5 Ways to Love Your Heart

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February is heart month! This month is dedicated to bringing attention to the importance of cardiovascular health and we can do to decrease our risk for heart disease.

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is disease of the heart, arteries, and veins. Heart disease can be present at birth (e.g., congenital heart disease), or it can develop later in life (e.g., heart attack, stroke). Heart disease affects 2.4 million Canadians adults and is the second leading cause of death in Canada.

Risk factors for heart disease:

For most types of heart disease, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is key for prevention. Learning healthy eating habits, becoming more physically active, quitting smoking, limiting alcohol intake, managing stress, and getting enough sleep are factors that we can control (easier said than done!). However, making heart healthy lifestyle changes can help to lower blood pressure and cholesterol and limit the amount of damage that is done to our arteries. Our risk for heart disease is also influenced by factors that may be out of our control, such as biological and socio-economic factors, such as age, gender, family history, income, access to healthy foods, and our living environments. Our risk for our disease increases if any immediate family members have had a history of heart disease and as we age (particularly men over the age of 45 and women who have gone through menopause or are over the age of 55). You can learn more about how to reduce your risk and prevent heart disease at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. For nutrition-related tips for a healthy heart, check out our tips below:

1. Choose your fat wisely!

The natural assumption is that we need to try to cut out all fat from the diet, but the truth is we need fat! Fats have many important jobs, such as protecting our bones, joints, and organs, providing lubrication for the skin, regulation body processes (e.g., blood clotting, making hormones), helps us absorb certain nutrients (i.e., Vitamins A, D, E, K) - just to name a few! What we need to consider is the type of fat we are consuming.

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Although there are debates about how bad (or not) saturated fats may be, it's still safe to err on the side of caution and to limit intake. Instead, we should focus on increasing intake of unsaturated fats (i.e., mono- and poly-saturated fats) that are known to reduce the risk of heart disease. We also want to make sure we are getting essential fatty acids (omega-3 and -6) from the diet, because our body cannot make these types of fat. These fatty acids are important for muscle contraction, blood vessel dilation and constriction and immune response to injury and infection. We definitely want to avoid trans fats, as typically consume these fats in processed foods. Trans fats are made when liquid vegetable oil is changed into a solid fat and are used to improve taste, texture, and to lengthen shelf life. Although it might make our food taste and look better, it's at the expense of our health. Trans fats are known to reduce HDL ("good" cholesterol) and increase LDL ("bad" cholesterol) and increase our risk for heart disease.

So how does that all translate into the types of foods we should be choosing? We suggest choosing lean cuts of meat and avoid processed meats (e.g., deli meats, bacon, hot dogs). Processed meats are high in saturated fats, calories, and sodium and are foods that Canadians consume too much of in general. We also suggest that you try plant-based options, such as unsalted seeds and nuts, nut butters (e.g., almond butter), legumes (lentils, peas, beans), and avocado. Flax seed and flax seed oil, canola oil, soybean oil and nuts are also great plant-based sources of essential fatty acids.

2. Add fish to your diet.

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Canadians do not eat a lot of fish, which is unfortunate because fish are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been show to prevent blood clots, prevent irregular heartbeats, decrease inflammation and lower blood pressure. In addition to omega-3's, fatty fish also are a good source of vitamin D. Both of these nutrients are hard to come by naturally in foods, so fish is a great option to obtain these nutrients. Health Canada recommends consuming at least two servings of fish per week, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, Atlantic herring and trout.

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Don’t like fish? Try a supplement. We suggest NutraSea liquid supplements as they don't give you the fishy after-taste that many of the capsule forms do. Kathryn has tried many different omega-3 supplements and her favourite is the NutraSea+D, in the grapefruit and tangerine flavour. The flavour mixes well with smoothies and is also very doable alone! For 1 tsp, NutraSea+D gives you 750mg of EPA, 500mg of DHA and 1000 IU of vitamin D. It is recommended that adults get between 1400-3500mg of EPA and DHA per week. 

Remember, when choosing a supplement, look for one that has a Natural Product Number (NPN). The NPN ensures that the product has met the standards for quality, safety and efficacy set by Health Canada for Natural Health Products. The quality requirements include testing for chemical impurities such as heavy metals, pesticides and known contaminants.

3. Eat more fruits and vegetables

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We know that this is a nutrition tip that you've probably heard over and over again, but there is a method to the madness! No single vegetable or fruit will provide you with all the nutrients that you need. The solution? Eat a variety of vegetables and fruits, as they can provide you with an abundance of nutrients. We suggest trying to include different colour vegetables and fruits, as this will help you get a variety of nutrients that may prevent heart disease, cancer and other illnesses. To increase your intake of these foods try including vegetables and fruit at each meal (e.g., add berries to your yogurt for breakfast, load a sandwich with veggies, make a hearty vegetable salad as a side dish) or choosing them as for a snack (e.g., veggies and hummus). Although fresh foods always taste the best, frozen vegetables and fruits are worth the purchase, as they are often harvested and packed at the height of the season when nutrients are at their peak.

4. Eat whole grains and foods high in fibre

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A diet rich in whole grains, in combination with vegetables and fruits, has been shown to lower cardiovascular disease risk. These foods provide an abundance of fiber, nutrients, and phytochemicals (i.e., biologically active compounds found in plants that are thought to have positive health benefits) and may play a role in regulating blood pressure, improve blood lipids, and reduce a blood marker of inflammation thought to indicate an elevated risk of a having a heart attack. Avoid refined grain products (e.g., white bread, processed baked goods), and include foods such as oats, barely, wheat bran, flax seeds, vegetables and fruit (skins on), and legumes (eg., lentils, chickpeas).

5. Limit alcohol intake

Gasp, are you really asking us not to have that glass of wine after a long day!? You can relax, because we are definitely not going to ask you to never enjoy an alcoholic beverage, but we are going to ask you to do so sensibly. Heavy alcohol consumption is known to elevate blood pressure, damage the heart muscle, increase risk of stroke, while moderate alcohol consumption in middle-aged and older adults has been shown to raise HDL cholesterol ("the good cholesterol") and limits clot formation. According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction moderate alcohol consumption for men and women is:

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  • Less than 10 drinks per week with no more than 2 drinks in one day for women
  • Less than 15 drinks per week with no more than 3 drinks in one day for men
  • On special occasions, no more than 3 drinks for women, no more than 4 drinks for men

Drinks come in different sizes, but keep in mind that the following counts as one standard drink: 12 oz beer, 10 oz wine cooler, 5 oz glass of wine, 1.5 oz spirits.

We hope that you take these tips to heart and start making changes for a healthier heart!

M & K

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