Let’s have a chat about our health. It’s a topic we guys tend to shy away from. But the time to make some positive changes to our diet and lifestyle is now. Our hearts depend on it.
It’s well known that our brethren need to take better care of their health and wellbeing. Many of us suffer from poor diet, lack of participation in sport and exercise, (no, watching the footy doesn’t count!), high booze consumption and smoking, all major risk factors for developing certain types of cancer as well as diabetes and heart disease. Many blokes would attest to consuming too many fatty meals and too many brews, plus double dipping in the cookie jar as well as being inactive.
Let’s briefly discuss the facts. The evidence shows that we blokes are more at risk than ever of developing heart disease. According to the National Heart Foundation, 153 Australian men suffer a heart attack every single day (1). That’s a staggering statistic! Now, I’m not recommending that you completely overhaul all your dietary habits; I’m just suggesting the odd tweak here or there. The key to following a healthy balanced diet is not depriving yourself of your favourite foods. It’s simply a matter of getting the balance right. Making small, but meaningful adjustments to your diet and lifestyle can lead to a significant reduction in risk factors for disease later in life. There are countless scientific studies supporting this approach. Keep in mind that Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Now, the principles of healthy eating are not rocket science. They just involve including foods from all of the five food groups and minimising your intake of non-core foods such as soft drinks, alcohol, confectionary, fruit juice, sweet biscuits and baked goods. There really are no hidden secrets to following a healthy diet. And there’s certainly no need to totally cut out sugar, fat, dairy, grains, the occasional coldie or to revert to liquid diets or South American herbal remedies. So here’s what you need to know to cut your risk.
There is overwhelming evidence showing that saturated fat is linked to increased cholesterol, specifically LDL cholesterol (the nasty type). A rise in your LDL cholesterol increases your risk of developing heart disease, as it causes inflammation and a sticky residue (plaque) to form inside your arteries. Saturated fat is typically found in fatty meats and full cream dairy, but it is also found in coconut oil and baked goods (which usually contain lashings of butter). By opting for low fat dairy, lean cuts of meat and only the occasional pastry or cake you can actively reduce your cholesterol, and decrease your overall fat intake – a bonus for your waistline too. In addition, two serves a week of fatty fish such as salmon, herring (minus the salt), mackerel or trevally will boost your omega-3 fatty acid intake – the good type that helps to reduce your heart disease risk. Lastly, getting a good whack of monounsaturated fats from avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds will make further inroads into cutting your risk of heart disease. Just be sure to stick to appropriate portions of these foods, as they are energy dense.
To refresh your memories from high school science days: wherever salt goes, water will follow. A high salt intake has been shown to increase blood pressure via this mechanism. Reducing salt in your diet will ease the pressure on your blood vessels and reduce the load on the heart. You can slash your salt intake by limiting added salt, both in cooking and at the table; experiment with different herbs and spices to find a flavour combination that works. Try basil and tomato for a winning flavour combination. Additionally, selecting products with a low salt content (below 120mg per 100g) and opting for fresh over packaged foods will reduce your intake of the salty stuff.
I’m not necessarily preaching abstinence (I, too, enjoy a drink), but cutting back on the grog will likely improve your heart health. Studies show that curtailing your booze intake can reduce blood pressure and risk of stroke as well as weight. Aim for a maximum of two standard drinks, five nights a week, with at least two alcohol-free days per week. Any further reductions will be a bonus.
You’ve heard the saying that fibre is your friend, right? Fibre is the stuff in food that is largely undigested. It helps to remove the waste from your insides. But more than that, it helps to increase our feeling of fullness, promote the growth of healthy bacteria in our digestive tracts and it also helps to reduce our LDL cholesterol. Boost your intake of wholegrain breads and cereals, oats, vegetables, lentils, chickpeas, beans and nuts to get a good whack of this essential ingredient. 30 grams a day is the aim (2). And don’t forget that Aussie favourite, baked beans – they’re jam-packed full of fibre and other good stuff too. Hey, they worked for Warnie.
Sugar is a dirty word these days. But, there is really no need to quit sugar altogether, let alone severely restrict your intake. The key is to get the balance right. The World Health Organisation has just updated its guidelines on sugar consumption – it advises that we consume less than 5 teaspoons of added sugar a day. That excludes the natural sugars found in dairy products and fruit – both staple food groups in our diet. Evidence shows that a high consumption of added sugar greatly increases the risk of dying from heart disease (3), so cutting back on your intake of discretionary items like sugary soft drinks, lollies, fruit juice, decadent desserts, sweet biscuits and sugary cereals will go some way to reducing your collective risk. Pretty sweet news, right?
There are so many proven benefits of exercise - improved sleep and sexual health, reduced risk of heart disease, improved blood pressure and cholesterol levels, superior bone health, better mood and general wellbeing. So getting active is crucial; a sedentary lifestyle is one of the main risk factors for heart disease. Exercise improves your heart’s ability to deliver oxygen, strengthens the heart muscle and increases your HDL cholesterol (the good type). I’m not suggesting that you run marathons, but at least get moving as much as you can. Have a kick of the footy, go for a walk, play a round of golf or ride your bike to work. Doing something is better than nothing.
So there you have it. There really are no secrets to healthy eating for your heart and general health. A simple tweak here and there can do wonders for your overall wellbeing. Moderation isn’t a sexy sell, but the proof is in the pudding. Enjoy that tipple (in moderation), a pie at the footy and a pizza with the crew – just make it an ‘every now and then’ thing. Your heart will thank you for it.
1) Nichols M, Peterson K, Alston L, Allender S. Australian heart disease statistics 2014. Melbourne: National Heart Foundation of Australia, 2014.
2) Australian Governent: National Health and Medical Research Council. Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand. Australia and New Zealand 2005.
3) Yang Q, Zhang Z, Gregg EW, Flanders WD, Merrit R, Hu FB. Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults. JAMA Internal Medicine 2014; 174(4): 516-24.