Look after your heart: top nutrition and lifestyle tips

CLose up of two hands making a heart shape with the sun in the background

On average your heart beats around 70 times every minute of every day.  It’s an incredible organ, one which many of us take for granted, which is one of the reasons heart disease is so common in the UK.

The four main risk factors of heart disease are tobacco use, an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and excess alcohol.  Fortunately, if the heart is properly fed, loved and exercised, it will hopefully keep on beating and last you a lifetime.

 

Clinical nutritionist Suzie Sawyer shares her top tips for a healthy heart.

Increase your fish intake

Foods containing saturated fats needs to be reduced or eliminated; think red meat, butter, cheese, cakes and pastries.  Additionally, too many meals containing fried foods should be avoided.  However, in their place should feature oily fish such as mackerel, sardines and salmon and these ideally need to be included at least two to three times per week.

A range of foods containig omega 3 fats

Oily fish contains omega 3 fatty acids which help to thin the blood and reduce blood pressure. If you’re vegetarian or don’t like fish then take a supplement containing flaxseeds, which are also high in omega 3’s.

Grab some polyphenols

Polyphenols are compounds naturally found in plant foods that have amazing health benefits, especially for the heart. There are a whole range of foods containing various types of polyphenols. Load up on colourful fruits and vegetables, green and black tea, dark chocolate and red wine (in moderation!).

A cup of green tea

One of the biggest issues for the arteries is that fatty deposits can develop on them, and these deposits become hardened – hence the common disease, arteriosclerosis.  However, much of this damage can be avoided or reduced by including antioxidants found in polyphenols in the diet.

A selection of fruit and vegetables covering all colours of the rainbow

This reflects the recommendation to increase your intake of fruits and vegetables.  They’re also high in vitamin C, one of the most powerful antioxidants which can help prevent artery damage.  Fruits and vegetables are also rich in calcium, magnesium and potassium which help to relax the artery wall, therefore reducing blood pressure and other heart-related risk factors.  Try to eat a rainbow diet, meaning as much colour variety on your plate as possible.

Spice it up

Including garlic in your diet often (and as much as your friends and family can bear!) is a great idea.  It’s also possible to take a supplement containing garlic which is standardised for alliin, the main form of allicin, which is the active compound in garlic. It has shown remarkable blood-thinning properties as well as the ability to reduce blood pressure.

A basket with whole cloves of garlic

Garlic is also super-easy to include in so many dishes; think stir fries, soups, vegetable sides, curries and one-pot recipes.

Turmeric is another heart-loving spice that works in a variety of ways to keep it healthy.  Turmeric helps reduce high blood pressure because it relieves pressure on the artery walls but also prevents dangerous plaque build-up on the arteries which causes blood clots and strokes.

wooden spoon with powered turmeric and turmeric root

It can be used in so many different dishes, both savoury and sweet.  Great choices are in a marinade with Indian lamb chops or in pancake served with fresh fruit and natural yoghurt. Try turmeric in a curried chicken dish or sprinkled over butternut squash and roasted in the oven.  There are endless possibilities!

Scrap the sugar

Sugar can often be disguised in dishes as dextrose or corn syrup, but all sugar is treated by the body in the same way. Many sugary foods, such as biscuits, cakes, cereal bars and margarines, also contain trans fats. These are chemically altered fats which are a cheap form of fat used for taste and ‘spreadability’, in the case of margarines.  Unfortunately, the body cannot process these ‘alien’ substances and they also stop the metabolism of healthy omega-3 fats needed for blood thinning and maintaining a healthy heart.

A pile of sugar with the words 'no sugar' in

The key message is to ditch the junk and try to eat as cleanly as possible.  The less sugar you eat, the less cravings you’ll have.

Move more

It’s an unequivocal fact that exercise helps prevent heart disease.  After all, the heart is a muscle just like any other in the body and needs to be exercised.  Ideally, you need to raise the heart rate for at least 30 minutes five times per week, and that’s perfectly achievable through brisk walking.

Close up on woman's trainers walking in forest

It’s a question of making time. Exercise needs to be prioritised and put into the diary just like any appointment – it that’s important to your future health.

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Cholesterol – it’s all about balance.

