February is international heart month – an initiative supported by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) to raise awareness of heart conditions and the preventative measures you can take to reduce the risk of experiencing them.
Nutrition plays a key role in maintaining good cardiovascular health.
A balanced diet can help keep cholesterol levels and blood pressure at healthy levels, as well as supporting dyslipidaemia (altered cholesterol levels) and hypertension (raised blood pressure).
This month we asked one of Odhealth’s registered nutritionists to explain the role of nutrition when it comes to heart health, with a particular focus on two specific aspects of cardiovascular health:
- Raised cholesterol
- Blood pressure levels
How does nutrition affect cholesterol levels and blood pressure?
Cholesterol is a type of fat naturally produced by the liver and which can be found in certain food sources.
Although plagued with a negative reputation, Cholesterol is actually essential for healthy cell membranes and hormone production and it is only when cholesterol levels become excessive that health issues can occur.
An unhealthy level of cholesterol can occur for a number of reasons including genetics, insulin resistance or excessive dietary intake of saturated fats. When this occurs, cholesterol levels within the body can rise and the liver can struggle to keep the balance between production and clearance of cholesterol.
Altered regulation of body fluids because of excessive salt intake can also contribute to a raised blood pressure level.
How can I successfully manage my cholesterol and blood pressure?
There are different dietary interventions useful to promote overall cardiovascular health, manage high cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
The basics start with reducing sodium (salt) intake, reducing ready-made meals and take-away which are usually loaded with salt, whilst increasing green leafy vegetables containing magnesium and potassium can be a winning strategy.
However, it is important to remember that every person is different, and depending on symptoms, lifestyle and more; the best approach is to speak to a registered nutritionist and get tailored advice on a regular basis, to form the right life-changing habits and understanding.
What nutrients are most important for heart health?
As mentioned, it’s important to get personalised advice. That said, let’s look at an overview of the basics.
Research shows the importance of omega 3 fatty acids (oily fish is one of the main sources) to regulate unbalanced cholesterol levels and support blood vessels structure.
Antioxidants such as resveratrol, found in the skin of red grapes, blueberries, cranberries and some nuts can also be protective and supportive for cardiovascular health.
CoQ10 is also a key nutrient that several studies associate with reduction on both LDL and total levels of cholesterol. Best sources are again oily fish, wholegrains and organ meats.
Another thing to consider is to read food labels carefully, and avoid foods with high levels of added salt and saturated fats. The “traffic light” system on food packages is useful for this goal, highlighting in red foods with high levels of those nutrients.
Exercise is also a key factor in maintaining cardiovascular health, and being active on a daily bases should be considered a priority.
As mentioned, a diet rich in saturated fat sources such as cured meat, butter, cheese, biscuits, cakes and many pre-packaged produces can negatively impact cholesterol levels.