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Healthy food

Eating well for your heart: why Australians need it now more than ever

09 February 2021

Cardiovascular disease affects more than 4 million Australians and is a major cause of death in Australia. According to the Heart Foundation, 90% of Australians have at least one risk factor for heart disease. Many of these risk factors are lifestyle-related including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being overweight, physical inactivity, poor diet, smoking and alcohol. The good news is that these things can be changed and doing so can significantly reduce your heart disease risk.

It’s a common misconception that Australians are generally healthy eaters. In fact, our diet puts us more at risk of death and disability than any other risk factor. 92% of Australian adults do not meet the recommended intake for vegetables (5+ servings of vegetables a day), with this amount still increasing.

So how can we beat the odds and get our heart health back on track?

Surprisingly, food!

The numbers don’t lie. Poor diet is one of the leading risk factors for death and disability in Australia, directly resulting in an estimated 27 500 deaths annually according to a 2016 Global Burden of Disease study. Almost 2 in 3 or 12 million Australians are overweight or obese and these numbers are rising. An alarming 92% of Australians are not meeting their serving of vegetable and legume food groups. We’re also eating out more than ever before.  A study by NobleOak found the average Australian spends 32% of their weekly food budget on fast food. Put simply, we’re eating too much junk and not enough fresh food.

How can I start eating healthier? 5 Key Heart Healthy Principles:

Healthy eating is more than changing one type of nutrient or food. The Heart Foundation summarises healthy eating recommendations into 5 Heart Healthy Eating Principles. While seemingly basic, these principles will help to build a sustainable eating pattern to promote heart health.

1: Eat plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals.

Including variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grain cereals are essential elements associated with improved cardiovascular health outcomes.

Eating 5+ vegetables a day can reduce cardiovascular disease by almost 17%. A good place to start is aiming for ½ your plate of colourful vegetables. Eating a rainbow is the key. The fibre and micro-nutrients contained in fruits and vegetables have shown to reduce the risk of cholesterol and high blood pressure and contribute to a protective effect against heart disease.  Eating patterns rich in fibre from wholegrains are linked to reduced LDL- (bad) cholesterol levels. Soluble fibre such as oats, barley and legumes are particularly beneficial to lower total cholesterol levels. 

2: Aim for a good form of protein with every meal.

Many animal and plant based sources of protein can be included in a heart friendly dietary pattern.

Good sources of protein include: beans, legumes, nuts, fish, poultry and lean meats. Fish and legumes are the preferred protein sources due to their consistent beneficial relationship with heart health.

  • Fish and seafood are good sources of omega 3 fatty acids, and their regular consumption is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.
  • Legumes, nuts and seeds are good sources of plant proteins, fibre, healthy fats and micro-nutrients, are also inversely associated with lowering risk of heart disease.  
  • Lean meat provides a source of protein, B12, iron, and zinc, however, it’s best to limit to 1-2 times a week.
  • Eggs and poultry can be included in a heart healthy eating pattern. However, there is evidence that increasing egg intake in people with Type 2 Diabetes increases risk of cardiovascular disease, and a maximum amount 7 eggs per week is recommended.

3. Choose unflavoured milk, yoghurt and cheese. If you have high blood cholesterol you should choose reduced fat varieties.

Health professionals and researchers are all interested in any connection between dairy consumption and heart health. Currently, most national guidelines recommend the consumption of between 2-4 serves of reduced fat milk, cheese and yoghurt per day.

A serve is generally:

  • 1 cup (250ml) milk
  • 1-2 slices of cheese (40g) or ½ cup ricotta/cottage cheese
  •  1 tub of yoghurt (200g).

Given the inconsistencies in the evidence for fat modified dairy products, there is not enough evidence to recommend fat modified products (i.e. full fat over reduced fat products, or reduced fat over full fat products). Unflavoured milk, yoghurt and cheese are healthy snack options in preference to discretionary foods and can provide a good source of protein.

4: Healthy fat choices with nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and their oils for cooking.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats reduce the risk of heart disease, by replacing saturated and trans ‘bad fats’ intake in your diet with unsaturated ‘good fats’.

Monounsaturated fatty acids are found in:

  • Avocado
  • Almond, peanut and cashew nuts
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Oil spreads

Good sources of Polyunsaturated fatty acids are:

  • Oily fish and seafood (e.g. salmon, sardines, tuna, mussels)
  • Sunflower, canola, soybean and grapeseed oil and oil spreads
  •  Soybeans and soy milk
  • Chia, flaxseed and sunflower seeds

 The research keeps highlighting the wonderous effects of Omega 3 fatty acids. Aim for 2–3 servings of fish per week, including oily fish (1 serving = 150–200g).

In contrast, fats and oils which have considerable amounts of saturated or trans fatty acids compared to unsaturated fatty acids, may have negative effects for heart health and include butter, lard, copha, palm oil and, coconut oil.

5: Herbs and spices to flavour foods, instead of adding salt.

The majority of Australians are consuming more salt than ever before. Sodium is found in almost every food we eat, even unprocessed foods, but the amount varies. Foods such as vegetables and fruit have very small amounts of naturally occurring sodium. Approximately 75-80% of the salt we consume, is added to foods during processing as a preservative and for flavouring. Discretionary foods such as pizzas, pastries, biscuits and take away foods, are the leading contributor to high intake of sodium in the Australian diet.  The main source of sodium are found in, sauces, meat, poultry (including processed meats), bread and cereals and convenience pre-packaged meals.  Discretionary foods not only contribute large amounts of sodium to the diet but they replace the intake of healthy foods, which are naturally low in sodium.

Many eating patterns use herbs, spices and infused olive oils to flavour foods. A healthy eating pattern, based on the above 4 principles, will be naturally lower in sodium, and will help to lower overall salt intakes. Australians should aim to reduce their salt intake to less than 5 grams per day.

Quick tips for healthy cooking

  • Cook at home more. Meals and snacks purchased outside of the home are often high in energy, salt, added sugar and unhealthy fats.
  • Pack your own lunch. The more colour the better.
  • Use take-aways and restaurant meals as occasional treats only (once a week or less).
  • Planning ahead and using leftovers in creative ways can help being organised in the kitchen and make lunch and dinner meals easier.
  • Baked veggies like pumpkin, sweet potato and zucchini can be added to salads and wraps.
  • Try chopping baked vegetables from yesterday’s roast and adding some quinoa or brown rice together with some canned chickpeas beans and infused olive oil.
  • Enjoy heart smart snacking. Try having a piece of fruit with unflavoured yoghurt, wholegrain crackers with cheese, a small handful of unsalted nuts and seeds or vegetable sticks with a healthy dip or nut butter. Delish!

Dietitian bookings with Jean-Mari are by appointment

Dietitian Jean-Mari Mouton Club Active Allied Health Clinic

Jean-Mari is passionate about heart health and would love to help you incorporate these heart healthy principles.

BURLEIGHBUNDALL and MURWILLUMBAH // please contact to arrange a time.

TWEED // On-site every Thursday. Contact for an appointment.

PARKWOOD // On-site every Friday. Contact for an appointment.


Sources: Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, Heart Foundation, Heart, Lung and Circulation, Sax Institute for the National Heart Foundation of Australia.

Author: Jean-Mari Mouton Senior Dietitian | Edited: Alycia Mann Student Dietitian

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