The heart is a vital organ in the human body. Therefore, the heart needs utmost care and protection. According to the world health organisation (WHO), 17.9 million people died globally due to heart diseases in 2019. The number has only increased from that time onwards. This number represents 32% of global deaths in the year 2019. These days, with a sedentary lifestyle and junk and fast food consumption increasing, the most damage is happening to the heart. Wondering why? This article answers the question.
How Does the Heart Function?
You must have heard that the heart supplies blood to the whole body. But this is not its function in totality. The heart’s primary function is to supply oxygen to the other body organs. It also removes the deoxygenated blood from the organs and gives it to the lungs. Then, it goes to the heart from the lungs. From here, the oxygenated blood goes to the whole body.
The heart works with the system known as the circulatory system in the human body. The arteries, veins, blood vessels, and blood make up the circulatory system. The heart is in the chest, between the lungs. It tilts slightly towards the left of the human body. In addition, the arteries supply the oxygenated blood to the organs from the heart. The veins take away the deoxygenated blood from the organs. Then return it to the lungs for reoxygenation. This cycle goes on throughout the process of life.
Diets for Heart Health
Knowing the correct balance between the nutrients and food you eat is the key to good heart health. A balanced diet is the optimum and the most reliable diet you can follow for good health.
This diet contains 40-60% carbs, 15-20% protein and rest from fat of the energy from complex carbohydrate sources. In addition, 10-13% comes from good protein sources, and the rest comes from good fat.
- Carbohydrates: From whole grains and pulses such as whole wheat, millets, oats etc. Replace refined flour with whole grain flours for rotis and breads.
- Protein: From animal sources which are of good quality such as eggs, lean meats, dairy along with plant sources such as pulses and legumes.
- Fats: From good sources like nuts, oilseeds, fatty fish. Some examples are tuna, salmon, mackerel etc.
- Vitamins and minerals: From fruits and vegetables of all colours
These will also give you fibre and will keep your heart healthy.
DASH [Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension] Diet
This diet is a result of research over the years, and it’s proven to be effective against hypertension and heart diseases. Per serving in the DASH diet is 30 grams. The guide to this diet is as follows:
- Vegetables: 5 servings per day
- Fruits: 5 servings per day
- Carbs: 7 servings per day
- Low-Fat Dairy: 2 servings per day
- Lean Meat Products: 1-2 servings per day
- Nuts and Seeds: 20-30 grams per week.
Healthy Food Sources that You can Add:
- Green leafy vegetables like spinach, amaranth etc.
- Complex carbohydrates like split wheat, cracked wheat, rolled oats, Ragi, Jowar, Bajra etc.
- Pulses, legumes and beans
- Low glycemic index fruits
Healthy Fats that You can Add:
- Olive oil
- Tuna and salmon fish
- Nuts like almond and pistachios
- Flaxseeds and hemp seeds
Protein Sources that You can Add:
- Low-fat dairy
This diet helps you meet the dietary recommendations of a healthy heart.
- Focus more on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes;
- Dairy products with low or no fat, fish, poultry, non-tropical vegetable oils, and nuts; and
- You should avoid carbonated beverages, highly processed foods, refined carbs, saturated fats, and fatty or processed meats.
Obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure are risk factors for heart disease and stroke. However, this way of eating can help prevent them. For example, a Mediterranean diet high in virgin olive oil may help the body remove extra cholesterol from arteries and prevent coagulation in blood vessels.
Vegetarian and Vegan Diet
Research has proven that plant-based diets like vegan and vegetarianism improve heart health. This diet can include the following:-
- Carbohydrates from complex sources like whole grains, cereals and millets
- Protein from pulses, nuts, plant-based milk etc
- Vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables
- Good fat from nuts and oilseeds
- Dairy from milk and milk products (only in case of vegetarians)
This diet reduces cholesterol and improves heart health.
