Diet blog: heart healthy habits

Judith Wills / 04 November 2016

Our diet expert reviews the latest research and comes up with a recipe for heart health.

I’ve a personal interest in how we can help protect our hearts in later life as my husband has developed problems in that area in recent years.

The first thing to say is that, although heart disease remains our biggest cause of death, heart attacks in the UK have actually dropped by a massive 40% since the public smoking ban of 2007, which is wonderful news. 

And research on how we can help our hearts through what we eat, how much we eat, and our activity choices is ongoing, with new advice coming through most months of the year.

For that reason, I think it might be useful to sum up the latest worldwide thinking on how you can help your heart and help yourself to a long and healthy life (and it really is never too late to start – the proviso being that if you already have heart disease or related problems, you should take your own doctors advice of course).

It seems a given that maintaining a reasonable weight for your height and age is one of the first things to tackle, as being very overweight or obese increases the work your heart has to do.  When you carry heavy shopping home you know it and may grumble and struggle.  Well your heart does the same with your own surplus fat.   You can easily find out your own ideal weight by keying your height and weight into any online search engine for BMI (body mass index).  Yes the BMI does have its critics who say this isn’t the best indication of weight-related health risk.  But if you then look at your own BMI plus your waist circumference you can get a clearer picture. 

If you BMI is high (just over ideal, at around 26 – 27 is not usually a problem but if you’re getting towards 30 that can be, while over 30 is not a good idea for most of us) and your waist is also overlarge (men over 37ins and women over 31½ ins) you probably need to rethink your eating habits – smaller portions is the easiest way to go.  If your BMI is high-ish but your waist is within bounds then you need to worry less.

Couple your weight and waist readings with your exercise levels and you get an even clearer picture of your heart risk.  The heart is a muscle like any other in your body and the latest thinking from medical researchers is that a combination of strength exercise (such as weights or using your own bodyweight for resistance) to maintain its mass; aerobic exercise such as brisk walking to keep it in good condition for pumping blood and oxygen round the body and for arterial health, and stretching exercise such as yoga to keep the artery walls relaxed and supple, is the way to maintain all-round heart health in older age.

And ‘little and often’ is probably the best mantra for over-60s, especially if we’ve had a long gap since we used to do regular activity.

How to do more exercise without even noticing it

If you can’t face the idea of weights and yoga, take heart, literally - one of the very latest research studies conducted over 12 years and presented at the recent European Society of Cardiology Congress found that a simple 30-minute walk a day will cut the risk of heart attack by half.

As exercise can also reduce the risk of dementia and diabetes – let’s get moving.

Then we have ‘what to eat’.  The amount of advice on this subject can be overwhelming for the average person, but there is a huge body of evidence that a classic Mediterranean diet is perhaps the best as it’s a fairly simple message – fish, lots of vegetables, wholegrains, extra virgin oils, with some dairy – and recently confirmed by leading heart disease expert Prof Giovanni de Gaetano.  I will add to that - eat less red meat, avoid more than a little sugar, get plenty of nuts, seeds and pulses such as lentils, peas and beans and try extra virgin rapeseed oil as well as olive oil.

Heart-healthy foods we love

And eating your supper by 7pm may help too, especially if high blood pressure is your problem.

10 ways to lower your blood pressure

On another topic – I was very sad to hear that some of my favourite recipes to cook at home are, apparently, on their way to extinction, Summer Pudding being one mentioned that I hold dear.  These declining dishes are described as being too complicated to bother with in our busy lives.  Well I beg to differ.  What could be easier than slicing bread, lining a bowl and filling it with gorgeous lightly poached summer berries?  Stick a weight on top, leave in the fridge overnight, and voila!  Autumn pudding is just as good, and I am glad my freezer contains several bags of blackberries I picked myself.  Rich in vitamin C, fibre and antioxidants, summer/autumn pudding should never be allowed to dip below our radar.

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