Keeping our hearts ticking on until old age is something most of us take for granted, however, health doesn’t always go to plan. Cardiovascular disease is still the biggest killer in the UK, yet we somehow feel immune from this disease. To prevent this from happening to us, we should all be taking control of our heart health by using good nutrition as the basis for good health.
Here are some of the key dietary factors to consider, and important supplements to take when caring for your heart. Messages can be mixed and confusing when it comes to nutrition for heart health, and this is because it really is quite complex. There has been so much advice on certain foods to cut out that, as a result, the foods we have replaced them with may be causing even more damage. We should be concentrating on foods to include to keep our hearts beating strongly. So – is it all about fat consumption, or is there more to it?
How to choose your dietary fats
Is saturated fat really that bad? – Butter vs margarine
The ‘butter or margarine’ debate has been a long one. As butter is high in saturated fats, and as saturated fats increase the production of cholesterol in the body, some people have concluded that foods such as butter increase the risk of heart disease. It certainly isn’t this simple.
Firstly we need to dismiss the idea that some fats are ‘good’ and others are ‘bad’. Saturated fat and cholesterol are often both considered to be ‘bad’ for health, but such labelling is too simplistic: cholesterol is so important for immune function, hormone production, cell membrane function, digestion, skin health and much more, whilst a certain amount of saturated fat can actually be beneficial for us.
Saturated fat intake is believed to slightly increase risk of cardiovascular disease, however recent meta analyses have concluded that there is no significant evidence to show that saturated fat is associated with heart disease (1).
So, if you are trying to lower your cholesterol levels, you may decide to reduce your butter intake to see those numbers come down, but in the grand scheme of things, if you are trying to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and stay healthy, a moderate amount of butter in your diet is absolutely fine. Cooking with butter is also better than cooking with margarine as it is much more heat stable, so be sure to fry your mushrooms in butter – it’s also quite delicious! Heat-processed trans fats are the real enemy and are found in foods such as biscuits, crisps and some margarines. Processed and refined vegetable oils found in margarine are likely to cause more damage to the heart compared to the natural saturated fats found in butter and may also increase inflammation.
Other saturated fats from plant sources such as coconut oil and cocoa butter consist of medium chain saturated fatty acids and have a very different effect on heart heath compared to saturated fats from animal sources. These fats actually have a beneficial effect on heart health by increasing healthy HDL cholesterol (2), and again are very stable to use for cooking.
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats
Your heart health is not all related to saturated fats. Possibly more important is to include plenty of
polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats in your diet, as these types of fats help to keep cell membranes fluid, are anti inflammatory, reduce platelet aggregation (the stickiness of your blood), and are vasodilators, helping to keep your blood vessels nice and wide and flexible. Research has shown that instead of reducing fat content in the diet, increasing the amount of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats in place of saturated fat considerably reduces risk of coronary heart disease (3,4). A healthy balance of a range of fats such as from nuts, seeds, olive oil and fish are great foods to regularly include in your diet.
Eggs or no eggs?
The ultimate confusing food when it comes to conflicting advice, so I had better clear things up. So why have eggs had such a bad rap when it comes to heart health? Eggs contain fairly high levels of cholesterol, so people immediately relate this to heart disease. The information that is often not given is that the cholesterol we consume in our diets actually has a very small effect on our cholesterol levels, as only a very small amount of our plasma cholesterol levels comes from food, and the majority is made in the liver. Eggs have no significant effect on cardiovascular disease risk (5) and are a rich source of both antioxidants and B vitamins, which are beneficial for heart health. On the whole, it definitely is best to include eggs for a healthy heart.
Fibre and whole grains
Individuals with high levels of fibre in their diet from foods such as whole grains, pulses, fruit and vegetables have the ability to help clear cholesterol out of the body and maintain healthy levels (6). If fibre intake is very low, which is common in the modern diet of highly refined foods, the body has difficulty in regulating cholesterol levels as cholesterol is reabsorbed and recycled, which results in a buildup of cholesterol. Fibre also offers an added bonus in helping to regulate blood sugar levels and keeping us feeling fuller for longer, which may help to regulate body weight.
We all know that antioxidants are generally good for us, but for cardiovascular health they really do count. The repetitive message of 5-a-day is there for a reason, although ideally it should actually be around 8-10 portions! Foods rich in antioxidants such as peppers, broccoli and berries are nature’s perfect little packages of goodness for a healthy heart. The antioxidants such as flavonoids protect arteries from damage and help to reduce inflammation (7). The high fibre content of these foods also helps to regulate cholesterol.