As the name says, this diet includes food items rich in antioxidants. Inflammation due to stress, lifestyle, pollution is the primary cause of bad heart health. To make the heart-healthy, you have to consume foods rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants reduce inflammation in the body. As they lower free radicals, causing inflammation. After binding, the free radicals stop the damage in the body. Hence, it helps reduce inflammation and maintains a healthy heart. Food items rich which need to be in this diet are as follows:-
- Bell peppers
- Citrus fruits
- Red kidney beans
- Red cabbage
- Whole grains
- Dark green leafy vegetables
The diets mentioned above are specific. With the difference in culture, region, season, these particular diets may be difficult to follow. A balanced diet is more manageable than following a specific diet to ease this process. Please incorporate the following food items into the diet to follow a balanced diet.
These are whole grains and millets. You must be thinking what’s the difference between complex carbohydrates and regular carbohydrates. Let’s solve the mystery today. Regular carbohydrates are refined carbohydrates. These are well polished and devoid of their husk or skin, the outer layer. Many vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and beta-glucans get removed from the grain in removing the husk. And we are left with nothing but simply calories- For example, maida or refined wheat flour.
A range of tasty and unhealthy food items like cakes, pastries, muffins, puff pastry, kachori, paratha etc., are made using refined flour. Research establishes the relationship between the consumption of refined carbohydrates and the increasing risk of cardiovascular diseases.
On the other hand, complex carbohydrates come along with their husk. It means they go through the grinding process to turn into a fine powder and the outer layer. Therefore, the nutritional value shoots up, and it’s rich in vitamins, minerals and many other nutrients.
The various phenolic acids, phytoestrogens, vitamins and minerals in the complex carbohydrates reduce inflammation, reducing plaque formation. Reduced plaque formation in the heart’s arteries leads to a healthy heart. Therefore, this is how complex carbohydrates lead to a healthy heart. Some sources of complex carbohydrates are:-
- Millet flour-like Jowar, Bajra, Ragi
- Whole wheat flour with millet flour
- Broken wheat or Dalia
These are high biological value protein sources like egg, chicken and fish—these supply all the essential amino acids to the body. Amino acids are the building blocks of your body. They help build strong muscles and provide strength to the body for regular functioning. One should remember that red meat is harmful to the heart. Incidentally, red meat increases cholesterol levels, harming the heart. While on the other hand, white meat is lean; this supplies adequate protein to the body without harmful fat. As a result, it keeps the heart-healthy.
The process of cooking chicken and fish is essential. Pan-frying, baking, stewing are much better methods than roasting or grilling. Roasting and grilling foods may have carcinogenic traces in them. Therefore, avoid such foods and have them only during special occasions.
Yes, you read it right; fats are healthy. Fats have a wide range of classifications. This classification includes saturated fats and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are harmful to the heart and the body as they increase cholesterol levels, detrimental to good heart health. On the other hand, Unsaturated fats are much more healthy and more beneficial for the heart.
- Omega 3 & 6 fatty acids
- Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA)
- Monounsaturated Fatty Acids(MUFA)
The sources of these fatty acids are below:-
- Fatty fish like tuna, salmon, mackerel
- Nuts like cashews, almonds, walnuts
- Seeds like flax seeds, sunflower seeds, safflower seeds etc
- Oil from plant sources like olive oil, rice bran oil etc.
Best Foods for Optimum Heart Health
Berries (especially strawberries and blueberries) are loaded with antioxidants and have a range of health benefits. One of which includes reducing hypertension and thus improving cardiovascular health. Berries have anthocyanin, which is a flavonoid. This flavonoid has vasodilatory properties. This property helps widen blood vessels and relax smooth muscles. Which in turn reduces blood pressure, thus improving heart health. In addition, research proves the vasodilatory properties of berries.
- Lowers blood pressure
- Has anti-ageing properties
- Results in healthier skin and hair
- It has anti-cancerous effects as it is full of antioxidants
- Prevents the body from various degenerative diseases, etc.
Best Ways to Consume Berries:
- First, blend it with low-fat yoghurt to make your smoothie.
- Next, you can consume the smoothie as a fruit source for a mid-morning snack.
- Finally, you can use it as a topping for breakfast cereals etc.
