whether it’s bog standard or some posh Maldon sea salt crystals – the negative effect on the body is exactly the same.
  9. If you need to add salt to your food, use a low sodium salt such as ‘lo-salt’. These salts use potassium instead of sodium and contain nearly 2/3 less sodium than standard salt.
  10. Limit the amount of cheese you have and go for lower salt varieties 

5. Be more active!

Did you know that just 1 in 4 women and 1 in 5 men do less than 30 minutes of physical activity a week, so are classified as ‘inactive’. This is not really a surprise, but shocking all the same.

We ‘should‘ be doing 30 minutes at least 5 times a week (and get a bit out of puff each time!) but instead we are spending more time than ever sat in cars or on public transport, working some of the the longest hours in Europe (employed in sedentary jobs) then watching hours of soaps and reality TV. The British Heart Foundation have lots of suggestions to help you get more active on their website. Just click here and try Change 4 Life who also have some great ideas about becoming a little bit more active every day and choosing activities that you enjoy. Please read more here

So pick 1 of these 5 tips today and see what you can do to improve your heart health.

Make  not hard choices