Blueberries and strawberries in a heart shape on a wooden board

With the focus for many people being on heart health this month, it’s a great time to think about the amazing muscle in our chest that beats around 70 times a minute, all day every day. As with all of the body’s precious organs, it needs to be well taken care of and having high cholesterol levels is a known risk factor for heart disease.

Clinical nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares her five top tips for keeping cholesterol levels well balanced.

SMALLER--4 Suzie Blog pic

Before we begin, there are two types of cholesterol. HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) known as ‘good’ cholesterol, helps remove other forms of cholesterol from the body. Higher levels of HDL offers some protection against heart disease. LDL (low Density Lipoprotein) is otherwise known as ‘bad’ cholesterol and is associated with heart disease and other circulatory disorders as it collects in the walls of blood vessels and can cause blockages.

So what can we do to encourage the good and get rid of bad?

EAT HEALTHY FATS

The essential omegas, in particular the omega-3s, can help reduce cholesterol levels and also have other heart-loving benefits. The body cannot make them so they have to be eaten very regularly in the diet; the best sources are oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) and nuts and seeds (pumpkin seeds and walnuts are best).

Omega-3s can help to reduce levels of LDL cholesterol. Omega’3s are also needed to manage inflammation throughout the body, and have other beneficial effects on blood pressure and heart health generally.

A range of foods high in Omega 3 fats

Try to eat oily fish two to three times a week; vegetarians should try to eat nuts and seeds every day (try flaxseeds which contain the essential Omega-3s). However, if that’s not for you or not doable, do opt for an Omega-3 supplement every day.

AVOID TRANS FATS

Trans fats (mainly found in margarines) are chemically produced and have an adverse effect on the heart (and health generally). The problem with trans fats is that their chemical structure changes when the fats are heated and processed. Food manufacturers frequently use the process of hydrogenation, which produces trans fats, in order to increase shelf life of foods such as margarines, biscuits and cakes. Unfortunately, the body has no way of dealing with them, therefore they tend to elevate blood fat levels, and in turn raise cholesterol levels.

Trans fats have no health or body benefits, therefore it’s best to try to avoid them as much as possible. It is actually better to have a little butter rather than using margarine, but also try using olive oil, coconut oil or rapeseed oil for cooking and keep cakes and biscuits to a minimum. Your waistline, as well as your heart, will certainly thank you!

EAT APPLES

There are always many good reasons for eating plenty of apples, plus they’re in season right now so their nutritional value should be higher, and they might even be a little cheaper. Apples contain a particular fibre called pectin, which helps to reduce cholesterol levels by transporting the bad cholesterol out of the body.

An apple with a heart shape cut out to show that apples are good for a healthy heart

Other fruits high in pectin include pears, all berries and citrus fruits. The best advice is to include a wide range of fruits (alongside vegetables of course) every day. Cholesterol has no way of being expelled from the body except through the stool. Therefore keeping the bowels regular is key and, as pectin is a fibre, it really helps this process along.

UP YOUR WHOLEGRAINS

Having a high fibre diet generally is one of the best ways of keeping cholesterol levels balanced. Wholegrain foods such as whole wheat bread and pasta, rice, quinoa, oats, beans and lentils are naturally high in fibre. In contrast, refined (or white) foods have had the fibrous part stripped out, so play no role in a high fibre diet.

A range of wholegrains in heart shaped dishes to show they are good for the heart

It’s actually quite easy to increase the amount of fibre in the diet without too much effort. For example, porridge sprinkled with a few flaxseeds makes a great breakfast, especially now the colder weather has arrived. Try a brown bread sandwich for lunch, alongside an apple (or berries) plus some nuts and seeds for snacks during the day. Salmon, quinoa and plenty of veg for dinner ticks both the fibre and Omega-3 boxes.

TRY A MILK SWAP

A diet generally high in saturated fats, found mainly in dairy produce and red meat, is certainly going to encourage the production of cholesterol. Switch to skimmed milk as a starter. However, there’s some research to suggest that soya produce, including milk, may help reduce the ‘bad’ cholesterol. Plus, nut milks such as hazelnut, almond and oat, may also have a beneficial effect. At the very least, they’re all low in saturated fats.

