Take heart at the supermarket

Tue, Mar 20, 2012, 00:00

SHELF LIFE:HEART DISEASE, stroke and related illnesses are the single biggest cause of death in Ireland, accounting for more than 40 per cent of all deaths. These are the kind of figures that send many people reaching for the salty snacks or chocolate at the back of the cupboard.

But high blood pressure and heart disease are conditions that don’t just naturally occur as we get older. They can be tackled very easily, and in some cases radically, by making simple changes to your diet.

Fifty years ago, Finland had the highest mortality rate from coronary heart disease in the world. By changing what they were eating and exercising a bit more, Finns managed to reduce their incidence of heart attack and stroke by 60 per cent. While we know that cutting down on salt and avoiding saturated fats are essential to a healthy heart, what foods can you eat to reduce high blood pressure and the risk of cardiac problems or stroke?

Studies show that consuming fruit, vegetables, nuts, wholegrains and legumes work to lower high blood pressure. These foods are part of the Dash (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, and have been found to play a significant role in reducing risk of heart attack and stroke.

Legumes are vegetables such as chickpeas and kidney beans. They help to rid the body of excess water (which if retained can raise blood pressure), while other beans (such as lentils and white beans) contain high quantities of potassium which helps the body get rid of excess salt.

While kidney beans and chickpeas may not sound like the type of foods you might seek out, they are easily added to dishes you may already eat. They bulk out soups and casseroles with fibre, and their high protein levels make them a good substitute for red meat.

A quick chilli con carne with tomatoes, onions, peppers and mince is easily put together with kidney beans and chilli flakes from the cupboard. If you add more kidney beans and lower the meat portion, you have a very hearty healthy meal. Stews and soups with chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans can also be frozen for use at a later date.

Research also shows that people who eat more wholegrains suffer less from heart disease. In a wholegrain, the bran, germ and endosperm are all still present and they provide far more nutrients than refined grains found in white rice, white bread and white pasta. The bran is fibre; the germ is a source of protein, vitamins and minerals; and the endosperm supplies carbohydrates. They are also rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants, which help to protect against heart disease, certain cancers and also diabetes.

While some breakfast cereals have the words “grain” or “fibre” on the label, don’t be fooled. Some are packed with sugar, and even transfats. A recent Which? survey found Nestlé Shredded Wheat, Quaker Oats So Simple Original, and Weetabix were the breakfast cereals lowest in sugar. Breakfast cereals have also been found to be high in salt, with another Which? survey finding that while things have improved, eight out of 50 breakfast cereals still don’t meet 2012 salt targets.

Other foods to look out for if you’re watching your heart are oil-rich fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel, but also plentiful in Omegas 3 and 6 and a good alternative to olive oil is rape seed oil.

Easy foods to snack on if you suffer from high blood pressure include walnuts, cashew nuts, as well as pumpkin seeds and flax nuts. Cashews are also thought to help reduce the amount of calcium flowing through the blood vessels, widening a person’s arteries and reducing bloodpressure.

Next time:Foods for good mental health