The healthy heart diet: why Australians need it now more than ever
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. So how can we beat the odds and get our heart health back on track? Dr. Stuart Butterly explains.
Food: the leading risk factor for death in Australia
The numbers don’t lie. Poor diet is the leading risk factor for death and disability in Australia, directly resulting in an estimated 29,414 deaths annually – 18% of all deaths nationwide.
Our collective poor diet is also expanding our waistlines. Over the last 10 years, the rate of overweight or obese men in Australia has increased 52%. For women, it has increased 45%.
Not as healthy as we think
While overseas observers might think Aussies all live the type of lifestyle shown on Bondi Rescue, current evidence suggests that we need to significantly change our current eating patterns to improve heart health.
Firstly, we’re not eating our beans. Only one in 14 Australians consumes the recommended daily serving of vegetable and legume food groups. Low vegetable consumption is one of the dietary factors with the greatest risk of death and disability and responsible for more than 9% of all heart disease related deaths in Australia annually.
We’re also eating out more than ever before. Spending on fast food and restaurants increased by 50% between 2003-2010, and it is estimated that more than $15 billion is spent annually on take away food.
Too many treats are another part of the problem. Over the past decade there has been an increase in the availability and consumption of processed foods like chips, biscuits, pastries, take-away style foods, confectionary and sugary drinks. Put simply, we’re eating too much junk and not enough fresh food.
Not all diets are created equal
We now have more access to health and nutrition information than ever before, and are faced with an overwhelming amount of non-evidence-based nutrition information and products. Much of this takes the form of ‘fad diets’ and a focus on exclusion of single nutrients or foods – things like no carb, no dairy or other diets. The results of these vary significantly and often don’t last, leaving the dieter back where they started in a matter of months.
Another challenge for consumers is that health research has mostly focused on the connection between specific ingredients and the risk of heart disease. High salt intake has been linked to hypertension and increased risk of vascular disease. Saturated and trans fat intake is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Poor quality carbohydrates are associated with increased weight gain and heart disease.
This meant that health professionals recommended we ‘cut down’ on those specific ingredients, but these types of diets can be hard to stick to because they don’t reflect the way people eat in real life.
Eating for a healthy heart
In response to the factors listed above, The Heart Foundation commissioned a review of Australians’ dietary behaviour to provide some clear and evidence-based dietary recommendations.
Here’s what they came up with:
- Plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains
- Variety of healthy protein sources including fish and seafood, lean meat and poultry, legumes, nuts and seeds
- Reduced fat dairy such as unflavoured milk, yoghurt and cheese
- Healthy fat choices with nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and their oils for cooking
- Herbs and spices to flavour foods, instead of adding salt
- Choose water as the drink of choice
In short, enjoy a combination of foods, and make fresh food the foundation of your diet.
This style of eating is naturally low in saturated and trans fats, salt and added sugar and rich in wholegrains, fibre, antioxidants and unsaturated fats (omega-3 and omega-6), as well as leaving lots of room for fun, variety and flavour.
Improve your health, reduce your waistline and enjoy the active Aussie lifestyle that’s the envy of the world – your heart will thank you.
Author: Dr. Stuart Butterly, Cardiologist