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by Maureen Tilley, PDt


It’s well known that a healthy lifestyle can have multiple benefits to our health and well being, including improved mental health and physical mobility, and reduced risk and management of chronic disease such as heart disease. We all want this lifestyle but the difficulty in leading such a life may negatively impact our wellbeing in and out of itself.

For health care professionals, it can be challenging to determine the best approach in promoting and provoking lifestyle change. The standard approach usually involves increasing awareness with statements such as, “Did you know heart disease is the second leading cause of death among Canadians?” “Children and adolescents are being diagnosed with risk factors for heart disease including high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.”

These facts are often followed by naming all the tasty high-fat and sugary foods that should be taken away. If these tactics provoke change, it’s likely with negative feelings such as fear and deprivation. These changes are often short-lived once fear subsides or deprivation reaches its max.

Regardless of the truth in the statements above, there has to be a balance of what’s individually enjoyable and realistic to promote sustained change. What if a more positive approach was taken? Did you know you can add foods to promote heart health and reduce various risk factors for heart disease such as diabetes and hypertension? These foods can have a positive impact on cholesterol and decrease inflammation in the vessels, a precursor to heart disease. Also, by adding healthier choices, you may indirectly replace some of the not-so-heart healthy foods without feeling deprived. 

It’s important to address the additional barriers that may be encountered when adding in foods—the high cost of “healthy” foods, time required to prepare dishes, taste preferences, and debunking false nutrition claims—while also presenting the most recent guidelines/recommendations. 

Here are a few guidelines for adding healthier food items to help improve your diet—and hopefully, your health.

Fruits and vegetables. Most can relate to the childhood message, “Eat your vegetables; carrots are good for your eyes; you’ll grow up tall and strong.” Now that our sight is fine and we’re all grown up, what’s really in it for us? Research shows the risk of death from heart disease is reduced by 4 per cent for every serving of fruits and vegetables consistently consumed per day. Other studies have shown a 20 per cent reduction in heart disease and stroke in individuals who ate their five-a-day fruits and veggies, and reduction of 30 per cent for those who ate eight or more servings a day. The disease fighting components are thought to be due to multiple factors, including their fibre content— which plays a role in absorbing cholesterol—and the abundance of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants most have, helping to decrease inflammation in blood vessels. Eating more fruits and veggies can be filling and may replace the intake of not-so-healthy foods.

With the rising cost in foods, you don’t need to break the bank on expensive “super foods” such as fresh berries, pomegranates and avocado. Many less expensive options are mislabeled for being less healthy but in fact have lots to offer.

Bananas are affordable, portable and available all year round but have a bad rep for being too sugary. They may be on the higher caloric spectrum for a fruit but are not overly high compared to other foods. Consideration must be provided for their high potassium content, which plays a role in managing blood pressure. They also provide a source of fibre, magnesium, vitamin C and B6.

Leafy greens are big contributors to a healthy heart.They have been shown to decrease risk of cancer, bone fractures and vision conditions. Their high nutrient content, particularly fibre, vitamin K, and phytochemicals is thought to play a role. Darker green varieties provide more vitamins and minerals but go with whichever greens you can afford and prefer. If you find it challenging to get through a container or head of lettuce before it goes bad, choose a variety that you can eat cold and hot such as spinach as a salad or in a pasta sauce.

Cabbage provides heart healthy benefits with a good shelf life and a big yield at a reasonable price. Its versatility goes beyond boiled dinner and coleslaw. Try shredding in salad, soups, stir-fry or sautéing with onion, garlic and sesame seed oil. Cabbage can also be sliced into thin circles or wedges, brushed lightly with oil, seasoned with spices as desired and grilled or baked. 

Potatoes are more than just a high carbohydrate food. Their carb content is comparable to a slice of bread or serving of rice but they also provide fibre, especially when you eat the skin, potassium, as well as vitamins C and B. Sweet potato gives you an even bigger advantage containing more vitamins and minerals, fibre and lower in carbohydrates.

Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are less expensive, have a long shelf life, require minimal prepping and clean up. Canned foods lose some vitamins and minerals in the water and processing and there can be added salt or sugar but still provide good nutrient value. Frozen are blanched and frozen right after picking which locks in nutrients.

