9 top foods and nutrients for a healthy heart
February is Heart Health Month and of course it’s Valentine’s Day on the 14th which is all about hearts! We want to do our bit to help you take action to reduce your risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases.
According to the British Heart Foundation, heart and circulatory diseases cause a quarter of all deaths in the UK, that’s more than 160,000 deaths each year, an average of 460 deaths each day or one every three minutes in the UK. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that almost 18 million lives are lost each year and of these deaths, 85% are due to heart attack and stroke.
In this blog we share 9 of our favourite nutrients and foods for a healthy heart. Whether you are wanting to prevent or manage conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and stroke, our practical heart healthy diet tips can help you start taking action straight away.
Risk factors for heart disease
The biggest risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, diet-related obesity, smoking, recreational drugs use and overuse of alcohol, diets high in refined carbohydrates and processed foods, a family history of heart disease, physical inactivity and stress.
It’s important to consider each of these risk factors. For example, diet plays a crucial role and the tips we share in this blog are supportive of good heart health, but if you are chronically stressed, sedentary and over-consuming alcohol, these factors need to be addressed alongside helpful dietary changes.
9 healthy heart foods and nutrients to focus on
1) Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) are a type of polyunsaturated fat found in fatty/oily fish, walnuts and flaxseeds. Research has linked diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids to a decreased risk of heart disease.
Practical tip: Eat 5-6 portions of oily fish per week such as mackerel, sardines, trout, herring and salmon. This can be tinned or fresh versions. Mix a tin of sardines or mackerel with pesto and a small portion of whole wheat pasta or have it on top of dark rye toast with tomatoes, rocket and olive oil. Snack on walnuts and add ground flaxseed to smoothies or throw onto salads, stir fries and soups (after cooking).
Turmeric is a yellow-orange spice commonly used in Indian and other South Asian cooking. It is made from the root of the turmeric plant and has a peppery, warm, and slightly bitter flavour. Turmeric is also used in traditional medicine because it contains a compound called curcumin, which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects through its ability to block inflammatory chemicals.
Practical tip: use quality turmeric powder generously in all your cooking and seasoning, make ‘golden milk’ using oat or almond milk and milk with turmeric powder plus black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and nutmeg. Add a knob of fresh turmeric root into smoothies.
3) Colourful Plants
A 32 year long prospective cohort study, following participants since young adulthood, found that a high-quality, plant-centred diet over 13 years was associated with a 61% lower risk of incidence of heart disease in the subsequent 12 years. The phytonutrients (many and various plant chemicals) found in colourful plants exert antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, both of which are protective against heart disease. A plant-centred diet doesn’t have to mean going vegan but simply making colourful plants the basis of your meals. It’s NEVER too late to start!
Practical tip: Fill half of at least 2 plates daily with dark green leafy vegetables plus vegetables and fruits that are red, orange, yellow, purple, white and brown. Berries such as blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries are great, plus all the different herbs & spices. Frozen fruit and veg are an easy way to boost your intake. Include a JUNIUS cold-pressed juice and shot from one, many or all of our colour-coded pillars to increase your intake of heart healthy plant chemicals / phytonutrients.
4) Extra virgin olive oil
Just half a tablespoon of olive oil per day was found to benefit heart health. The main beneficial fat in olive oil is oleic acid, which studies show may reduce inflammation and LDL cholesterol, prevent excessive blood clotting and protect and improve the lining of blood vessels.
Practical tip: drizzle a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil over your salads and other meals and soups daily.
Magnesium is a mineral that helps regulate blood pressure and heart rhythm. High blood pressure is a significant risk factor for heart disease so adding more magnesium foods and perhaps taking a magnesium supplement is helpful for a healthy heart.
Practical tip: Increase magnesium-rich foods such as dark green leafy vegetables, almonds, pumpkin seeds, avocados and dark chocolate (at least 85%)!
Potassium has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease.
Practical tip: Foods high in potassium include avocados, butter beans, bananas, spinach, coconut water (no sugar added) and sweet potato.
7) Vitamin D
Studies have shown that people with higher levels of vitamin D in their blood have a lower risk of developing heart disease than those with lower levels. Vitamin D helps to regulate calcium and phosphorus levels in the body, which are important for maintaining healthy bones, muscles, and heart. It also helps to lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and improve overall blood vessel health. Furthermore, vitamin D has been linked to improved cholesterol levels, which can help reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Practical tip: The BEST source of vitamin D is sunlight! We don't get anywhere near enough of it in the UK and so it’s important to test your levels about twice a year and supplement accordingly with a quality vitamin D (preferably liquid) product such as JUNIUS ZAP-D3. Foods that contain some vitamin D include cod liver oil, wild salmon, mackerel, egg yolks and any fortified foods.
Diets high in refined carbohydrates, sugar and processed foods are a risk factor for heart disease. One of the mechanisms of action is the constant spikes in blood sugar, which causes the pancreas to release insulin, a hormone that instructs cells to absorb sugar for energy and storage. Over time, these constant blood sugar spikes and increased production of insulin can cause inflammation, weight gain and elevations in cholesterol, all of which are risk factors for diabetes and heart disease. A great way to minimise blood sugar spikes and keep blood sugar levels within a healthy range is to eat more protein.
Practical tip: Include a hand size portion of protein with every meal such as any fish, organic, grass-fed lamb or beef, chicken, turkey, eggs, beans, lentils, tofu or tempeh. To further increase protein intake where needed, try adding a quality, unflavoured protein powder into a smoothie made with berries, avocado and green leaves.
9) B12, Folate (B9) and B6
These three B vitamins are important for keeping the amino acid homocysteine within a healthy range. High homocysteine levels are a risk factor for heart disease including coronary artery disease, heart attack, stroke and deep vein thrombosis. Deficiencies in Folate, B6 and B12 are associated with high homocysteine so it’s important to ensure you are taking these nutrients in daily through your food. If you are concerned about your homocysteine levels, they can be measured with a simple blood test through your GP.
Practical tip: Foods rich in folate include broccoli and other dark green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach, asparagus, cos lettuce and avocados. Foods rich in vitamin B6 include avocados, spinach, sunflower seeds, pistachio nuts and prunes. Vitamin B12 is exclusively found in animal foods such as beef, chicken, fish and eggs and it’s especially rich in organ meats such as chicken and beef liver.
Start with one of these 9 tips and continue to build on this as you move through 2023. Be in it for the long haul rather than trying to make too many changes at once. Perhaps you are already incorporating one or more of these tips, which is great and you can just start to add in the missing pieces.