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Heart health

Kickstart your healthy heart habits

Heart-shaped bowl with vegetables, grains and nuts

Many of us wrestle with the impulse to eat and drink things that aren’t very good for our health. Indulging once in a while shouldn’t have a major impact on your waistline and wellbeing, but the little choices you make every day definitely will.

Research indicates that someone who is obese is significantly more likely to develop a number of serious and potentially life-threatening conditions, such as Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, strokes and some types of cancer, including breast and bowel cancer1.

The good news is that maintaining a healthy weight doesn’t have to mean drastic lifestyle changes. It’s actually about the small decisions you make every day, and how these can add up over time.

Even small, yet sustained, calorie excess builds up: 100 extra calories each day over 10 days adds up to a significant 1,000 calories that haven’t been burned off and can be stored as fat.

"The calorific load in food today is mind-blowing and it’s easy in a short amount of time to consume two to three times the amount of calories you should in a day.” Dr Amit Sethi, former medical director at Bupa Global.

The trick is not to think about the 1,000 extra calories, but the 100. Make the small changes and the bigger ones will look after themselves. In this way, you can come to think of maintaining a healthy weight as a series of simple, daily decisions, rather than big life-altering changes that can be difficult to sustain long term.

What's the link between weight and heart disease?

While you can see or feel the effects of weight gain on your body – trousers feeling tight or shifting to another belt notch – the impact on your heart can be quietly cumulative. You might not know about it until you have a serious problem.

Sustained high blood pressure (which can damage the lining of the coronary arteries) and raised cholesterol levels are both common signs of excess weight.

Both can contribute to damage done to the cardiovascular system through plaque, which is a combination of cholesterol, calcium and fat in the blood (triglycerides). Plaque can build up inside arteries, hardening and narrowing them, reducing blood flow to the heart and even causing a blockage, which can lead to a heart attack.

Is cholesterol the culprit?

Cholesterol is a fat (lipid) that’s produced by your liver and carried around your body by proteins called lipoproteins. It’s vital for the formation of cell membranes, vitamin D and certain hormones.

There are two types, often referred to as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) protects the heart because it mops up bad cholesterol from your bloodstream. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and triglycerides are known as bad cholesterol because they can contribute to plaque formation in your blood vessels. For some people, high LDL cholesterol levels are genetic and treatable with drugs. For others, they are due to eating too much food that’s high in saturated fat.

High cholesterol levels produce no outward symptoms, so if you have concerns it’s best to speak with your family physician and see if they feel a cholesterol check is necessary.

What are the measures that really matter?

"The rate of obesity around the world is spiralling, but there’s also an increasing awareness of the importance of weight and body fat composition. Body Mass Index (BMI) is useful but it is increasingly questionable how much we should be guided by this", says Dr Sethi.

BMI doesn’t distinguish between fat and muscle. Muscle weighs more than fat, so muscular people may be wrongly defined as overweight or obese. Conversely, people with normal BMIs can still carry a lot of fat around their waists, which may indicate an increased risk of heart problems.

Some research now suggests that the ratio of waist circumference to height may be a better gauge for cardiovascular risk, with the healthiest ratio being a waist circumference that's less than half your height.

What makes a heart-healthy diet?

It’s important to note that while a healthy waistline is crucial, a heart-friendly diet isn’t a zero-fat one – it’s a diet that favours unsaturated fats over saturated. Unsaturated fats help to lower ‘bad’ cholesterol. Soluble fibre can reduce it too.

To eat the right fats and maintain a healthy waistline, try this simple checklist:

  • Focus on unprocessed, high-fibre foods such as fruits and vegetables, legumes, wholegrains and nuts.
  • Choose foods high in unsaturated fats, like nuts, seeds, oily fish and avocados.
  • Opt for fish, chicken and lean meat to reduce saturated fat intake.
  • Limit red meat that's high in saturated fats.
  • Reduce your salt intake at the table and read the backs of packets to check for ‘hidden’ salt.
  • Exercise regularly as this can lower your triglycerides and increase your HDL levels.

“Stopping problems years before they manifest is much easier. If we eat good food, keep our triglyceride levels low and exercise regularly to create muscle mass that can help burn off excess calories, we can maintain a healthy weight and heart, now and into the future,” says Dr Sethi.

It truly is those small daily decisions that add up through the years.


1. NHS (, last accessed in January 2017

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