Corn, peas and carrots are a bit sweeter but still make great choices to increase your vegetable intake. Think of adding a vegetable or two at every meal so it accompanies other foods you enjoy. Make fruit and vegetables easily accessible—in a fruit basket, in your purse or knapsack, front and centre in your fridge. Add 5 servings a day: 1/2 cup/1 medium sized per serving. For additional benefit, aim for 7-10 servings day.

Legumes (chickpeas, lentils, black beans, kidney beans, etc.) have shown a 14 per cent reduction in cardiovascular events. They are affordable and also provide a great source of protein, fibre, are low fat, and full of potassium. Add chickpeas or kidney beans to a green salad, lentils to a tomato sauce, hummus on a sandwich. They can also be added to meat dishes, decreasing your grocery bill and saturated fat intake. Try disguising cooked lentils by mixing them into hamburger patties and/or meat sauce, kidney beans into a stew or soup, black beans in an omelet. Add at least 4 servings (3/4 cup per serving) of legumes a week.

Healthy (unsaturated) fats. Low fat diets are a trend of the past. Choosing unsaturated fats (nuts, seeds, oils, avocado, etc) more often over saturated and trans fats (fatty meats, butter, deep fried foods, etc) can provide a 28 per cent reduced risk in cardiovascular disease. These fats work by lowering LDL (not so good), triglycerides (fat in blood) and increasing HDL (good) cholesterol. This doesn’t mean the benefits only come from the finest oils, avocados and almond butter.

Oils. Use any oil that is liquid at room temperature, which would include the less pricey options corn, canola, and peanut oils. Use them in salad dressings or to lightly oil your foods prior to baking or sautéing. Contrary to beliefs, coconut oil actually increases LDL, so switch for a liquid oil. Add 1 tbsp of oil a day.

Nuts. Almonds, pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts have been shown to help lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol but all nuts and seeds provide benefit including less pricey peanuts (technically a legume) and peanut butter. Add a handful (1/4 cup) of nuts and/or 1-2 tbsp nut butter most days.

Omega-3 fat decreases triglycerides and increases HDL cholesterol. This may decrease risk of heart disease, particularly when obtained from food versus a supplement. Aim to obtain from both plant and animal sources.

Plant-based. Over the years hemp and chia have become trendier seeds compared to flax. However, ground flax seed has the highest omega-3 content and will save you dollars. Flax has a mild nutty flavour and goes well sprinkled over cereal, salad, potato, soup, among many more options. Add 1-2 tbsp seeds 5-7 days a week.

Fatty fish provides the animal source of omega-3. Salmon is the most well-known fatty fish but it’s not the cheapest choice. Other fatty fishes include mackerel, trout, sardines—buy canned with no bones and skin if you prefer fish that way—and herring. If you prefer to stick with salmon, canned and fresh salmon trimmings are less costly and equally as good as fillets and steaks. Add 2 servings (1 serving = 3.5 oz cooked or 3/4 cup) fatty fish per week.

Whole grain breads, rice, pasta, crackers, and cereals contain fibre, while little to none is found in refined white products. It’s recommended we obtain 25g of fibre a day from a variety of foods. Research shows whole grains can reduce your risk of heart disease by 25-28 per cent, stroke by 30-3 per cent and diabetes from 21-30 per cent. If you’re not a huge fan, try mixing white pasta with whole wheat, white rice with brown, or go with “smart” breads and pastas that taste like white products but are fortified with fibre. If a bowl of bran doesn’t appeal, mix your usual cereals with a high fibre bran cereal. The best affordable option is good old porridge; give it a fibre boost by adding flax seed, wheat bran and fruit.

Add 3 servings of whole grains per day, aiming to replace half your white grain products with whole grain.

Fine tune your fibre. There are 2 types of fibre—soluble and insoluble. Insoluble helps with digestion while soluble targets cholesterol. We need a balance of both, but soluble is less abundant in foods.

Add soluble fibre to your diet with soy products (soy nuts, tofu); psyllium fibre (bran buds, raw husks); beans and lentils especially black and kidney beans, whole grains (oat bran, oats); all fruits and vegetables, especially Brussels sprouts, oranges, turnip, and sweet potato.




Header credit: Bigstock/New Africa

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Intro credit: Bigstock/Wavebreak Media Ltd

Intro caption: By making a few additions to your diet, you can help reduce your risk of certain diseases.

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