And which foods should you studiously avoid?
Although there are no simple rules (eg, avoid this and you'll steer clear of cancer), there are informed choices you can make when it comes to preparing the meal and deciding what goes into your mouth. Mariette Abrahams, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association (BDA) says it can be a good time to evaluate your eating habits.
The one ingredient to approach with caution is: salt. "I'd take the long term view at how people prepare food. Be careful with salt - avoid having salt at the table and don’t have additional alternatives such as MSG or salty sauces."
Nutritionist Yvonne McMeel at the Urban Retreat agrees. "Reduce salt intake, no more than 6g per day as it can increase blood pressure. Excessive salt is commonly found in readymade processed food, takeaways and salted snacks such as crisps and nuts."
WHY IS SALT BAD FOR YOUR HEART?
Salt works on your kidneys to make your body hold on to more water.
This extra stored water raises your blood pressure and puts strain on your kidneys, arteries, heart and brain.
Source: Blood Pressure UK
Another danger area is pastries and pies. "Pastry usually has a lot of fat," says Mariette, "especially puff pastry because it is made with a layer of pastry, then butter, then pastry and so on. That means it's high in saturated fat. Also be careful of cooking with lard."
The foods with the highest risk for heart disease and high blood pressure are those that are high in saturated fat and trans fats. These contribute towards bad cholesterol, as well as visceral fat that gathers around the tummy. Yvonne adds: "These will tend to be heavily processed; meat pies, sausages and fatty cuts of meat, lard, cream, hard cheese, cakes and biscuits."
Instead, says Mariette, intersperse with healthier snacks. "Go for vegetable roasted crisps because potato chips are often deep fried and have lots of salt. Have nuts rather than chocolate covered nuts and fruit slices for something sweet."
WHAT ARE TRANS FATS?
Artificial trans fats can be formed when oil goes through a process called hydrogenation, which makes the oil more solid (known as hardening). This type of fat, known as hydrogenated fat, can be used for frying or as an ingredient in processed foods.
Industrially produced trans fats have been found to raise the levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol in our blood, which is linked to the development of atheroma - a fatty material that builds up within our artery walls.
Here are some more tips:
Parsnips And Seeds
"Magnesium is a natural broncho dilator (opens the airways) so can help you breathe more easily," says nutritionist Karen Poole. "The cardiovascular function is more efficient because it reduces the pressure on the heart and aiding the intake and transportation of oxygen. Most people are deficient in this powerful mineral found in almonds, barley, brewers yeast, cashews, parsnips, wholegrains, cereals, kelp, figs and most seeds."
"The bright redness of the berry is a sign that this food brimming in health busting antioxidants," says The Food Doctor nutritionist Alice Mackintosh, "which can help the body fight against a myriad of health problems, being especially important in the fight against CV diseases.
"As well as this, they are rich in vitamin C, E and also contain compounds called salvesterols that may help protect the DNA in the body’s cells from becoming damaged, a theory behind the development of cancer. Cranberries have also long been heralded for their benefits on the bladder, where they help to protect against infection."
WHAT ARE ANTIOXIDANTS?
Antioxidants are chemicals that block the activity of other chemicals known as free radicals. Free radicals are highly reactive and have the potential to cause damage to cells, including damage that may lead to cancer.
Yvonne says: "Raw, unsalted nuts are a great source of magnesium which is good for muscle contraction, helping to prevent aches and pains. They like other nuts such as almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, peanuts all contain protein which is the natural building block for muscles and all cells in the body.
"They also contain the healthy Omega 3 fats which are linked to a reduction in heart disease, cognitive decline as well as anti-inflammatory properties. Nuts are a good satisfying snack and good to eat alongside chocolate to help balance blood sugar levels preventing insulin spikes."
Chocs And Sugar Management
Sugar is a big problem at this time of year because of the waterfall of sweets. Karen advises: "Cinnamon is a powerful antioxidant and can also help the body to utilise insulin more efficiently a reduce sugar cravings. A helpful Christmas spice you can add to cereals, porridge or smoothies."
Alice says it's worth using agave nectar instead of sugar, and to try and make your own sauces as a lot of the bottled ones have added sugar.
"Rather than munching on sugary milk chocolate," says Yvonne, "indulge in 70-90% cocoa chocolate or raw cacao. Cocoa is a great source of Polyphenols which are natural plant chemicals that have antioxidant properties; the main ones in cocoa are epicatechin and catechin. Antioxidants are vital to our bodies since they help to prevent cell damage and protect against disease by mopping up destructive, unstable oxygen molecules known as free radicals. Recent studies also show the effect of polyphenols and their positive effect on improving mood.
Red Cabbage And Cruciferous Veg (Including Sprouts)
"Red cabbage and sprouts also offer high levels of antioxidants," says Alice, "though these should not be overcooked as goodness can be lost especially when boiling veg. To avoid losing all the goodness down the drain, use the water to make your gravy, a trick known by grandmas throughout the UK! Raw brassicas such as broccoli and sprouts are also rich in compounds called glucosinolates that have been shown to help protect against breast cancer.
"Like all vegetables," adds Yvonne brussel sprouts are naturally low in fat, low in sodium and contain good amounts of fibre - lightly steam to prevent nutrient loss.
"Cruciferous vegetables release a potent substance called indole 3 carbinol when you bite into them," says Karen, "which can help to limit the damage caused by cancerous cells to the surrounding healthy cells and inhibit tumor growth. Cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, cabbage, kale and Brussel sprouts. Likewise regular beans and pulses can help to counteract the release of harmful substances from cancer cells and prevent healthy cell damage.
