A healthy heart is arguably one of the most vital factors in maintaining physical wellbeing. In humans, the heart starts to beat within a couple days of conception and has to continue unceasingly from then onwards.
Various factors can place this hard-working pump under additional strain and reduce its ability to keep working effectively. In South Africa, cardiovascular disease (which includes heart disease and stroke) is second only to HIV/AIDS as a leading cause of death.
The good news is that many of the risk factors for developing heart disease can be reduced by a change of lifestyle. Some of the more common risk factors include smoking, being overweight, being physically inactive, a high “bad” cholesterol (LDL-cholesterol) and low “good” cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol), the presence of Diabetes Mellitus and high blood pressure.
Dietary modification plays a major role in reducing these risk factors. To achieve these changes we need to navigate some murky waters. Why is it that with more reduced fat / trans fat free / cholesterol free products available, obesity and cardiovascular disease continues to increase??
To get started, let’s focus on just 3 dietary changes:
Firstly, reduce the total fat content of your meals. Even if “healthier” fats are being used, it is important to use them sparingly. Rather bake / grill / casserole / microwave foods instead of frying. Use lean cuts of meat and trim off all excess fat before cooking – that way you avoid the temptation!
Secondly, aim to increase the proportion of mono- and poly-unsaturated fats (almonds, walnuts, sunflower / sesame / pumpkin seeds, avocado, canola and olive oil) to that of saturated fats (from animal products, palm oil and coconut oil, commercial biscuits / cakes, chocolates). Changing these proportions will help you to get the “bad” cholesterol levels down and reduce risk of heart disease.
The third change that will improve your overall health is increasing fruit and vegetable intake. Aim to eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables (combined total) every day. Diets rich in vegetables and fruit have been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce risk of cardiovascular disease (particularly stroke). Use a variety of fresh fruit or crunchy vegetables as teatime snacks instead of the traditional biscuit break! Enjoy some cooked or fresh vegetables with lunch and supper everyday.
Where is your heart?
Measuring your waist circumference is a quick way to test your risk of cardiovascular disease. Pass a tape measure around your relaxed stomach at belly-button level and interpret your measurement according to the following values:
< 80cm is considered healthy
80-88cm increases cardiovascular risk by 1.5–2 times
>88cm increases risk by 2.6 times
94cm is considered healthy
94–102 cm increases cardiovascular risk by 1.5–2 times
>102cm increases risk by 4–6 times