Research shows that up to 90 per cent of heart disease can be prevented with a healthy diet and lifestyle habits such as exercise and avoiding smoking.
When it comes to food, Dr Itsiopoulos says the Mediterranean diet is particularly effective in reducing the risk of both primary heart disease and a secondary attack.
“The fact that it’s based on extra virgin olive oil as opposed to other types of oils or fats means that it’s rich in polyphenols, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,” she explains.
“There’s many studies to show that anti-inflammatory polyphenols are important for preventing cholesterol from becoming atherogenic and sticking to your arteries and leading to heart disease.”
With the coronavirus pandemic bringing the value of health into sharp focus this year, a heart-smart diet may also be a savvy way to improve overall wellbeing.
The key elements of a Mediterranean diet – plenty of plant foods, small amounts of lean meat and dairy, and healthy fats from extra virgin olive oil, fish and nuts – have flow-on benefits for weight, gut health and mood.
“A diet that has this anti-inflammatory focus affects all organs, all risk for all chronic diseases that have a link to inflammation,” Dr Itsiopoulos says.
What to eat
Dietitian Joel Feren agrees that the Mediterranean diet “appears to get the balance right” for heart health, and following it doesn’t have to be confusing or restrictive.
“The focus should be on eating whole foods,” he explains. “Think plenty of fresh vegetables, fruit, dairy, wholegrains, lean proteins, nuts and seeds. And aiming for two to three tablespoons of extra virgin olive each day is the cherry on top!”
Mixed messaging around carbohydrates can lead to people avoiding a food group that offers important nutrients such as fibre, Feren notes.
“Carbs in the form of wholegrains are necessary for good heart health, contrary to popular opinion,” explains Feren.
“Research shows that people who regularly include wholegrains as part of their diet have lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure rates and are less likely to develop diabetes and certain cancers.”
People also worry about dairy, says Dr Itsiopoulos, but full-cream milk, a little cheese and a daily serve of yoghurt are important sources of bone- and heart-protective calcium.
“People think ‘I need to be low-fat everything’, but that’s not necessarily the case, particularly when you’re choosing healthy fat,” Dr Itsiopoulos explains.
Dietitian and co-founder of Health & Performance Collective Chloe McLeod says another way to approach a heart-healthy diet is to “eat the rainbow”.
“Antioxidants are high in fruit and vegetables, so it can be beneficial to think about adding in plenty of colour into your meals,” she says.
Doing this can help to crowd out the processed food that negatively impacts heart health, such as fried food, baked goods, lollies and sugary drinks.
“It’s not necessary to cut these foods out completely, but instead we should focus on having them occasionally and in small amounts only,” says McLeod.
Famously, the Mediterranean diet includes small amounts of antioxidant-rich red wine – around one to two small glasses a day is considered beneficial. However, Dr Itsiopoulos recommends sticking to the NHMRC guidelines of no more than 10 standard drinks a week.
“The Mediterranean way of drinking is always with food,” she adds. “That’s important in the way your body metabolises the alcohol slowly.”
Similarly, a slow and steady attitude to adopting a heart-healthy diet – such as cooking from scratch as often as you can and opting for fresh fruit or raw nuts for an afternoon snack – can help you make long-lasting changes.
With few physical warning signs for heart disease, it’s important to be proactive, says Feren.
“It’s a silent killer. We often don’t feel the effects of high blood pressure and there are no physical warnings of high cholesterol or blood sugar levels,” he points out.
“So, it’s clear that we need to be vigilant and eat better to protect our hearts.”
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