Guide to eating for a healthy heart
There are many ways we can eat to support our heart health and all of them are simple variations on a common dietary theme. Here's what we recommend.
What is a healthy diet?
There are many ways you can eat to support your heart health and all of them are simple variations on a common dietary theme. The key is to base your diet around foods that are as close to how they are found in nature as possible. This means eating plenty of vegetables and fruit, some whole grains in place of refined grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and other sources of healthy fats such as oily fish. You may also choose to include non-processed lean meats, poultry and/or dairy.
By following a heart-healthy way of eating and in the right amounts, then you will be ensuring that you get all the nutrients you need to support your health.
The Healthy Heart visual food guide is based on a cardio-protective eating pattern, so it focuses on looking after your heart and overall health. It's a simple tool for you to use that shows:
- the balance and proportions of heart-healthy foods to eat
- similar foods that can be substituted for each other, and
- the variety and types of food to eat for optimal heart health.
It’s always nice to be able to recommend that people eat more of something, so here goes; eat more fruit and veg. In fact, eat plenty! They’re full of good stuff to help look after the health of your heart.
Vegetables in particular have a low energy density, which helps manage body weight. Eating plenty of foods with lower energy density, like vegetables and fruit can help manage body weight; as we fill up on foods with fewer calories.
Michael Pollan (famous food author) said it well, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. Try thinking of fruit and vegetables as an essential part of meals – no meal is complete without one or the other. Fruit also makes a tasty, portable snack; or sweet treat after a meal.
A simple way of knowing you’re getting enough vegetables is to include, at least 2 handfuls of non-starchy vegetables as part of your main meal. They are full of goodness, have fewer calories and will help fill you up.
So have a think about how you could get some more veges and fruit into your day. Maybe you could:
- add one more vegetable to dinner
- add a salad vege to your sandwich e.g. tomato, lettuce, beetroot, grated carrot
- add coleslaw to a takeaway meal so at least you're getting your veges
- add a piece of fruit to breakfast or lunch
Finding it hard to make vegetables a bit more interesting? Check out our healthy recipes
Grain foods and starchy vegetables are a staple food in New Zealand - choose the right type and amounts for your heart health.
These foods are a good source of carbohydrate, which provides energy to fuel the body and brain. It includes starchy vegetables because of their high carbohydrate content. Choose whole grain and high-fibre carbohydrate foods as these are protective against heart disease. Fibre helps the bowels work properly and improves cholesterol and glucose levels.
Which foods fit here?
- Grain foods: Oats, barley, brown rice, pasta, couscous, breads, wraps, rewena, chapatti, roti, breakfast cereals, tapioca, sago, amaranth, congee, quinoa, buckwheat, millet. For heart health, choose whole grain varieties where the grain remains intact.
- Starchy veges: potato, Māori potatoes, kumara, corn, parsnip, yams, taro, green banana, cassava.
What is an 'intact' whole grain?
A whole grain food is one with the words ‘whole grain’, ‘oats’, ‘oat bran’, ‘bran’, ‘kibbled wheat’, ‘rye’, or ‘barley’, near the beginning of the ingredients list, or one which has been less-refined e.g. quinoa, buckwheat, millet, brown rice. The best whole grains are those that contain the intact grain. This is where you can see visible chunks of grain, rather than the grain being ground or crushed.
Refined carbohydrates (e.g. white bread, white flour, sugar, bakery items, low fibre cereals) differ from whole grains. They have been heavily processed and contain fewer nutrients, less naturally occurring fibre, and their energy is used up quickly. They do not have heart health benefits.
Choose just one starchy food of a fist-sized amount at a meal (ie. not potato plus bread). To help get you started swap from:
- white bread to whole grain bread
- white to brown rice
- a low fibre breakfast cereal to whole oats
- chips to a baked potato or kumara
- white flour to wholemeal
These foods are a good source of protein, which the body uses for growth and repair. It also supplies iron, zinc and B vitamins. Eating legumes, fish (especially oily fish) and seafood also help to support a healthy heart.
Legumes are one of the most under-rated, healthy and affordable foods around. They can be eaten instead of meat or mixed into a dish to reduce the amount of meat you need to use. Legumes are dried peas and beans also known as pulses and come in a variety of shapes and colours. There are many different types including adzuki beans, lentils, chickpeas, split peas, mung beans, soybeans, pinto beans, red kidney beans and cannellini beans. They can either be soaked and cooked from dry, or bought pre-cooked in cans.
While legumes don't feature in many traditional Kiwi dishes (other than good old baked beans), they are commonly eaten around the world from the Mediterranean to the Middle East, Caribbean, South America, and Asia. Grab them pre-cooked in a can for convenience, or cook them yourself for the lowest cost. For heart health, we recommend eating legumes 4 - 5 times each week.
Fish and seafood
Fish is a great alternative to meat, and oily fish has the benefit of providing more heart-healthy Omega-3 fats. The oiliest fish are mackerel, sardines, salmon, kahawai, warehou, pilchards and herring. Canned fish can be a good source of omega-3 (choose fish canned in springwater rather than brine). To care for your heart, we recommend you eat fish twice a week, preferably oily fish. See www.bestfishguide.org.nz for sustainable choices.
Eggs are a nutritious whole food which are an inexpensive source of protein. Those who are at increased risk of heart disease can eat up to six eggs per week as part of a heart-healthy diet.