Easier said than done, perhaps, but it is a simple fact that over-consumption of food will lead to an excess in plasma triglycerides which will increase risk of artery blockages. Moderate exercise, even regular walking, can help considerably to lower cardiovascular disease risk, as this lowers triglyceride levels. If you do overeat, try to go for a leisurely stroll shortly after to help regulate your levels.
We consume huge amounts of sugar in the UK, especially when it’s hidden in ‘low fat’ products (to improve their taste once the fat’s removed!) and as refined carbohydrates in baked goods. Carbohydrates directly increase triglyceride levels and reduce HDL cholesterol (the beneficial type). Higher Glycaemic Index (GI) carbohydrates have the worst effect and are associated with increased risk of heart disease (8).
Public health messages to reduce intake of saturated fats many years ago have backfired on us as we have replaced many of these foods with high GI carbohydrates, which has actually increased cardiovascular disease (9). Limit your intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates and stick to whole grain carbohydrates and fruit and vegetables.
The top 3 supplements for a healthy heart
The omega-3 fatty acid EPA
Obtaining high doses of EPA from fish can be difficult without exceeding toxin levels such as methyl mercury, so taking a concentrated EPA supplement is one of the best things you can do for your heart health. EPA is the specific omega 3 fatty acid responsible for regulating inflammation, reducing blood pressure and reducing platelet aggregation and therefore reduces risk of stroke and heart attack (10). You can’t get a more important supplement than omega 3 EPA if you are looking out for your heart health. Igennus offers a high-strength 90% EPA supplement, Pharmepa STEP 1: RESTORE, which contains a very high dose of 1000 mg EPA in small capsules. Not only will EPA supplementation significantly reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, but it is also needed for optimum brain health and joint health. Note that not all EPA fatty acid supplements are the same. A generic fish oil of 1000mg only usually contains 180mg of EPA, so this is unlikely to offer any protective effects against heart disease.
Ubiquinol is the bioactive form of Coenzyme Q10, a fat-soluble, powerful energy-boosting antioxidant. CoQ10 is so essential for our heart health, however after the age of about 30, our levels start to decline. CoQ10 is found in small amounts in some foods such as fish, organ meats and whole grains, however the majority is made in our liver.
Required in every cell of the body for energy production, ubiquinol is necessary for your muscles to function optimally, including the cardiac muscle. As our CoQ10 levels decline with age, the energy produced in our heart cells is reduced. Those at high risk of heart disease are often prescribed statin medication to lower cholesterol, however statins also deplete ubiquinol levels considerably. Ubiquinol supplementation is therefore essential for someone taking statins, or for anyone at high risk of cardiovascular disease.
The quality of CoQ10 supplements varies considerably, so Igennus have formulated a product that takes everything into consideration for optimal heart health. VESIsorb Ubiquinol-QH provides a high dose of 100mg of the bioactive form of CoQ10 Ubiquinol (as opposed to the commonly used oxidised form ubiquinone, found in cheaper products), and is provided in a water-soluble delivery system to allow for easy absorption through the gut and producing therapeutic plasma levels.
Homocysteine is a harmful by-product produced as a result of poor methylation – a cycle required for normal cell division and DNA repair. In healthy individuals, B vitamins and folic acid help your body to recycle homocysteine in a healthy manner, however if your B vitamins are depleted, either through low dietary consumption, or lowered due to stress or drinking alcohol for example, you may have high plasma homocysteine levels. Levels can be checked by a simple blood sample, so if you suspect that you may have high homocysteine, get your levels checked.
High homocysteine can cause considerable damage to blood vessels and therefore increases risk of cardiovascular disease. Homocysteine is often elevated in depression too, as it can affect production of neurotransmitters needed for brain function.
If you are aware that you have high homocysteine, or if you suspect that you may have low levels of B vitamins and folic acid, our Homocysteine Control product is formulated specifically to lower circulating plasma homocysteine. It combines vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid at the right doses and in the most absorbable forms to support the methylation cycle and support homocysteine recycling, therefore protecting the blood vessels from damage.
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8. Mursu J, Virtanen JK, Rissanen TH, Tuomainen TP, Nykänen I, Laukkanen JA, Kortelainen R, Voutilainen S. Glycemic index, glycemic load, and the risk of acute myocardial infarction in Finnish men: The Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases. 2011, 21(2): 144-149
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10. Ohnishi H, Saito Y. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) reduces cardiovascular events: Relationship with the EPA/Arachidonic acid ratio. Journal of Atherosclerosis and Thrombosis, 2013.