Become heart healthy by following dietitian Lisa Yates’ simple, 10-step challenge.
Think you’re not at risk of heart disease? So did most heart disease patients, once. Nine in 10 of us have at least one risk factor that we can change, so it’s worth following our 10 steps. Don’t risk it.
Are you at risk of coronary heart disease or stroke?
- You have a family member with: heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, overweight/obesity.
- You have been through menopause.
- You are overweight.
- You have impaired glucose tolerance or diabetes.
- You have high blood pressure.
- You have high blood cholesterol.
- You eat many foods high in saturated fat (and at the same time, not enough plant foods).
- You salt your food.
- You are a smoker.
- You exercise less than 30 minutes a day.
- You often feel stressed, depressed or socially isolated
If you’ve checked off three or more, talk to your GP.
Every 10 minutes, an Australian loses their life to Coronary Heart Disease (CHD). According to the National Heart Foundation, the incidence of heart disease has risen an alarming 18 per cent over the last decade. In fact, CHD was responsible for 34 per cent of all Australian deaths in 2006 – deaths that were largely preventable. Help protect yourself by following these steps to heart health.
Step 1: Get to know your numbers
Do you know your cholesterol and blood pressure levels? Since one in two Australians aged 25 years and older has high blood cholesterol and one in three has high blood pressure, this could be you. See your GP annually and keep tabs on these numbers: both high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure are two important risk factors for CHD.
Step 2: Start by losing just 5–10 per cent of your current weight
About 52 per cent of women and 58 per cent of men aged 25 and over are overweight or obese – which increases your risk of developing CHD up to three times over. Your risk also increases if you store fat around your tummy, as this fat is considered more dangerous than fat on the thighs and buttocks. But lose just 5–10 per cent of your body weight and you’ll see a drop in blood pressure and cholesterol. If you weigh 100kg lose 10kg, 90kg loss 9kg and so on.
Step 3: Try eating a Mediterranean diet
A Mediterranean diet loaded with fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and olive oil can reduce the risk of CHD by about 30 per cent. See 'Heart smart on a budget' (below) for more inspiring healthy heart choices.
Step 4: Check your stress
Stress has many detrimental effects on the body and one of those is an increased risk of developing heart disease. Luckily, simple things can help you manage it.
Practice yoga, listen to music, take a walk or a bath, use candles, get adequate sleep (eight hours a night), and make an effort to laugh more – laughing has been found to reduce stress and benefit your heart health.
Physical touch is important too: studies have shown that frequent hugs can slow blood pressure and heart rate, reduce stress in women and increase levels of oxytocin, a ‘feel-good’ hormone.
Finally, don’t ‘bottle up’ your emotions. Research has found that women who keep their feelings to themselves are four times more likely to die from CHD.
Step 5: Kick the salt
Recent research suggests that reducing salt intake by 25–35 per cent can lead to a 20 per cent reduction in CHD and stroke, so toss out that old salt shaker and avoid adding salt when cooking. Instead, look for salt-reduced or no-added salt products, packaged foods marked with less than 120mg sodium per 100g on the label, and flavour your meals with herbs and spices instead.
Step 6: Eat healthy fats
The low-fat, no-fat mantra of the ‘80s and ‘90s didn’t help reduce CHD risk because we need to eat the healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats to help regulate cholesterol production. Try a handful of nuts most days, fish three times a week, avocado on salads and sandwiches, use small amounts of cooking oils and look for products rich in omega-3 fats (a type of polyunsaturated fat) such as fish, eggs, certain milks and yoghurts.
Step 7: Quit the habit
On average, one in five Australians still smoke. Smoking not only makes your chances of developing heart disease up to six times more likely, it increases the risk of CHD in others by 30 per cent. But within one day of quitting smoking, your blood pressure drops. Within one year of giving up a pack-a-day habit, you save more than $3500. And within two to six years of living cigarette-free, your risk of developing CHD returns to similar levels as non-smokers. For help, call Quitline on 131 848.
Step 8: Count ‘exercise minutes’
To maintain a heart-healthy weight and fitness level, we need an hour a day of exercise – but the majority of us don’t get it. To squeeze more exercise into your day, try adding in periodic, 10-minute bursts of activity. Park the car 10 minutes from the office, walk 10 minutes to the next bus stop, buy your morning coffee or lunch 10 minutes from your office or walk 10 minutes to the shops to buy those few groceries. Then, walk a little longer the next week, aiming for an hour a day. If you haven’t exercised in a while,see your GP first for that check up.
Step 9: Get a dog
Having a pet not only gets you exercising, but provides you with a source of unconditional love, which helps prevent social isolation and reduces stress. Pet ownership also increases your chances of surviving a heart attack. But overweight dogs can be at risk of heart disease too, so you both need to stay active.
Step 10: Eat low-GI carbs
This helps in two ways: firstly, the fibre in these foods can help reduce cholesterol re-absorption, thereby lowering cholesterol levels. Secondly, wholegrains help control blood glucose levels, which is important because high blood glucose levels cause proteins to become sticky and, instead of functioning properly, they accumulate in the blood, become incorporated in the walls of the arteries and form atherotic plaques.