Herbs And Spices
"Most spices are strong antioxidants and have a variety of beneficial effects," advises Yvonne. "Ginger is an anti-inflammatory and can help ease the pain of arthritis. Chillies contain the plant chemical capsaicin, which is a great reliever of general aches and pains, and coriander seeds can lower blood pressure.
"Several herbs are strong antioxidants, even when used in small amounts. Thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage, basil and coriander all contain high levels of phyto-chemicals, which can help ward off heart disease and cancers. Use fresh parsley and thyme in the turkey stuffing to really boost your vitamin C intake. Did you know parsley contains over double the amount of vitamin C than oranges?"
And - Ditch The Fry Up!
"Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, a favourite Christmas breakfast, also dishes up plenty of nutritional support," says Alice, "being rich in omega 3 fats which have been shown to help support cardiovascular health and brain function. Eggs are also rich in choline B vitamins, and also contain the amino acid cysteine which helps reduce levels of nasty hangover toxins such as acetaldehyde which is produced when we detoxify alcohol. An ideal antidote to the festive period!"
In this global study, adults over 50 who were at high risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes who walked an additional 2,000 steps a day—about 20 minutes of brisk walking—reduced their risk of having a cardiovascular “event,” such as a heart attack or stroke, by 10 percent over the next six years. “Other than not smoking, nothing comes close to physical activity for prevention,” says Dr. Church. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of papers support it.” Achieving the goal of being physically active for 150 minutes a week, including strength training a couple of days a week, can reduce your cardiovascular risk by about 25 percent, he says. “There’s a dose response, which means the more you exercise, the more you benefit.” The biggest benefit, though, comes from going from sedentary to mildly active, such as walking 10 minutes a day. Says Dr. Church, “The biggest bang is just getting off the couch.”
In a meta-analysis of 22 studies, British researchers found that people who ate seven more grams of dietary fiber had a nine percent lower risk of heart disease. How much is that? A medium apple has 5 grams of dietary fiber, as does a half cup of cooked broccoli. A half cup of cooked lentils: 8 grams. Fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains are all good sources of fiber. “Fiber has beneficial effects on blood glucose and cholesterol, and it may keep your gastrointestinal tract healthier, reducing inflammation,” says Dr. Church. “Eating more fiber is also a marker of a healthier diet.”
“It’s pretty powerful,” says Dr. Church. “Drinking in moderation cuts your risk of heart disease by about 25 percent.” That’s defined as no more than one daily drink for a woman, two for a man. Not everyone can drink moderately, of course, but if you can, research shows it’s heart healthy. “It relaxes your blood vessels, so you can’t form a clot while alcohol’s on board,” says Dr. Church. “Any alcohol has benefits, but wine has a little more,” says Dr. Church. The healthiest pattern: “A drink or two every couple of days.”
The Agency for Healthcare Research Quality, a federal research agency, recently concluded that simply taking a multivitamin/multimineral pill won’t reduce your risk of heart disease. “It’s no surprise,” says Dr. Church. After all, preventing heart disease isn’t what multis are built to do—they’re to shore up nutrient deficiencies. “While the evidence for heart disease prevention isn’t there,” says Dr. Church, “taking multis won’t hurt you.” As for research that low vitamin D is associated with a 27 percent increased risk of developing heart disease, Dr. Church thinks it’s simply a marker for an inactive lifestyle, meaning since most people get their vitamin D from the sun, “people with high vitamin D levels are outside more—and probably more active,” he says. If you do have low D levels, Dr. Church supports taking supplements. But whether it will affect heart health isn’t fully clear. What he does think makes a difference: Omega 3 fatty acids, found primarily in fatty fish such as salmon. The American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults eat at least two fish meals a week. But if you don’t, won’t, or can’t, you may want to consider a 1-gram Omega supplement that includes both EPA and DHA, two forms of Omega 3s found in fish. While the heart disease preventive benefits of taking Omega 3 supplements hasn’t been established, says Dr. Church, “there is a lot of strong epidemiological evidence for Omega 3s. I’m a big proponent — I believe there’s value there.”
This one has a catch—it’s about people who already have heart disease. A recent analysis found that in people with existing heart disease, getting the flu shot reduces the risk of cardiovascular events like a heart attack by 36 percent. “Getting the flu puts great stress on your body and increases the risk of having another heart attack,” says Dr. Church. A flu shot is a good idea for everyone—it’s not too late since flu peaks around the end of February, beginning of March!—and if you’re at high cardiovascular risk, or already have heart disease, that little jab could be a lifesaver.
A major Spanish study found that men and women aged 55 to 80 who ate a Mediterranean diet were 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke, or die from heart disease, over the next five years. The most protective elements: olive oil as the primary fat, moderate alcohol (mostly from wine), lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and fish, and low consumption of meat. Just this week, a new American study of firefighters from the Midwest who followed a Mediterranean-style diet had lower cardiovascular risk factors: less belly fat, lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, and higher “good” HDL cholesterol. The great thing about Mediterranean studies is that they capture not just one healthy element but a pattern—a lifestyle. “We should look at risk factor clusters, and the Mediterranean lifestyle captures that,” says Dr. Church. Add the physical activity that’s part of a traditional Mediterranean lifestyle, and it’s really the big picture.
Talk about big picture. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that if everyone didn’t smoke, ate a healthy diet, exercised regularly, achieved a healthy weight, and got regular checkups so they could control risk factors such as high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels, then death from heart disease would fall by 25 percent. That’s 200,000 lives saved – each year.