We look at the building blocks of a heart-healthy diet, how to change your eating habits, and why it’s important to have regular healthy heart screenings.

“Eating takeaways, unhealthy fats, processed foods with added sugars and sodium, or too little fibre and fresh fruit and veg, has a negative effect on both your heart and your general health,” says Jeske Wellmann, a registered dietitian who consults at Mediclinic Sandton. An unhealthy diet increases your body fat and weight, which raises your risk of developing lifestyle diseases, including cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes.  

For these reasons a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle are vital to prevent and manage disease and increase your overall wellbeing. Wellmann advises checking the ingredients of processed foods, including breads and cereals, for hidden salt/sodium and sugar. Many people enjoy a fry-up, but when unhealthy or saturated fats accumulate, they cause cholesterol build-up in your arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Even consistent small changes to your eating habits can help you reach your end goal, says Wellmann. “Think of it as gradually changing your lifestyle and making healthy food choices rather than going on a diet.”

Principles of a heart-healthy diet

Adopting a heart-healthy diet doesn’t mean completely changing all the foods you eat. Instead, it involves adding nutrient-rich foods, increasing the amount of fibre you consume, cutting back on unhealthy fats, and following a balanced eating plan.

Wellmann recommends these healthy food choices:

  • Fruit and vegetables increase your fibre, vitamin and mineral intake. Vegetables are especially high in potassium, which helps reduce blood pressure.
  • Wholesome, unrefined starches, like brown rice, corn, oats, potato or sweet potato with the skin on, barley, stampkoring, and quinoa. They contain fibre, nutrients such as vitamin B, various essential minerals and provide slow-releasing energy.
  • Beans and lentils are rich in fibre, help reduce cholesterol and they’re a good plant-protein option to reduce your intake of animal protein and fats.
  • Proteins like chicken or fish are much leaner than most red meats. Avoid processed meats.
  • Eggs are a good source of protein but must be eaten in moderation.
  • Lower-fat dairy.
  • Monounsaturated fats like olive oil, canola oil, nuts, and avocados.
  • Omega-3s from salmon, herring, mackerel, pilchards, and sardines.
  • Drink enough water, and if you like coffee or tea, skip the sugar.

How much should I eat at mealtimes?

Portion control is vital. The trick is to divide your plate into three sections:

  1. “In general, half the plate should be vegetables, whether in salads, or cooked,” Wellman advises. “Use a variety of veggies, the more colour the better.”  Then divide the other half of the plate into two sections:
  2. A quarter, of the plate, about the size of your palm, should be protein, including meat, chicken, fish, dairy, tofu or other plant-based protein.
  3. The rest of the plate, about the size of your fist, comprises unrefined starches.

“A controlled amount of healthy fat [such as olive oil] can be used in food preparation or added to salads,” she adds.

Making food and lifestyle changes go hand in hand with mindful eating, which means thinking about when, how, and what you eat. Avoid eating on the go, making regular dashes into the convenience store, or grabbing unhealthy snacks on the road. Sit down to dinner as a family and step away from your desk at lunchtime.

Create a balanced eating plan

It’s best to consult a qualified dietitian who will draw up a personalised, heart-healthy eating plan to suit your lifestyle, likes and dislikes, and health issues. They can then also monitor how the diet is working for you and adjust it if necessary.

Meal planning helps with making your grocery lists and limiting unhealthy impulse purchases, Wellmann advises. “Plan a few days ahead so you have the right ingredients and enough healthy snacks. Think of veggies first when you plan meals, then add proteins and starches, and consider how you’ll prepare the meal.” For example, use herbs and spices instead of salt, and olive or canola oil instead of sunflower oil. “When you have the right ingredients at home, it’s easier to make healthy meal choices.”

Healthy heart screenings

Having regular heart health screenings for early detection and prevention of heart issues is essential, adds Wellmann. “For everyone, especially those with a family history of heart disease or strokes, annual cholesterol and blood pressure screenings are vital.”

From screenings to healthcare consultations, you can trust Mediclinic for all heart-related needs. Visit mediclinic.co.za to find a specialist healthcare professional.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.