Eating for a Healthy Heart – The Role of Nutrition in Cardiovascular Health


A heart-healthy diet focused on nutritionally-dense foods can significantly reduce your risk of cardiovascular diseases (CVD). It is well-established that a poor diet can lead to the development of type 2 diabetes and obesity, both of which are leading risk factors of CVD. Presently in India, CVD is responsible for a quarter of all deaths. In the long run, a healthy diet is a sustainable option for maintaining heart health and reducing the risk of acquiring related diseases.

Cardiovascular-related illnesses are responsible for the highest number of premature deaths in India. One of the reasons behind this disease burden is changes in Indian dietary practices. The introduction of fast food and processed food to the naturally healthy Indian diet has led to adverse impacts on heart health among Indians. The growing burden of CVD in countries like India can be attributed to people trading a traditionally healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables for a calorie-dense diet filled with animal fats and refined carbohydrates. Such dietary changes have dramatically increased the risk of CVD among Indians.

Healthy Diet for a Healthy Heart

In addition to receiving treatment for a CVD, it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle which consists of consuming a heart-healthy diet. Dietary intervention does not mean completely eliminating components from your diet. Rather, it is focused on providing you with a healthy combination of multiple foods and nutrients. Therefore, a healthy diet can have beneficial effects on disease management without the patient having to make many compromises. A diet can be suited to your personal preference, geographical region, and even willingness to spend on food. Therefore, while some diets like “DASH” (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the Mediterranean diet can be implemented, it is more important to check whether the diet suits your personal lifestyle so that it can be maintained in the long run. The basic components and requirements of a heart-healthy diet can consequently be applied to suit the Indian patient so that they don’t have to compromise on their personal tastes and dietary preferences. Even small dietary changes can have beneficial effects on CVD management and risk reduction.

Carbohydrates: A Friend and a Foe

There are two types of carbohydrates to keep in mind when considering a heart-healthy diet: complex carbohydrates and refined carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates provide you with nourishing vitamins, minerals, and fibre. You should make the conscious choice to consume complex carbohydrates rather than refined carbohydrates, or “empty calories” as the latter lack the vital nutrients found  in complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are found in foods like whole grains, beans, fibre-dense fruits and vegetables, and nuts. Refined carbohydrates are present in sugar-sweetened beverages, fruits juices, breakfast cereals, packaged biscuits, and baked treats.

Foods like whole grains are rich in complex carbohydrates that contain fibre. Fibre aids in digestion and in decreasing cholesterol levels. Fibre-rich foods can also promote a healthy weight as they tend to be more filling, thus, preventing you from overeating. The Indian diet is naturally rich in whole grains, or even if found to be lacking, can easily be added to  your diet. For example, consider switching to 100% whole wheat flour to make chapatis and rotis. Millets like Nachni, Jowar, and Bajra can also be added to the flour to enrich it with more whole grains. It is also effective to substitute white rice with fibre-rich and cholesterol-reducing brown rice. Brown rice promotes fullness and contributes to weight loss in the long run. Additionally, limiting refined carbohydrates in your diet can also promote a healthy weight and lower your risk of obesity. So, start making complex carbohydrates your friend and refined carbohydrates your nemesis.

Salt and Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, or hypertension  is one the prime causes of poor heart health among several patients. One of the reasons for this is because our diets have become increasingly high in salt. Salt affects the body’s water retention. Therefore, when you eat too much salt, the extra water stored in the body can raise your blood pressure.

Controlling your salt intake is not as difficult as you may think. It is important to remember that our daily required amount of salt (around 1 teaspoon) is probably already present in basic foods we eat like bread, breakfast cereals, and ready meats. Therefore, there is no need to add a lot of salt to the food while cooking or even at the dinner table. Remember to read packaging labels to watch out for foods high in sodium or foods that may contain preservatives high in sodium. Foods rich in potassium like banana and cooked spinach play a vital role in removing salt from the body. Tandoor-based dishes and gravies rich in yoghurt, vegetables, or even potatoes can reduce the risk of excess salt consumption. When dining out or even preparing a homemade salad, limit the use of dressings. These are often high in salt and empty calories.

Fruits and Vegetables – Your Heart’s Best Friends

Health experts strongly advise the consumption of fruits and vegetables to reduce your risk of CVD. Due to the seasonal availability of fruits and vegetables, it is possible to include a wide variety of them in your diet. Indian cuisine is naturally rich in vegetables. However, consuming them in the right form is key. While cooking your vegetables, it is always advisable to use plant-based oils like canola, olive, or soybean oil. It is also important to not overcook the vegetables as this may lead to the loss of vital micronutrients. Non-starchy vegetables like cauliflower and zucchini may also be used as alternatives for starchy foods like rice and potatoes which have a higher caloric density. Eating foods low in starch is essential in reducing the risk of diabetes and, in the long run, CVD. Fresh fruits can be added as natural sweeteners to your diet to reduce the irresistible sugar cravings you may have. The consumption of fresh fruits instead of foods containing refined sugar reduces your risk of diabetes and also boosts your metabolism.

Tips for a Heart-Healthy diet

A heart-healthy diet does not require drastic lifestyle changes and starting an entirely new diet regimen. You can start your journey to a healthy heart with simple changes in the way you prepare and eat food. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Avoid packaged and processed foods as much as possible. They are loaded with refined carbohydrates and salt, which can be detrimental to your heart in the long run. Swap these foods with healthier alternatives like nuts and fresh fruits.
  • Make fresh fruits and vegetables your best friends. These nutritionally dense foods will go a long way in protecting your heart and overall health. Incorporating more fibre-rich options will also keep you full for a long time and hence, reduce your urge to snack.
  • Pay attention to the way you prepare your meals. Reduce the amount of salt you add to dishes and use healthier cooking oils. You can also substitute salt with different herbs and spices to retain the flavour profiles of your favourite dishes.

Eating healthy can help you recover from existing risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure and diabetes, and it can reduce your risk of more heart problems.

Results

#1. Which of the following is a validated example of a heart healthy diet?

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