Tips for a Healthy Heart

Posted by Samantha Rentz on September 29th 2012
  • Heart disease and stroke 


Eating a healthy diet can reduce your risk of suffering from heart disease and stroke – the major causes of death worldwide. The number of deaths from heart disease have been decreasing in recent years but it is still the major cause of premature death (that is,  before the age of 65) and a leading cause of ill health. But the good news is – it is largely preventable!


Heart disease occurs as a result of ‘bad cholesterol’ collecting within blood vessel walls and forming a hardened plaque through a process known as atherosclerosis . This causes the vessels to ‘fur up’ and narrow which reduces the flow of blood to the heart. This may cause chest pain, also known as angina. A heart attack occurs when the narrowed arteries feeding the muscle of the heart become blocked by a blood clot or other material associated with the damage to the arteries, starving the heart muscle of oxygen. A stroke results when the blockage occurs in a blood vessel feeding the brain,


Most of us don’t really think about our hearts until there is a problem. However, there are a number of things you can do to help keep your heart healthy and reduce your risk of heart disease or a stroke.


  • Who is at risk?


There are a number of risk factors that you can’t change:


  • family history of heart disease
  • age
  • male sex
  • ethnic background (e.g. if you are of a South Asian background, you are more likely to be at risk of developing heart disease)
  • some existing medical conditions (e.g. type 2 diabetes (the commonest form)  and haemachromatosis, (a condition where abnormal amounts of  iron are stored in the body)

However, there are a number of lifestyle behaviours that put you at increased risk that can be changed. The main ones are:


  • smoking
  • a poor diet
  • excessive alcohol consumption
  • lack of physical activity
  • These factors contribute to the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressue and high cholesterol levels, which are some of the strongest risk factors for heart disease.


The more risk factors you have, the greater your personal risk, as their effects on your heart are cumulative. But  there are many things you can do to reduce your overall risk and keep your heart healthy. It’s never too late to start!


  • Maintain a healthy body weight 


Maintaining a healthy body weight and shape can significantly protect your heart. People who are overweight or obese tend to have increased levels of blood cholesterol, high blood pressure and an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. If you are ‘apple shaped’ and carry fat around the waist, you are at greater risk than if you carry fat on the hips and thighs. A simple way to measure whether you are ‘apple shaped’ or not, is to measure your waist circumference. It should be less than 94 cm in men and less than 80 cm in women. Having excess fat around the waist is a particularly strong risk factor for South Asian people so the recommended waist measurements are lower : below 90 cm for men and below 80 cm for women.


Together with being physically active, eating a healthy and varied diet will help you maintain a healthy body weight as well as providing your body with all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients it needs to keep healthy. Read on for top tips for eating to keep your heart healthy!


  • Eating to keep your heart healthy


The standard healthy eating guidelines apply but there are a few extra things you can do to help protect your heart:


Aim to eat at least two portions of fish each week, at least one of which should be oily fish. Oily fish contains omega 3 fatty acids that help protect your heart. Regular intake of this type of fat is especially important if you have already suffered from a heart attack – your doctor may advise up to 4 portions a week or a fish oil supplement.

Eat less saturated fat to keep your blood cholesterol down. For example:

  • choose lean cuts of meat, trim off any excess fat from meat, and avoid meat that has been fried
  • remove the skin from chicken, duck and turkey, as this is high in saturated fat
  • quorn and soya products are low fat options
  • cut back on fats and oils high in saturates such as lard, ghee, butter palm and coconut oil and use oils and fats that are high in unsaturated fat (monounsaturates and polyunsaturates), such as rapeseed, olive and sunflower oils/spreads. But only use them in small amounts or opt for lower fat spreads.  All oils are a concentrated source of calories as they are 100% fat.
  • choose semi-skimmed, 1% or skimmed milk rather than whole milk; opt for low or reduced fat dairy products such as, low fat yogurt, low fat soft cheese and reduced fat hard cheese.
  • Grate cheese rather than slicing it so you eat less
  • Grill rather than fry foods whenever possible
  • Go easy with creamy and cheesy sauces (e.g. carbonara)
  • Pastry is high in saturated fat, so try not to have pies, pastries and sausage rolls too often. And go for pies with just a lid or a base.
  • Compare food labels to choose options that are lower in saturates
  • Eat less trans fat, which may be produced when vegetable oils are processed:
  • much of the hard work has already been done for you as many manufacturers have already stopped using partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in margarines, spreads and processed foods
  • look at food labels and avoid foods that contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. they may still be present in some shortenings, cakes, biscuits, pastry products and sauces
  • avoid fast food and takeaways that have been deep fried in oil that is used repeatedly for frying

Eat wholegrain and high-fibre products when possible such as wholegrain bread, crackers/crispbread and breakfast cereals, brown rice and brown pasta. Foods such as oats and pulses (peas, beans, lentils) contain soluble fibre which may help to reduce blood cholesterol levels.

Choose food with lower levels of salt and don’t add any extra to cooking or at the table. Salt is the main source of sodium in the diet, high intakes of which is related to high blood pressure. Other sources include sodium monoglutamate which is a key ingredient in soy sauce. Adults should be aiming for no more than 6g of salt each day.

Eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables everyday, and try to include lots of different types., A portion of beans or lentils also counts towards your 5 a day and these have an added benefit of releasing energy slowly which is thought to be good for your heart.

Foods with added plant stanols and sterols, eaten regularly so as to provide about 2g stanols/sterols per day, can help lower raised blood cholesterol level. A variety of such products are now available including spreads, yogurts, yogurt drinks and cream cheese style spread.


  • Healthy lifestyle


Healthy eating is just one part of a healthy lifestyle. It is also important to consider other risk factors that may contribute towards your risk of heart disease.


Here are some tips to help you look after your heart:


  • Give up smoking


Giving up smoking is one of the most important things you can do to protect your heart. Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen your blood can carry to your heart; it raises your heart rate and blood pressure; and also makes the blood more likely to clot.


  • Take part in physical activity


Physical activity is important to maintain a healthy body weight and shape and also helps prevent high blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels and prevent blood clots. You should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least five times a week. If you can do more, then that is great but be careful not to over do it to start with. If you need to lose weight then you should aim for 45-60 minutes of moderate exercise everyday. Consult your GP before starting on a new exercise programme, especially if you have a history of heart disease, stroke or other health problems.


The best type of exercise for the heart is aerobic activity (activities that require your body to demand more oxygen).  These are the types of activities that you would do for long periods of time (e.g. swimming, cycling) as compared to, for example, short-term sessions of weight training which tend to be anaerobic exercise (without oxygen).


Being more active doesn’t have to mean joining a gym!  Moderate physical activity includes walking, dancing or gardening. So start at a pace that suits you and gradually increase what you are able to do.


  • Drink alcohol moderately


For older people it has been shown that moderate alcohol consumption (about two drinks per day) may provide some protection against heart disease.  But excessive alcohol intake raises blood pressure which is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, and binge drinking (drinking more than 6 units a day for women or 8 units a day for men) is a risk factor for sudden death.


If you drink alcohol, do so moderately. The guidelines for safe intakes are no more than 3-4 units per day for men and 2-3 units per day for women. A small glass of 12% ABV wine (125ml) is equivalent to 1.5 units, and 1 pint of ordinary beer is the equivalent to 2 units.


Last reviewed July 2009. Next review due December 2012

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