How healthy is your heart?

2009-03-31 00:00

There seemed to be hearts everywhere leading up to Valentine’s Day: heart-shaped chocolates in all sizes and soft teddies bearing red hearts. But our heart is much more than a cute emblem; it’s a vital organ — one which would perhaps be better associated with a work horse than a cuddly teddy bear.

In humans, the heart starts to beat within a couple days of conception and has to continue unceasingly from then onwards. Various factors can place this hard-working pump under additional strain and reduce its ability to keep working effectively. In South Africa, cardiovascular disease (which includes heart disease and stroke) is second only to HIV/Aids as a leading cause of death.

The good news is that many of the risk factors for development of heart disease can be reduced by a change of lifestyle. Some of the more common risk factors include smoking, being overweight, being physically inactive, high “bad” cholesterol (LDL-cholesterol) and low “good” cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol), the presence of diabetes mellitus and high blood pressure.

Dietary modification plays a major role in reducing these risk factors and thus decreasing the likelihood of developing heart disease. Achieving these changes demands navigating some murky waters. Why is it that with more reduced fat/trans-fat free/cholesterol-free products available, obesity and cardiovascular disease continue to increase?

To get started, let’s focus on just three dietary changes.

Firstly, reduce the total fat content of your meals. Even if “healthier” fats are being used, it is important to use them sparingly. Bake, grill, casserole or microwave foods instead of frying them. Use lean cuts of meat and trim off all excess fat before cooking — that way you avoid the temptation.

Secondly, aim to increase the proportion of mono and polyunsaturated fats (almonds, walnuts, sunflower, sesame, pumpkin seeds, avocado, canola and olive oil) to that of saturated fats (from animal products, palm oil and coconut oil, commercial biscuits and cakes, and chocolates). Changing these proportions will help you to get the “bad” cholesterol levels down and reduce the risk of heart disease.

The third change that will improve your overall health is increasing your fruit and vegetable intake. Aim to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables (combined total) every day. Diets rich in vegetables and fruit have been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, particularly stroke. Use a variety of fresh fruit or crunchy vegetables as tea-time snacks instead of the traditional biscuit break. Enjoy some cooked or fresh vegetables with lunch and supper every day.

In addition to steering food choices in the right direction, remember also to include exercise every day. How about letting your dog take you for a walk or using the stairs instead of the lift? This will also help to keep your weight under control.

Don’t underestimate the benefit of making even small lifestyle changes today, The sooner you begin, the more reward your health will enjoy.

• Sharon Gregersen is a consulting dietitian. She can be reached at

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