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10 Tips to Get Heart Smart

By Dr. Paul Palmer, a plant-based nutrition consultant

Have a change of heart this Heart Awareness Month and make small but significant adjustments for a healthy and happy life.

Remember when doctors prescribed “healthy” cigarettes and smoking as a something that was “good for you”? Luckily, much has changed over the last few decades. Preventative care is fast becoming an approach to health for many people. Yet heart disease – which can be prevented – is still one of the leading causes of deaths in South Africa. Once thought to only be a disease for the elderly, more than half of heart-related deaths now affect people under the age of 65 years, while over 17 million people die every year from cardiovascular disease, according the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization (WHO). It’s a staggering number when one considers that 80% of these premature deaths can be prevented by eating better, moving more and avoiding smoking.

This September, love your heart during Heart Awareness Month and show your support for World Heart Day on 29 September by making a few, small changes to your diet and overall lifestyle, while improving your heart’s health and increasing your longevity. Here are our top ten tips on how to get wholeheartedly healthy!

1. Eat more plants

Scientific evidence links the consumption of meat and meat products to numerous diseases. “The World Health Organization (WHO) recently officially placed red and processed meat at the same danger level as cigarettes and asbestos, now making what people are calling meat the new tobacco”, says Dr. Joanne Kong.

In the United States, the most common cause of death is heart disease at 28.5%. The average US male’s risk of death from heart disease if he eats meat is 50%, eats a vegetarian diet is 15% and eats a vegan diet is 4%. These findings come from an accumulation of studies and publications cited in the 2017 health investigation documentary, What The Health. By replacing animal foods and highly refined carbs with whole plant foods is a proven way to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.

2. Eat fruit & veg to boost fibre intake & lower cholesterol

A well-rounded diet should be abundant with veggies, leafy greens, legumes, beans, nuts, whole grains and fruit. These foods are rich in dietary fibre which helps to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol . Fibre interacts with the bad cholesterol in your digestive tract and helps to remove it quickly from the body, decreasing the amount of LDL cholesterol absorbed.

The minimum daily requirement of fibre is 31.5g, but we currently get less than half that amount. The question shouldn’t be “where do you get your protein?”, but rather “where do you get your fibre?” Low blood cholesterol levels can be achieved by replacing some animal proteins with plant proteins like legumes, soy and oats, and with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats found in avocados, nuts and seeds.

3. Take your omega-3s

Essential omega-3 fats are important for a healthy heart, reducing risk of diabetes and helping to support normal cholesterol levels. Essential omega-3 fats are called “essential” because our bodies cannot make them. This is why we see fish and fish oils usually stated as the go-to recommendations.

Eating a varied diet that is plentiful in plants will deliver adequate omega 3s and 6s. Good sources of linoleic acid, the essential omega-6 fat, include hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts and soya spread.

It’s important to note that eating enough ALA (the essential omega-3, alpha-linoleic acid) may require more planning. To ensure your body is balanced and converts both ALA and LA into other important fats, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) equally, consider a plant-based supplement and double your daily intake of ALA-based foods like chia, hemp and flax seeds.

4. Use heart-smart cooking alternatives

When cooking at home consider using an air fryer instead of a deep fryer, stove and even the oven! An air fryer is a nifty kitchen appliance that uses hot air to cook, roast and even bake food with minimal to no oil without compromising on flavour, texture or taste.

5. Eat the rainbow for a nutritional boost

A predominantly plant-based diet is rich in a host of nutrients that are heart-protective. Eat the rainbow and consume a colourful array of fruit and veggies that are rich in antioxidants, plant sterols, phytochemicals, iron and potassium, all thought to reduce the risk of heart disease.

According to the AHA, potassium helps to reduce the effects of sodium, which raises blood pressure. Some great sources of potassium, other than bananas, include legumes, sweet potato, Swiss chard, spinach, apricots, orange juice and tomatoes.

6. Eat more soy

Soy plays a role in keeping your heart healthy as the protein found in soybeans has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels. According to a study, soybeans contain additional components, such as isoflavones, lecithins, saponins and fibre that may be beneficial to cardiovascular health by improving blood pressure, glycaemic control, obesity, and inflammation. Look for products that contain non-GMO soy as an ingredient. Meat alternatives companies like The Fry Family Food Co. make a range of products that combine soy protein with other ingredients and plant proteins like quinoa and buckwheat.

7. Improve cardiovascular fitness

Any movement is better than sitting still when it comes to improving your heart health. Increase your cardiovascular fitness with running, cycling, circuit training, or high-intensity interval training. This kind of exercise causes the blood to pump much harder and that forces the arterial wall to stretch, improving the elasticity of the arteries. Alternate between intensity and between upper and lower body exercises with minimal rest periods for maximum results.

8. Strength train for a stronger heart

Weight training is as important for building muscle mass as it is for building a strong heart. After all, your heart is a muscle! Lifting weights and even using your own body weight, is effective in burning fat, improving bone health and strengthening your heart. Yoga is also great for strength and muscle toning. Different styles of yoga like Ashtanga or Power Vinyasa keeps your heart elevated throughout the class.

9. Reduce smoking and drinking

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, cigarette smoking causes about 1 in every 5 deaths in the United States each year. The chemicals in tobacco smoke harm your blood cells, the function of your heart, and the structure and function of your blood vessels. This damage increases your risk of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease, leading to raised blood pressure, chest pain, heart attack, heart failure, arrhythmias, and even death. Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke can help reverse heart and blood vessel damage and reduce heart disease risk.

10. Cook for your heart, with your heart

By eating a predominantly plant-based diet, or reducing your meat consumption, you are not only eating a diet that is good for your heart, but it also means you are you are making a powerful ethical statement. By avoiding animal-based products from your diet, you withdraw support from cruelty to animals. Choosing to back the production of cruelty-free foods means you are not only cooking for your heart, but also with your heart.

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