Bananas find their place in every household. In addition, it is pocket friendly and nutritious. It has high levels of potassium. Potassium is a mineral that helps in improving heart health by reducing blood pressure. This mineral reduces the effect of sodium in your body as it helps flush out sodium from your body. The sodium goes out of your body through the kidneys, lowering blood pressure.
Sodium build-up in the body increases blood pressure, and removing sodium reduces high blood pressure, thus improving heart health.
- High in calories and acts as a nutritious post-workout snack
- Rich in fibre which helps in maintaining digestion
- It has calcium which helps in stronger bones etc.
Best Ways to Consume Bananas:
- As a fruit post-workout
- Topping for breakfast cereal
- As a smoothie, when blended with low-fat dairy
Yes, you read it right! Dark chocolates can effectively lower your blood pressure levels. However, it is only valid in the case of chocolates having a minimum of 60–75 % dark chocolate. The presence of cocoa in chocolate plays a vital role in its mechanism. Cocoa is a flavonoid that helps prevent high blood pressure. In addition, it activates nitric oxide and increases its bioavailability, which reduces plaque formation in the blood vessels. That widens the vessels and lowers blood pressure, thus improving heart health. Research also proves the claim.
To reap the blood pressure-lowering benefits of chocolates, you should regularly eat 10 grams of dark chocolate. Remember, it should have a high percentage of cocoa with minimum sugar and fat content.
The benefits of dark chocolate are as follows:
- Lowers blood pressure
- Loaded with antioxidants
- Results in younger-looking skin
- Has anti-cancerous effects
- Aids in weight loss etc.
Best ways to consume
- As a snack
- As a topping for smoothie bowls
- To add flavour to smoothies
- As a topping on breakfast cereals, etc.
Also known as a beet in some parts of the world, beetroots benefit your heart. That is because beetroot contains nitrate, which converts into nitric oxide in your body. Nitric oxide acts as a vasodilator, relaxing the heart’s smooth muscles. A vasodilator helps ease the pressure on blood vessels by widening them. Hence, it reduces blood pressure, thus improving heart health. Nitrates in beetroot are available in the raw and cooked form of beetroot.
Research shows that to reap the blood pressure-lowering benefits of beetroot, you should consume about 500 ml of beetroot juice daily. However, it is best to consult an expert healthcare professional before deciding on the quantity.
The benefits of beetroot are as follows:
- Low in calories, aids in weight loss
- High in fibre, it relieves constipation and aids in digestion.
- It helps reduce high blood pressure
- Gives younger-looking skin
Best ways to consume:
- As a juice
- Add into salad
- As a side dish with multi-grain roti or bread
- As a smoothie etc.
It is a very famous complex carbohydrate and a go-to source for people who want to lose weight. However, the fascinating attribute of oats is that it helps improve heart health and reduce high blood pressure. In addition, oats have high amounts of fibre present, aiding in early satiety. Oats contain a unique type of fibre called beta-glucan, which is soluble. This type of fibre reduces cholesterol and plaque formation in the blood vessels.
When plaque formation reduces, it is easier to pass through the minute blood vessels. Likewise, blood pressure is normal when blood passes easily through the minute capillaries (tiny blood vessels). Therefore, this is how oats help in improving heart health.
The benefits of oats are as follows:
- Helps in weight loss
- Aids in proper digestion
- Reduces high blood pressure
- Regulates blood glucose levels
Best ways to consume
- As a morning cereal with milk
- You can add it for crunch in smoothies
- You can make it into a pancake
- As a snack, you can cook it with chicken
Fatty fish like tuna, mackerel, sardines etc., have good fat. They are unsaturated fat ( omega3 fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids). These fats are anti-inflammatory. They prevent plaque formation and coagulation in the heart’s arteries and maintain a healthy heart. These fats are beneficial because they speed up the metabolism rate in the body. Furthermore, the fibre in these fish varieties helps provide early satiety, aiding in weight loss.
Fatty fish is very nutritious. It has a high biological value protein, quickly metabolised in the body. Besides the good fat and protein, fatty fish contains minerals like selenium, magnesium etc. and fat-soluble vitamins including vitamin A, D, E and K.
