Heart health: meal-time makeovers

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One way to keep your heart on top form is to eat healthy, Mealtime Makeoversbalanced meals. If you're worried that eating more healthily will restrict you too much – or won't go down well with the rest of the family – then here are some clever little tricks that can make all the difference.

According to NHS Choices, key things to avoid in order to help prevent heart disease are saturated fat and too much salt or sugar. You should be looking to up your intake of healthy unsaturated fats and dietary fibre, instead, as your new culinary heroes. Aim for three regular meals a day and, if you must snack, ditch the crisps and biscuits in favour of something tastier and healthier.

On the “miss list”

Salt: adults should limit their intake to a maximum of six grams a day (less for children), as too much salt increases blood pressure. One teaspoon of salt is roughly equivalent to six grams, but remember to check the labels of ready meals, bread, cheese and shop-bought soups as they can contain a deal of “hidden” salt. Cook's tip: add real flavour to your cooking with low-salt stock or low-sodium soy; garlic, herbs and spices.

Saturated fat: eating too much fatty food increases cholesterol levels which in turn can cause the arteries to narrow, increasing risk of heart attack and stroke. Limit butter, cream and cheese; sausages, pies and fatty cuts of meat; cakes and biscuits. Cook's tip: go for tomato-based rather than cream-based sauces; choose leaner cuts of meat and fish. When cooking, go for a healthy vegetable oil rather than using lard, margarine or butter.

Sugar: too much sugar in the diet makes us more prone to developing type 2 diabetes. This in turn is known to increase the risk of coronary heart disease. Cook's tip: check labels for sugar content, as low-fat, so-called “healthier” options can contain surprising amounts of sugar. When buying tinned fruit, choose fruit in fruit juice rather than syrup. With baked beans, pick a brand with a reduced-sugar sauce.

On our “hit” list

Unsaturated fat: good sources include oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, pilchards and fresh tuna. Vegetarians can plump for avocados, nuts and seeds, and healthy vegetable oils. Cook's tip: stock up on sunflower, rapeseed and olive oil for cooking and in salad dressings. Using an oil spray is a good way of ensuring food isn't drenched in too much oil.

Fibre: this is where five-a-day and whole grains come in to their own, as a low-fat, high-fibre diet is known to help bring blood cholesterol levels down. Good sources of fibre include fruit and vegetables – aim for at least five portions a day – as well as whole grains. Cook's tip: choose brown rice and pasta rather than white; buy or make whole grain bread over white. Your taste buds will come to prefer the flavour in no time. Try fresh fruit, or carrot sticks dipped in hummus, as a healthier way to keep you going between meals.

Want to know more?

Go to our Heart Hub where you'll find a wealth of information, including health articles, expert advice, and an infographic. There's also a broad range of resources available on the British Heart Foundation website, from downloadable fact sheets to a free recipe finder appChange4Life is another great place to find healthy food swaps. 

If you're worried about your health, or if you have hypertension or a heart condition and have a question about your treatment and/or medication, make an appointment to see your doctor. Members of benenden health may also call the 24-hour GP advice line.

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