Keep it pumping – a hearty guide to eating well

Diet affects health so what are the best foods for a healthy heart?

Key Points

  • Mediterranean diet could reduce disease risk.
  • The average Aussie man is 11.2kg above a healthy weight, while the average woman is 7.1kg over.
  • We underestimate the link between excess weight and heart disease at our own risk.

Those bathroom scales are working harder as our waistlines are expanding and we grow more complacent about the health risks of extra kilos.

Carrying excess weight, particularly around your middle, puts you at higher risk of a heart attack or stroke - yet Australian Heart Foundation research suggests fewer people are aware of this link and aren't taking action to trim down to protect their heart health.

This alarming trend comes as two-thirds of Australian adults are now overweight or obese.

More on this later but what about heart health and diet?

Research shows that the Mediterranean diet—full of fruits, vegetables, fish, cereals, and legumes and lentils, with little meat and dairy—may reduce the risk of heart disease as the diet is low in sodium and saturated fat. 

A heart-healthy diet also includes:

  • plenty of vegetables
  • fruits
  • whole grains

Despite what you may read in the media, few studies have examined the relationship between overall diet and sudden cardiac death, a common cause of death.

In sudden cardiac death, the heart abruptly stops beating, leading to death within an hour of symptoms. Small studies have suggested that the Mediterranean diet may lower the risk of sudden cardiac death.

A USA research team led by Dr. James M. Shikany of the University of Alabama, examined whether dietary patterns are associated with the risk of sudden cardiac death.

The diets of more than 21,000 participants were examined using a food questionnaire at the start of the study. Participants were asked how often and in what quantities they ate 110 foods in the past year. Those with and without a history of coronary heart disease were included.

Dietary patterns – fried, sweet and convenient

Researchers calculated a Mediterranean diet score. They also identified five dietary patterns. One, which they termed the “Southern” eating pattern, has large amounts of added fats, fried food, eggs, organ and processed meats and sugar‐sweetened beverages. 

Other dietary patterns included a “sweets” pattern heavy on added sugar, a “convenience” pattern made mainly of ready-to-eat foods and take away, a “plant-based” pattern,” and an “alcohol and salad” pattern.

The researchers assessed how closely participants adhered to each dietary pattern. For example, someone could adhere closely to the Mediterranean diet while also adhering to the “sweets” pattern, but to a lesser degree. They also recorded any heart-related events over an average of 10 years.

The researchers found that regularly eating a Southern-style diet may increase the risk of sudden cardiac death, while consuming a Mediterranean diet may reduce risk.

Participants with a Southern dietary pattern had a 46% higher risk of sudden cardiac death than those with the lowest adherence. In contrast, people closely following the Mediterranean diet had a 26% lower risk of sudden cardiac death than others with the least adherence.

Among those with no coronary heart disease at the start of the study, those closely following the Mediterranean diet had a statistically significant 41% reduction in risk of sudden cardiac death compared to those with the least adherence.

Gaining weight with age

The Australian Heart Foundation tells us the average Aussie man is 11.2kg above a healthy weight, while the average woman is 7.1kg over.

This only gets worse with age, with the average weight for men aged 45-64 almost 15kg over the healthy range.

Growing waistlines are also putting Australians in the danger zone for risk of chronic illnesses (80cm or more for women and 94cm or more for men). The concern is the average woman’s waist size is 88cm, and 98cm for the average bloke.

So, the key message is that we cannot afford to underestimate the link between excess weight and heart disease, yet many of us are.

Heart health survey – some good news and bad

A Foundation survey of 7, 000 people shows just one in four of us (26%) aged 30-65, are aware being overweight is a risk factor for heart disease. This statistic is down from 31% five years earlier.

But is being aware good enough? The proportion of Australians in this age bracket focused on losing weight to reduce their risk of heart disease dropped from 16% to 12%.

The Foundation says that at a time when the average Aussie is carrying too many kilos, there should be a greater focus on healthy weight and a healthy lifestyle, but instead the opposite is happening.

Heart Age Calculator

Could you be at risk of heart disease? Get your estimated heart age now.

  • The Heart Age Calculator estimates your heart age based on your inputs and compares to your actual age.
  • This calculator is intended for people aged 35-75.
  • Your risk of a heart attack or stroke may be higher if your heart age is greater than your actual age.
Australian Heart Foundation Heart Age Calculator