Research shows that consuming fatty fish helps maintain a healthy heart with a good cognitive function and helps regulate blood glucose levels.
Some of the best ways to consume fish are:
- Baking it
- Tossing it with your favourite veggies
- Steaming it with your favourite spices
Not many fruits contain fats. However, avocado is one of the rare fruits with fat content. However, it has good fat- (PUFA) and (MUFA). These fats are omega3 fatty acids, which are very beneficial to your health.
Several studies show the potential health benefits of avocado on heart health. First, it is rich in unsaturated fats and low in saturated fats, making it beneficial. Second, avocado has plant cholesterol called beta-sitosterol, which helps prevent cardiovascular diseases. Third, it is antioxidant-rich and contains a reasonable amount of potassium. Potassium is beneficial in maintaining the body’s osmolality. At the same time, antioxidants protect your body from degenerative diseases like cancers, Parkinson’s disease, etc.
The best way to consume avocado is:
- By baking it with eggs or chicken
- Tossing it into a salad
- Making it into a healthy dip
Chia seeds are the new superfood for health freaks. It is one of the most talked-about foods, and rightly so. It has tremendous health benefits. But, one of the least known facts about chia seeds is that it has a high good fat content. These seeds contain omega-3 fatty acids called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Furthermore, they are rich in fibre. Several studies prove that chia seeds help reduce blood pressure, have anti-inflammatory effects, aid in weight loss, and give healthier skin.
Some of the best ways to consume chia seeds are:
- By grinding it with your smoothie
- By sprinkling it over your salad
Nuts are an excellent choice when you crave to snack on something for your mid-morning snack or mid-meal snack. Besides being an excellent source of healthy fat, plant-based protein, fibre, etc., nuts are rich in magnesium and vitamins A, E, and K.
Nuts help fight several diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart diseases. Furthermore, regular consumption of nuts helps enhance cognitive function and boost memory.
The best nuts you can consume for reaping their health benefits are almonds, walnuts, cashew nuts, etc. However, remember that you should not consume salted nuts because excess salt intake may lead to a rise in your blood pressure. Research suggests that nut consumption lowers the risk of cardiovascular diseases and helps maintain a healthy heart.
Olive oil is yet another trending food product that has several health benefits. Hence, people use it for dietary consumption and skin application. Several studies demonstrate its excellent health benefits.
Olive oil contains oleic acid, an essential acid for optimum body functioning. It has anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, it helps lose weight, regulates blood sugar levels and maintains heart health.
Other Ways to Improve Heart Health
- Sleeping for 7-8 hours daily
- Be physically active five days a week add work out 30 minutes each day. In total, 150 minutes of physical activity every week.
- Reducing the amount of junk food
- Eating meals at stipulated meal timing, following a proper dietary routine
- Make sure all the food groups are on your diet
- Following a balanced diet and active lifestyle
Do not over-eat these foods if you are on medications that help blood thinning. It may result in double action of the medicines and the food items and may have harmful consequences.
If you are suffering from high blood pressure, please avoid vitamin K rich foods. Vitamin K helps in blood clotting so that it may alleviate blood pressure. Foods rich in vitamin K are as follows:
- Collard greens
- Red meat
- High-fat milk
- Hard and soft cheese
- High-fat yoghurt
- Mustard greens
Factors that Negatively Affect Heart Health
- Salt: The best practice is to avoid table salt altogether. However, you can use a bit of salt during cooking. But, you should refrain from eating salted nuts, biscuits, snacks etc. These foods have high amounts of salt sprinkled on top, leading to increased sodium in the body, alleviating blood pressure, and affecting heart health.
- Caffeine induces adrenaline secretion in your body, which increases blood pressure by reducing the width of blood vessels. The anti-diuretic hormone gets blocked by adrenaline. When this hormone is blocked, the blood vessels’ width reduces, resulting in high blood pressure and damaging heart health.
- Alcohol consumption binds calcium to blood vessels. When calcium binds with the blood vessels, blood cannot pass easily through the vessels. Hence, it increases blood pressure, which harms the heart.
