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Best foods for your heart - and tips on how to eat them

These food types affect your cholesterol levels and blood pressure in a big way

Did you know that 19 people in Singapore die from cardiovascular diseases every day?

Last year, almost one out of three deaths were due to heart diseases and stroke, which are collectively referred to as cardiovascular diseases, and are together the leading cause of death among women in Singapore.

Looking after our heart is extremely important, no matter how old (or young) we are. And one impactful way to do so is to watch what we eat.

Food has a big influence on cholesterol levels and blood pressure, which are risk factors for heart disease. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to your diet, from your daily food choices to food preparation methods and portion sizes.

Here are some of the best foods for a strong and healthy heart, plus tips for consuming them every day.

Berries

These colourful little fruits pack a punch when it comes to improving heart health.

They are full of antioxidants that reduce the risk factors for heart disease. This includes a possible reduction in cholesterol levels and an improvement in how your arteries function.

The best thing about this is, there are many varieties of berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries) to choose from, with each type bearing unique benefits so you will not get bored of them.

Tips to eat: Sprinkle some berries onto your cereal, oats or yogurt for breakfast. Snack on them whenever you need a sugar rush (without the guilt because they are naturally sweetened) or enjoy them as a dessert with a bit of cream or ice cream.

Leafy green vegetables

There is a good reason why we are always told to eat our greens - they contain a host of benefits, even for your heart.

A European study revealed that eating leafy vegetables reduces the risk of coronary heart disease in women, so get some greens into your diet whenever you can.

Spinach and kale contain high levels of vitamin K, which is good for your arteries and encourages healthy blood clotting.

Tips to eat: Choose salads (without the dressing) for meals and include as many leafy greens as you can in simple dishes such as noodles, stir-fries, sandwiches or wraps.

Beans

A diet high in beans and legumes could lead to a significant reduction in LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels.

It is often referred to as "bad" cholesterol as it sits in the walls of blood vessels, thus increasing your chances of getting a stroke or heart attack.

On the other hand, HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is the "good" cholesterol that transports LDL into your liver, which then flushes it out of your system.

Most legumes such as green beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils contain phytochemicals which may protect against high blood pressure and heart disease.

Tips to eat: Sprinkle chickpeas or black beans on salads, or snack on (preferably unsalted) soy nuts. Toss some beans into your breakfast omelette or add them to sandwiches or wraps. Keep canned beans in your pantry for quick, easy meals, but remember to buy the low-salt or unsalted variety.

Not everyone finds it easy to digest beans and legumes as they may increase intestinal gas and flatulence, so take it slow if you do not react well to them.

Also, drink more water and exercise regularly to help your system digest them.

Avocados

Health experts have been espousing the benefits of avocados for years now, and its heart-friendly qualities are usually at the top of the list.

Avocados are loaded with heart-healthy fats; they contain oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid also found in olive oil. Plus, they have high levels of potassium, which could reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Tips to eat: Smashed avocado is a hit for a reason - it is both healthy and simple to prepare. Add sliced avocados to salads, grill them as a side dish, add them to sandwiches/wraps, dip your corn chips in guacamole, or look for a simple stuffed avocado recipe for breakfast.

Fatty fish

Fish has the winning combination of being high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in saturated fat.

Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines are especially beneficial.

Including fish in your diet in the long term will reduce your risk of getting cardiovascular disease.

A study found that reducing fish intake by 100g a week leads to a 19 per cent higher chance of having one additional risk factor for cardiovascular disease, such as hypertension, diabetes or obesity.

Fish oil supplements are an option too, but remember that it is always better to get your nutrients from the original source.

Tips to eat: Grill some salmon for an easy, healthy dinner. Add canned sardines or tuna to a salad or make sandwiches with them. Mackerel can be baked or pan-fried with some vegetables.

Nuts

Loads of nuts to choose from here - almonds, peanuts, walnuts, pistachios and pecans. Nuts are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which help lower bad cholesterol. Walnuts and almonds are particularly good choices.

Tips to eat: Whether you are running from one meeting to another or binge-watching your favourite series, snacking on nuts is a great choice. You could also add them to salads, noodles or stir-fries.

However, note that nuts are high in calories due to their high fat content, so keep each portion to just a handful. Choose the raw, baked, roasted or unsalted versions, instead of fried or sugar-coated variations.

Tomatoes

This juicy red beauty contains lycopene, which is responsible for its rich colour and is an antioxidant that has anti-inflammatory abilities and improves vascular function.

Lycopene also helps reduce LDL cholesterol.

Plus, tomatoes are high in potassium, which reduces blood pressure, thus keeping your heart in healthier shape.

Tips to eat: Add tomatoes to salads, sandwiches and wraps. If you love making scrambled eggs for weekend breakfasts, add some chopped bits of tomato to them. Tomatoes can also be added to stir-fries. For an easy and healthy snack, munch on some juicy cherry tomatoes.

Whole grains

Whole grains are nutritious because they contain all three parts of a grain - bran, germ and endosperm.

Because they are less processed, there are more vitamins, minerals and fibre in them, compared with other types of grains (refined grains such as white rice, white bread or pasta).

Examples of whole grains include oats, brown rice, barley and quinoa.

The high amount of fibre in whole grains reduces the risk of coronary heart disease.

And because they make you feel fuller for longer, you are less likely to reach for high-fat or high-sugar foods in between meals.

Tips to eat: Wherever possible, choose brown or unpolished rice instead of white rice, wholegrain bread instead of white bread, and oats instead of processed cereals for breakfast.

If you love snacking on crackers, pick the wholegrain version.

Make it a habit and you just might cultivate a liking for wholegrain foods eventually.

This article was first published in Her World Online (www.HerWorld.com).

Food & Drink