We need our heart to survive. It's fundamental purpose is to help pump blood through our blood vessels to the different muscles and cells in our body. Why? Because blood contains oxygen and nutrients required by our cells to function. Blood also has the ability to carry waste products away from cells, to be removed from the body. Pretty clever, right? In order for our circulatory system (which is made up from the heart and blood vessels) to function properly, it's crucial that we look after it. A poor diet and inactive lifestyle has been shown to negatively impact the circulatory system, which can increase the risk of developing heart disease and other circulatory problems.
What are the risk factors for heart disease?
There are many risk factors for heart disease. Some of these we have no control over. This includes age, gender, ethnicity and family history. Did you know that up until menopause, women have a lower risk of developing heart disease?
However, there are plenty of risk factors that you do have control over - which means you can take control of your heart health. High blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, excessive alcohol intake, smoking and physical inactivity are just some of the common controllable risk factors for heart disease.
High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure, sometimes referred to as hypertension, causes extra strain to be placed onto blood vessels. This can damage blood vessel walls, increasing the risk of heart and circulatory problems. There are many reasons someone may develop high blood pressure, such as ageing, carrying extra weight and having a high salt diet
It's widely encouraged that many people in the UK should be trying to cut down on the amount of salt in their diet. In 2019, the average salt intake for UK adults was 8.4g. This is 40% more than the recommended 6g/day limit.
Given that most salt in your diet is likely coming from premade foods, such as bread, cheese or crisps, the easiest way to reduce the salt in your diet is to choose lower salt foods. Read nutrition labels where possible and make use of packaging that uses traffic light labelling. If you're comparing two similar products, such as bread, choose the option that's lowest in salt or has the green traffic light label.
High Cholesterol Levels
Cholesterol is usually spoken about in a negative manner. However, there are different types of cholesterol, and not all cholesterol is bad.
The reason why cholesterol gets a bad reputation is due to low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, usually found in animal-based foods, but also coconut oil. LDL cholesterol encourages the build up of fatty deposits in blood vessels, in a process known as atherosclerosis. As fatty deposits build up, they narrow the blood vessel, making it more difficult for blood to flow. If blood can't flow to muscles, such as the heart, oxygen and nutrients can't be delivered, and muscle tissue will die. This can lead to events such as heart attacks.
It's not all doom and gloom. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is known as 'good' cholesterol, because it removes LDL cholesterol from the blood, and takes it to the liver to be removed from the body.
It's important to ensure an optimal balance between LDL and HDL cholesterol to look after your blood vessels. One way you can do this is by prioritising unsaturated fats over saturated fats. This can be as simple as frying foods with olive oil rather than butter, or switching your buttered toast for avocado on toast.
Humans don't move as much as they did years ago. Jobs have become more sedentary and smart technology means some people don't even need to get up to turn the lights on or boil the kettle. Whilst we might be moving less, what we really need to be doing is moving more.
Movement is fantastic for heart health. Regular physical activity can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as reduce your resting heart rate. If exercise feels daunting, why not try walking? A daily walk can work wonders for not only your heart health, but your overall health too. Start with just 10 minutes here and there and the benefits will build over time.
You might not be able to see your heart, but it's constantly working away to support your day-to-day life. By reducing the amount of salt in your diet, swapping saturated fats for unsaturated fats and starting a daily walk, you can show your heart the love it deserves.