Poultry and red meat
Animal foods can be high in saturated fat. Reducing saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fats is good for your heart. So when choosing meat or chicken, choose lean cuts or remove the fat. On red meat, this is the white fat and on chicken, the skin. Remember to watch your portion sizes.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- cut the fat off meat and skin off chicken
- heat and drain the fat from canned corned beef
- add a can of legumes to a dish and use less meat
- steam, grill or pan fry fish instead of deep frying
- instead of processed meats in sandwiches e.g. ham, salami, pastrami, try leftover cooked chicken or schnitzel meat, tinned fish, hummus, Mexican refried beans, peanut butter or boiled egg - and don't forget to add your veges
These foods are a good source of calcium, protein and some carbohydrate. Calcium is important for bone health.
Milk is one of our staple foods, and it can be found in most fridges around the country. Drink it straight, add it to cereal, mix it into a smoothie, or use it for baking… but do your heart a favour by choosing reduced-fat varieties or use smaller amounts of higher fat dairy products.
Yoghurts and milk drinks are often sweetened. Choose unsweetened varieties to limit your intake of added sugar.
Switching to a lower fat milk won’t cost your wallet anything, but it could save your heart a lot.
- Light blue milk has a teaspoon less fat per glass than regular milk
- A glass of dark blue top milk has 8.8 grams of fat; 5.4 grams of which is saturated. That’s one-third of the saturated fat most people should be having in a whole day
- If you switch from dark blue to light blue milk, you’ll save yourself a teaspoon of fat in every glass. Plus, it won’t take long before you start to prefer the taste
- If you drink a glass of milk a day, swapping from dark blue to green or yellow top milk saves you 2.8kg of fat in a year
These foods contains vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, avocado, olives and spreads based on these foods.
Nuts, seeds, avocado, olives and healthy oils (other than palm and coconut oil), contain heart healthy poly- and mono-unsaturated fats. They are a better choice than foods high in animal fats such as butter, cream and meat fats. Polyunsaturated fats are essential nutrients, so it is important to regularly choose some foods rich in these fats. Foods rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats help to reduce harmful LDL-cholesterol in the blood.
What do you mean by healthy oils?
Not all oils are created equal. Palm oil and coconut oil contain high levels of saturated fat which can increase your risk of heart disease. While these oils are better for your heart when compared to butter, there are far better plant oils for your heart, such as olive oil.
Unrefined oils, or those which are called ‘cold-pressed’ or ‘extra virgin’, have undergone very little processing. Therefore these oils have higher levels of many beneficial compounds, such as antioxidants.
Nuts and seeds
Plain (unsalted, without sugar added) nuts and seeds contain healthy unsaturated fats and are a heart healthy food. A handful of nuts (30g) most days is all you need, or two tablespoons of peanut butter. It's best to eat different types of nuts and seeds, as they each contain a different range of nutrients.
Nuts and edible seeds are good sources of mono- and poly-unsaturated fats. These types fats help to protect you from heart disease.
Cut back on: junk foods, takeaways, and foods or drinks high in sugar, salt, saturated or trans fats
Fill your plate with tasty and healthy foods from the main food groups, and cut back on less healthy foods and drinks.
Cutting back on sugar
Sugar adds extra calories to food that we don't need. Because it doesn't fill us up, it's easy to have too much of it, and that can make us put on weight. It also has a small effect on raising cholesterol levels and blood pressure. While the natural sugars already present in foods such as plain milk and fruit aren't a problem, there can be a lot of extra sugar added to foods and drinks.
Cutting back on salt
Most of us eat far too much salt – in fact, one and a half times the recommended maximum intake. So try taking a lighter hand to the salt shaker, or better still, ditch the salt altogether. Even more importantly, check food labels for the salt content (salt is listed as sodium on labels), and go for lower sodium options.
Cutting back on saturated and trans fats
Saturated fat is found in higher amounts in foods containing animal fats. The healthy fats are unsaturated fats found in higher amounts in plant foods like: nuts, seeds, plant oils, and avocado, as well as in oily fish. Eating these in place of animal fats contributes to a heart healthy way of eating, that improves cholesterol levels and reduces your risk of heart disease.
Eating less manufactured trans fats means eating less processed foods. Trans fats are found most commonly in foods containing partially hydrogenated oils and in some bakery and pastry products, popcorn, potato crisps, takeaway foods, and breakfast bars.
- When you're doing your food shopping, the proportions of food in your trolley should be similar to the Healthy Heart food guide, so for example, about 40% of your trolley should be filled with vegetables and fruit
- When you're planning what to eat over a day. Have you eaten foods from each food group in roughly the same balance as the Healthy Heart food guide? If you put everything you eat over a day out on a table, how would it compare?
- To find some starting points to eat a little healthier, here are some simple steps towards healthier eating that you might like to take. Could you eat one more vegetable each day, or cut back on junk food?
- Stick it on the fridge as a quick guide to whether a food's healthy. Which part of the Healthy Heart food guide does the food fit in, and is it a healthier type of that food?
- Use the Healthy Heart food guide to help you to plan a meal. Substitute ingredients with similar foods to ensure you get a wide variety of nutrients for optimal heart health.
We hope you enjoy using it.
Now that you know what foods you should be eating, let's find out how much you should be eating.What is a healthy portion size for me? Get heart healthy nutrition resources