The facts on heart disease
- In 2008, CHD was the leading cause of death in both sexes.
- Only 3 per cent of Australians realise heart disease is the leading cause of death in women.
- CHD is Australia’s most expensive disease, costing the Australian healthcare system $7.9 billion in 2002–2003. This amount is expected to rise to $10.3 billion in 2012–2013.
- Statistically, women are four times more likely to die from heart disease than they are from breast cancer.
- 90 per cent of adults have at least one modifiable risk factor for CHD and 25 per cent have three or more risk factors.
- By 2051, CHD is expected to affect one in every four of us.
Heart attack symptoms in women
Did you know that the symptoms of a female heart attack can be quite different to those typically experienced by men? Men generally have central chest pain or pressure and/or pain radiating down one arm, but women may experience pain in their shoulder or stomach – not in the chest – and feel fatigued, nauseous and dizzy in the weeks prior to the incident. Alarmingly, research has shown that more than half of female heart attacks are not spotted, so if you do experience any of these symptoms or have pain anywhere in the upper body for 10 minutes or more, go straight to the hospital.
Heart smart on a budget – heart-healthy foods under $1.50 per serve
Many of us often assume that eating healthily means eating expensive foods, but as these foods show, that’s just not the case.
- Cost: 65¢ dried, 80¢–95¢ canned per serve
- Eat: 1–2 serves a week
The humble baked bean, chickpeas, lentils and other legumes are all rich in cholesterol-lowering soluble fibre, while soybeans are rich in soy protein and fibre and can also help lower blood cholesterol.
Fruit and vegetables
- Cost: 30¢–$1.10 fresh, frozen or canned per serve
- Eat: 2 serves of fruit a day, 5 serves of vegetables a day
Fruit and veg are low in energy, but high in fibre and water. Each colour is a unique antioxidant which may protect cholesterol from sticking to your artery walls, so aim for a variety of differently coloured fruit and veg each day. Eat the skins when you can too, to get your soluble fibre – this can help reduce cholesterol re-absorption. Fresh produce is often cheaper (and may be healthier) than dried fruit, snack packs, and canned or frozen produce – but they’re all great choices.
- Cost: 50¢–90¢ per 30g
- Eat: 1 handful (30g) a day
Nuts are full of heart-friendly nutrients, fibre, plant sterols, healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and antioxidants (including vitamin E, manganese, copper, selenium and zinc). And just a handful a day can reduce your risk of CHD by 30–50 per cent.
- Cost: 4¢–18¢ per 30g serve for plain rolled oats, 40¢ per 60g serve for muesli
- Eat: Include in your minimum 4 serves of wholegrain breads and cereals a day
Oats are rich in the soluble fibre and beta-glucans proven to help lower cholesterol re-absorption. They’re also super cheap (especially home brands). Muesli is slightly more expensive, but it also contains heart-healthy nuts, seeds and dried fruit, so enjoy either one.
- Cost: From 90¢ canned per serve
- Eat: At least twice a week
Tuna, salmon and sardines are rich in omega-3 fats, which keep the heart’s healthy rhythm and prevent blood clots – especially if you already have CHD.
- Cost: From 7¢ per tablespoon
- Eat: Add a maximum of 1–2 tablespoons to your cereal each morning
Psyllium is a form of soluble fibre and is the key ingredient in Metamucil, but you can also buy in bulk bags. Psyllium helps reduce cholesterol re-absorption.
- Cost: 75¢ per quarter
- Eat: Use occasionally in place of other spreads or add 1/4 avocado to daily salad
Studies have shown that replacing the butter on your bread or switching the mayo in your salad with avocado, can lower your cholesterol, so eat up.
Plant sterol margarines
- Cost: 40¢–45¢ per tablespoon
- Eat: 1 tablespoon a day for 3 weeks
Plant sterols are another component in food that helps prevent cholesterol re-absorption. The 500g tub may seem expensive, but there are 25 serves per tub – nearly a month’s worth.
- Cost: From 9¢ per 20g
- Eat: Add to breakfast cereal (if they don’t already contain nuts)
Wheatgerm is high in vitamin E, a heart-healthy antioxidant that stops high-fat foods such as wheatgerm, nuts and oils from going rancid too quickly. It’s also known as ‘anti-rust’ for our bodies. Unfortunately, research has shown that vitamin E supplements don’t work, so it’s important that you get vitamin E from food.
- Cost: 22¢–52¢ per egg
- Eat: A couple of times a week (there are no longer any restrictions on egg consumption)
Eggs may be high in dietary cholesterol, but it’s now proven that dietary cholesterol has little effect on your blood cholesterol level. It’s actually the saturated fat in your diet that your liver uses to make blood cholesterol, so enjoy regular eggs or eggs fortified with heart-healthy omega-3 fats.
- Cost: From $1.00 per 150–200g
- Eat: Include in your three serves of low-fat dairy each day
Low-fat yoghurt is low in saturated fat, but still loaded with calcium, which is an important fat-cell ‘communicator’ needed for a healthy weight.