Our dietitian Lily ‘lentil’ talks through six evidence-based ways we can all protect our heart health – no matter your level of heart disease risk.
We often only think about our heart health when we have a routine blood test or blood pressure reading. But given lifestyle plays a major role in our heart health, there is plenty we can all be doing to minimise our risk of heart disease throughout life.
Most of us know the basics. Move your body, get enough sleep and eat healthy food but putting it into practice can be the hardest part.
No matter where you at on your health journey – it’s never too late to lead a healthier lifestyle. In fact, lifestyle changes improve outcomes in people with risk factors like high cholesterol and in people who have existing heart disease too.
Here are some of the top ways you can support optimal heart health:
1. Eat meals based around whole foods
There’s plenty of evidence on the dietary patterns which support our heart health including the Mediterranean, DASH diet and vegetarian diets. All these dietary patterns have a common theme of plenty of fibre-rich, colourful veggies and fruit. They may also include whole grains, heart-healthy fats from avocado, nuts, seeds and oily fish and protein from beans, legumes and seafood.
Top tip: If you’re a Fresh Start customer, heart-healthy meals are perfect choice for anyone who wants to pair eating well with their heart health in mind. Recipes have been developed with support from the Heart Foundation and focus on heart-healthy ingredients paired with herbs, spices, chilli and carefully selected dressings to deliver the flavour!
2. Dial back on highly processed foods
You’ll likely know that eating less processed food is better for your health, but research shows that the degree of processing also plays a part. You may have heard the term ‘ultra-processed foods’. These are foods made using industrial processing methods and containing ingredients you wouldn’t usually find in your food cupboard.
The latest research shows an association between greater intakes of ultra-processed foods with an increased risk of health conditions, like high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer and stroke. However, it’s not always black and white because the amount of food processing isn’t always linked to poor nutrition. Some processed foods give our diets valuable nutrients like bread and yoghurt or they are a vehicle for healthier ingredients.
Top tip: Read the ingredients list! In general, a more processed food will have a longer list of ingredients with many names you can’t recognise and a greater likelihood of high sugar, saturated fat and salt levels.
3. Prioritise sleep
Poor sleep can impact on your heart health particularly your blood pressure. During normal sleep your blood pressure goes down. However, when you don’t get enough sleep your blood pressure stays higher for a longer period (1).
Insomnia is also linked to high blood pressure and heart disease. Over time, poor sleep can also lead to habits that impact on your heart, including higher stress levels, motivation to exercise, and less healthy food choices.
Top tip: Try to get around 7-9 hours of good quality sleep each night. If that’s difficult, try going to bed a little earlier a few nights a week and catch-up on sleep on the weekend.
4. Dial back on alcohol
For many years, there’s been the belief that drinking alcohol protects against heart disease and that red wine is good for the heart. We now know this is not the case!!
Alcohol can affect your heart in many ways (2):
- It impairs the function of the endothelium which is the thin layer of cells lining the inside of the heart and blood vessels.
- It increases your heart rate.
- It’s linked to increased blood pressure.
Recent evidence from the Heart Foundations latest position statement on alcohol has become stronger and clearly shows that any amount of alcohol you drink raises the risk of heart disease.
5. Move your body
Anything we can do to sit less and move more is associated with better heart health (3). It can help to manage many of the risk factors connected with heart disease like your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels (3).
At least 150 minutes of physical activity is recommended each week (that’s about 2.5 hours). Aim for this to be moderate-intensity, which makes you feel warmer and breathe harder than normal but still able to talk. The more you can do above this – the better for your heart health.
Top tip: with the warmer weather try mixing up your routine and building in a way to move your body at the start, middle or end of the day.
6. Know your risk
One of the best things you can do minimise your risk of heart disease is to know your risk!
Top tip: get the ball rolling and find out about your personal risk of heart disease by using the Heart Foundations My Heart Check tool. It takes five minutes to complete and gives you a heart health score which you can use to have a conversation next time your visit your GP.
- Calhoun DA, Harding SM. Sleep and hypertension. Chest. 2010;138(2):434–443.
- Andreasson S CT, Dangardt F, Holder H et al. Alcohol and Society 2023: Alcohol and blood pressure. Stockholm: Swedish Society of Nursing, SFAM, SAFF, CERA, The Swedish Society of Addiction Medicine, SIGHT, Movendi International, Swedish Heart and Lung Association, SLAN & IOGT-NTO 2023.
- Heart Foundation Physical activity, Sedentary Behaviour and Heart Health Evidence paper, 2018