As it’s February, in the spirit of St Valentines, this blog post is shaped around looking after your heart and achieving heart health!
What is heart health?
Your heart beats around 100,000 times per day, delivering blood, oxygen and nutrients around your entire system and to each organ, so you can function well. (1)
If your heart or circulatory system isn’t working as it should, you will be at higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, including:
- Coronary heart disease (heart attack)
- Vascular dementia
What measures are we looking at for a healthy heart?
There are a number of measures we can look into regarding heart health. The main one I am going to focus on throughout this article is cholesterol.
What is cholesterol and what are the different types?
Cholesterol gets a bit of a bad rep, but it is actually an essential component of each of our cells as well as for hormonal function (1). There are a number of different types of cholesterol within the blood:
- Total cholesterol: Ideally this should be less than 5mmol/l
- LDL: this is your ‘bad’ cholesterol. LDL deposits cholesterol within arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease. There are actually 6 different types of LDL or ‘bad cholesterol’, with the smaller, denser LDL particles putting you at higher risk of heart disease (types 3-6). LDL cholesterol should be less than 3.0mol/l.
- HDL: this is your ‘good’ cholesterol. HDL particles travel through the blood and remove LDL particles, so there are less fatty deposits sitting within your vessels. This should be >1.0mmol/l for males and >1.2mmol/l for females. Optimally we are looking for around 1.4mmol/l.
- TAG: This is another type of fat within your blood. High levels put you at risk of cardiovascular disease. This should be <1.7mmol/l fasted and <2.3mmol/l non-fasted.
How can I adapt my diet?
It is a myth that the cholesterol in food is directly linked to the cholesterol in your blood and in most cases, you do not need to significantly cut down on foods which are high in cholesterol such as eggs and shellfish.
What we do need to look at is the types of fat you are including. Typically, we want to reduce saturated fats. These tend to be solid at room temperature and include animal fats as well as those added to processed foods, for example biscuits and cakes. Swapping saturated fats for unsaturated fats (typically liquid at room temperature) such as oily fish, olive oil and nuts/seeds can help improve blood cholesterol levels.
There are some specific products, which have been shown to further reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol:
The recommended dose is 1 serving daily, to slowly increase to 2-3 servings per day and on an ongoing basis. For example: 100g tofu (firm or silken), 100g soya mince, 80g edamame beans, 250mls fortified soya milk, 150g plain soya yoghurt.
One palmful per day is the recommended level (30g). These should be unsalted and unsweetened.
The level included is key here as improvements in cholesterol have only been shown with an additional 2g per day. Check the label to see how much is in a product. Often yoghurt drinks and pots fortified with plant stanols/sterols have the full serving in one pot.
Oats and barley
These products contain a fibre called beta-glucan which lowers cholesterol. Serving size is key, and for the desired effect you need around 3g of beta-glucan per day. A 30g bowl of porridge or oat-based cereal contains around 1g beta-glucan, so you would need some additional oat or barley based products later in the day to ensure you are getting enough. (2)
How does exercise play a role?
Exercise can increase your HDL (good cholesterol). Recommendations are for 30 minutes of physical activity, 5 times per week, including cardiovascular exercise and strength training. (3)
Including a post-meal walk can help clear circulating fat levels more quickly.
What about gut health?
It is now known there is a link between gut health and cardiovascular health. A high fibre, Mediterranean style diet can improve microbial diversity and lower cholesterol levels, independent of total energy intake. (4)
Aiming for 30g of fibre per day is beneficial, with studies showing further benefits with levels above 30g/day. (5)
Top takeaways for looking after your heart health!
- Swap saturated fats for unsaturated fats
- Increase your total fibre intake and plant-based diversity
- Get moving, choose something you enjoy and can be consistent with
- Consider additional oats, nuts & plant sterols!
If you have any questions regarding the above, or would like to discuss how to implement these tips into your own heart healthy lifestyle, please book here for an initial appointment with myself or one of our expert team.
- Heartuk.org.uk. (2019). HEART UK – The Cholesterol Charity. [online] Available at: https://www.heartuk.org.uk/.
- ULTIMATE CHOLESTEROL LOWERING PLAN © ULTIMATE CHOLESTEROL LOWERING PLAN. (n.d.). [online] Available at: https://www.heartuk.org.uk/downloads/uclp-consumer-booklet.pdf [Accessed 5 Feb. 2023].
- Mann, S., Beedie, C. and Jimenez, A. (2013). Differential Effects of Aerobic Exercise, Resistance Training and Combined Exercise Modalities on Cholesterol and the Lipid Profile: Review, Synthesis and Recommendations. Sports Medicine, [online] 44(2), pp.211–221. doi:10.1007/s40279-013-0110-5.
- Meslier, V., Laiola, M., Roager, H.M., Filippis, F.D., Roume, H., Quinquis, B., Giacco, R., Mennella, I., Ferracane, R., Pons, N., Pasolli, E., Rivellese, A., Dragsted, L.O., Vitaglione, P., Ehrlich, S.D. and Ercolini, D. (2020). Mediterranean diet intervention in overweight and obese subjects lowers plasma cholesterol and causes changes in the gut microbiome and metabolome independently of energy intake. Gut. [online] doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2019-320438.
- Reynolds, A.N., Akerman, A., Kumar, S., Diep Pham, H.T., Coffey, S. and Mann, J. (2022). Dietary fibre in hypertension and cardiovascular disease management: systematic review and meta-analyses. BMC Medicine, 20(1). doi:10.1186/s12916-022-02328-x.