- Junk food and fast foods are high in saturated fat, increasing cholesterol levels. Therefore, this, in turn, affects the heart in the wrong way. Hence, it is best to avoid them.
- Irregular sleep leads to lowering the metabolism, which increases weight. Increased weight leads to obesity which in turn is harmful to the heart. So follow a proper and sound sleep cycle.
- A sedentary lifestyle without exercise leads to obesity, which harms the heart. Therefore, follow an active lifestyle to keep your heart healthy.
- Stress is terrible for the heart. It is one of the significant causes of a heart attack. You should not overthink and stress about things. Being positive and exercising helps in reducing stress.
Signs of an Unhealthy Heart
- Frequent severe headaches
- Bleeding of nose
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Shoulder or chest pain
- Sleeping problems
- Nausea, indigestion
- Reduced ability to think clearly, confusion
- Pain in the chest
- Arethmia or facing irregular beating of the heart
- Uncomfortable breathing or difficulty in breathing easily
- Urine in the blood
- Extreme nervousness
- Perspiration or sweating
- Facing vertigo or dizziness
- Facing trouble in sound sleep
- Spots of blood in the eye
A healthy heart means a healthy body. You should take good care of your heart by following a balanced diet and an active lifestyle. Please avoid overconsumption of alcohol or chain-smoking, as it affects the heart adversely. Check for the symptoms of an unhealthy heart and consult a physician if you face any of the symptoms. Try and prevent the causes which lead to an unhealthy heart. You can seek help from a nutritionist for a heart-healthy diet plan for you.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q. What are the signs of an unhealthy heart?
A. Some signs of an unhealthy heart are uneasiness, nausea, indigestion, reduced ability to think, confusion, pain in the chest, Arethmia or facing irregular beating of the heart, uncomfortable breathing or difficulty in breathing easily.
Q. How to maintain good heart health?
A. To maintain a good heart, here are some steps: sleeping for 7-8 hours daily, being physically active for five days a week, working out 30 minutes each day, in total 150 minutes of being physically every week, reducing the amount of junk food, eating meals at stipulated meal timing, following a proper dietary routine. Please make sure all the food groups are in the diet, following a balanced diet and active lifestyle.
Q. How much cardio should I do for heart health?
A. Cardio exercises are suitable for the heart as they increase the heart rate, due to which the heart pumps more blood. Doing cardio exercises for 3-4 days a week with 30-40 minutes each day will result in good condition of the heart. On other days one can do strength training, and other physical activities like yoga, weight lifting, swimming etc.
Q. Can walking improve heart health?
A. Yes, walking helps in improving heart health. Walking for 30-45 minutes a day will significantly improve heart health compared to a sedentary lifestyle. Please note that the duration of walking should increase slowly and gradually. The speed of walking should also increase day by day. Brisk walking is considered better than slow or normal walking.
Q. What to avoid for heart health?
A. Junk food, fast food, highly processed food items, food items with added salt, roasted food items, fatty cuts of meat etc., should be avoided for good heart health. A balanced diet with an active lifestyle will improve heart health.
Q. Can anxiety damage your heart?
A. Yes, it may damage the heart. Anxiety causes stress, and stress is bad for the heart. As a result, this becomes a significant cause of heart attack. It would help if you did not overthink and stress about things. Being positive and exercising helps reduce stress and reduces damage to the heart.
Q. Can emotional stress cause heart problems?
A. Yes, it may cause heart problems; emotional stress is terrible for the heart as it may cause arrhythmia increased heart rate conditions. It may, in turn, cause hypertension. Therefore, this is why you should avoid emotional stress. Seek help from someone by communicating with them and relieving yourself of the emotional stress. Exercise also helps in reducing emotional strain and heart problems.
Q. When should I be worried about heart palpitations?
A. If you feel heart palpitations, you should consult a physician. Try to know the cause of it. If it is stress or anxiety, communicate with people and seek help. It may even be a side effect of some medicine you’re having. A balanced diet and physical exercise should reduce heart palpitations.