About a decade ago cancer surpassed cardiovascular disease as the primary cause of death in Canada. However, this statistic is slightly misleading because cancer includes a variety of distinct conditions that affect different organs such as the lungs, prostate breast, colon and so on.
According to Health Canada data from 2009, lung cancer is the primary cause of death in Canadians while heart attack and stroke are second and third respectively and breast, prostate and colorectal cancer round out the top 6.
Given that lung cancer prevention has such a strong non-nutritional component (ie: quitting smoking), one could argue that death from heart attack remains the most preventable cause of mortality from a purely dietary perspective.
That brings us to the motivation for today’s article, which will outline the seven critical dietary steps that you can take to help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and increase your chances for a longer, healthier life.
Keep in mind that age and family history are common risk factors for cardiovascular disease so if you or someone you are reading today’s article for is over the age of 55 with a family history of heart disease, you should be particularly interested in these seven tips.
7 Things You Can Do Today
1. Have no more than 1 standard alcoholic drink a day: I appreciate that drinking is an important component in the daily and social lives of many Canadians so I’m not asking you to give it up, only to be mindful of the amount you drink. A standard drink is 12 oz of beer, 5 oz of wine or 1.5 oz of spirits. Now that you know, do your best to have no more than 1 standard drink a day. If this sounds like it may be a difficult task for you, then start by trying to drink half as much on a weekly basis as you did before and go from there.
2. Go fish, at least twice a week: Pardon the pun, but unless you are a vegan, fish is probably one of the most important foods you could be eating. The reason for this is because fish are one of the few rich natural sources of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. Canadians who do not eat fish may find it difficult (but not impossible) to get enough of these important nutrients. Health Canada recommends consuming at least 2-servings (150 grams) of fish a week, especially varieties such as salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines and herring. Canned varieties of these fish are also fine. These particular fish also have the added benefit of being low in mercury, which means you do not need to be worried about eating them during or prior to conception/pregnancy.
3. Give vegetarian meat alternatives ( tofu, beans, nuts, seeds) a chance: Vegan and vegetarian diets are associated with a decreased risk of multiple chronic diseases, including heart disease. Occasionally swapping in meat alternatives such as legumes (beans,peas,lentils) or tofu will do wonders for your heart. Unlike meat and other animal products, these foods contain a great amount of dietary fibre, and other healthy components which are associated with a reducing heart disease risk factors. The same can be said for other meat alternatives such as nuts and seeds, which I also recommend incorporating into your diet regularly, especially in place of less healthy snack options.
4. Eat at least two different coloured vegetables daily: It is no secret that vegetables are among the most important foods that you can eat to prevent heart disease. Rather than just tell you to eat more vegetables, I want to specifically suggest you make an effort to eat at least one serving of two different vegetables ( 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw = 1 serving) of different colours on a daily basis. The reason? Different coloured vegetables offer different physiological benefits. If you follow nothing else from today’s article, follow this advice. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Red: Tomatoes, Red peppers, radish.
Purple: Eggplant, purple cabbage, beets.
Green: Kale, chard, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, brussel sprouts.
White: Garlic, onions, leeks, scallion, chives, cauliflower.
Orange: Carrot, sweet potato, orange.
5. Eat at least two different coloured fruits daily: Fruits are right behind vegetables when it comes to the foods that are critical for heart disease prevention. Just like with vegetables, diversity in the colour of fruits you choose is important. Aim for at least two different coloured fruits a day, in addition to the two different coloured vegetables that you will also (hopefully) be eating. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Red: Apples, raspberries, cherries, strawberries, watermelon.
Green: Kiwi, green apples, avocado, honeydew.
Purple: Blackberries, blueberries, grapes, plums.
White: Peaches, nectarines, bananas.
Yellow: Pears, papaya, mango, oranges, tangerine.
6. Avoid Processed meats: Processed meats are a variety of primarily red meat products that have been salted, cured or smoked. They include items such as hot dogs, bacon, corned beef, beef jerky, sausages, salami and ham. They are generally high in calories, high in saturated animal fat and high in sodium. None of these components are good for you or your heart, especially because many Canadians eat too much of all three already. Oh, and if that wasn’t compelling enough, recent research has found that these foods may contribute to increasing your risk of certain types of cancer as well. If cutting these foods out completely seems difficult to you, at least try to limit their consumption to once a week.
7. Use olive oil or avocado: To add flavour to your salad rather than ranch dressing. This may seem like a very specific point compared to the others, but salad dressing is actually a pretty significant source of nutrient-poor calories and unhelpful fats in the Canadian diet. I would highly recommend swapping out such dressings with either olive oil (& vinegar) or avocado, both of which are very high in heart healthy monounsaturated fats which are known to reduce heart disease risk and improve your blood cholesterol profile. Avocados also have the added benefit of being high in potassium, which is an important mineral for cardiovascular health that may be under-consumed in some Canadians. They can also be used to replace butter in toast and recipes.
Take Home Message
Heart disease is the second most common killer of Canadians and arguably the #1 cause of death in Canada that is primarily preventable through better nutrition. I sincerely hope today’s guidance has provided you with valuable insights into the role of nutrition in cardiovascular disease prevention and I wish you all the best in your food, nutrition and health endeavours going forward.
Andy De Santis RD MPH
For those interested in learning more about the dietary determinants of heart health:
1. The connection between dietary sodium and high blood pressure
2. The portfolio diet for reducing blood cholesterol levels