23 December 2015

Happy, healthy heart

It keeps you ticking over – so shouldn’t you keep it in perfect condition?


For an organ that is roughly the size of a large fist, the human heart certainly packs quite a punch. 

It is the part of your body that supplies blood to the organs and tissues, and because it is also a muscle, it needs a consistent fresh supply of oxygen and nutrients in order to do its job. Getting the right nutrients can be a bit trickier – because, let’s face it, we all sometimes neglect our diets, and the statistics show that millions of us eat fast foods and other unhealthy things. 

The right foods play an important role in maintaining a healthy heart. 

So, what are our best choices to keep this über-important muscle at its peak? Cape Town-based nutritional consultant, Vanessa de Ascencao recommends the following heart helpers.

Healthy fats 
These include all forms of Omega-3, particularly avocados, wild salmon oil, seeds, coconut oil, chia seed and organic eggs. Also aim to include walnuts, almonds and pumpkin seeds in your daily diet. These are all nutritional powerhouses and so good for your heart. Don’t be afraid of healthy fats in moderation.

Try to incorporate a green veggie in each meal, advises de Ascencao. “Seventy percent of what I eat is based on green vegetables, with each and every meal incorporating a green veggie. In the morning, it’s green juice with Spirulina, my go-to supplement, a large salad for lunch and greens with my dinner. The dark green veggies are powerful as they contain multiple phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals which protect against heart disease.” 

A primary cause of chronic illness for many of us is systemic inflammation. The World Health Organization acknowledges that chronic diseases are by far the leading cause of mortality in the world, and one of the best ways to address the risks of chronic diseases is to reduce chronic inflammation. Curcumin is a phytochemical found in turmeric, the common spice with the rich yellow-orange colour. Curcumin is a power helper with over a thousand studies showing its promise in the treatment of severe inflammation. “I take this daily; I even give it to my dog! I highly recommend people research the benefits of curcumin and use it to reduce inflammation,” says de Ascencao.

Add a few slices to your sandwich or chop up a few cubes for your salad. Tomatoes contain a substantial dose of antioxidants which are linked to a reduced risk of heart attack. Tomatoes are also a good source of lycopene, which has been linked to a reduced incidence of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and macular degeneration.

As the stars of the fruit family, blueberries have been enjoying a lot of popularity recently. Are they worth the hype? Yes and yes, say the scientists. These multitasking little helpers boast the highest antioxidant content of all fresh fruit and also have effective anti-inflammatory, anti-blood clotting and antibacterial abilities.

Can it be? This comfort food actually has more merits than we suspect. Potatoes are rich in potassium, which can lower blood pressure. They’re also high in fibre which can lower the risk for heart disease. This is not license to go crazy with the slap chips though! Everything in moderation!

The bottom line on butter
Butter or margarine? Which is the healthier option? According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA: “Butter and most hard-brick margarines are high in unhealthy saturated fats and may contain small amounts of trans fats and cholesterol, and it is best to substitute these products with soft tub margarines/spreads. These products contain more healthy unsaturated fats and less saturated fats, making them better options for protecting your heart."

Nuttier than most 
More antioxidants, more benefits, more oomph for the heart: walnuts top the list as the number one nut for heart health. These findings were presented in a 2011 study by the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, USA. According to the study, 28 grams of walnuts have more antioxidants than the total amount the average person gets from fruit and vegetables. 

Red, red wine – is it really good for the heart? 
Let’s get to the bottom of this once and for all. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, moderate alcohol use has been associated with healthy living and a longer life. “This is especially true for red wine that contains healthy substances. However, alcohol in excess can increase blood pressure, risk of stroke or other types of heart disease, as well as liver disease. South Africa has a big problem with alcohol abuse and a pattern of binge drinking.” 

Rule of thumb:
Drink in moderation. This means one drink per day for women and not more than two drinks per day for men. One drink is equivalent to half a glass (120ml) wine, one can (340ml) beer or one tot (25ml) spirits. Although it’s better to drink a little bit of alcohol every day than a lot in one go, have at least two alcohol-free days per week. 

- Nutritional consultant: Vanessa de Ascencao: 
- Ketterer, Erika. Have a Heart-Healthy Christmas. November 2010. (Online) Available at:
Accessed: w/c of 12 October 2015 
- Butter or Margarine? Heart and Stroke Foundation SA. 2015. (Online) Available at: Accessed: w/c 12 October 2015
- Healthy Swaps for Common Foods. American Heart Association. January 2015. (Online) Available at: Accessed: w/c 12 October 2015 
- Doheny, Kathleen. Walnut May Be Top Nut for Heart Health. WebMD. March 2011 (Online) Available at: Accessed: w/c 12 October 2015 
- Our Top 15 Heart Healthy Foods. (Online) Available at

Reviewed by
Heart and Stroke Foundation SA


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