A range of milks made from nuts

Even if you’re a die-hard cow’s milk fan, try to include some other milks in the diet as much as possible: each type of milk has its own health benefits so change them up as much as possible.

So adopt a few simple dietary changes and you can improve your cholesterol levels and support a healthier heart longer term.

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The benefits of beetroot

Beetroot is clearly visible on supermarket shelves, with its wonderful deep purple colour. But it’s not just visually pleasing; beetroot offers some amazing health benefits and is a very versatile vegetable.

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, tells us why beetroot is certainly no shrinking violet!

SMALLER--4 Suzie Blog pic

HISTORICAL USES FOR BEETROOT

Most fruits and vegetables have lots of folklore attached to them, and beetroot is certainly no exception. However, as with so much of what we have learnt from our ancestors, there are lots of facts that still hold true today. At one time the leafy tops of beetroots were the only part of the vegetable that were eaten, since they are rich in iron, beta-carotene and calcium. It was only during the 19th century that the roots were appreciated and found to be a natural source of sugar, when sugar cane was in short supply, particularly in the US. Beetroot was also mainly used medicinally to treat headaches or toothaches.

They are a sweet vegetable, hence they make a tasty ingredient in both sweet and savoury dishes (more of which later). And as long as their carbohydrate content is balanced within a healthy and varied diet, then beetroots are a great addition to any diet.

NUTRITIONAL BENEFITS

Fresh raw beetroot juice is such a concentrated source of vitamins and minerals that is has few rivals as a tonic for convalescents, in particular. This is because it’s a great source of immune-boosting vitamin C and heart-loving potassium. It has been found that drinking beetroot juice may be able to quickly lower blood pressure because it’s also rich in nitric oxide which helps blood vessels dilate. This also has a beneficial effect for endurance exercisers as it will help them exercise for longer and at a higher intensity.

Beetroot is also high in manganese which is great for the joints, bones and liver. Plus it’s a great source of fibre and also folate which is very important if you are planning to get pregnant and also during pregnancy.

It’s well-known for its ability to aid the body’s natural detoxification processes, particularly helping the liver. So, if your summer holiday has been a rather alcohol and food-laden affair, increasing beetroot intake or drinking the juice could well help your post-holiday detox!

THE DEEP PURPLE COLOUR

Within beetroot’s deep colour powerful phytonutrients are bedded. Some of these are compounds called anthocyanins which are potent antioxidants. They can help to protect the body from infections and illnesses, plus help hold back the ageing process.

DELICIOUS BEETROOT RECIPES

There are some great ways to use beetroot in sweet or savoury dishes. Beetroots are very often pickled and used in various recipes as it enhances the flavour of many dishes. Do bear in mind though that pickling beetroot lowers the nutrient content, whereas boiling does seem to keep most of the nutrients intact.

Beetroots are great roasted alongside other sweet vegetables such as sweet potato and butternut squash. They can be added to the roasting tray simply scrubbed, topped and tailed, drizzled with a little olive oil and cook in about 30 minutes. Additionally, they can be used cold the next day in a salad with some mixed leaves, red pepper, balsamic vinegar and feta cheese.

You can also make roasted beetroot into a delicious and nutritious soup; the skin is easily removed when cooked and then the vegetable can be blended. Roasted beetroot is also great topped with some lightly grilled goat’s cheese and sprinkled with plenty of salt and pepper.

However, as a winning healthy breakfast, why not make wholemeal pancakes with beetroot? All you need to do is add a little apple juice to a traditional pancake mix and some shredded beetroot. Tasty!

In season right now, beetroot is certainly a vegetable to add to your weekly shop – enjoy!

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Celebrate ‘Best of British’ with these home-grown, nutrient-boosting foods

Once again, it’s British Food Fortnight which is the biggest annual, national celebration of British food and drink.  And there’s much to celebrate!  It’s  a chance for us to fully embrace great British foods on offer and those particularly in season right now. And eating seasonally means we are getting foods at their most nutritious.

With that in mind, Clinical Nutritionist Suzie Sawyer shares her five favourite British foods for autumn.

SMALLER--4 Suzie Blog pic

DOVER SOLE

Although cod is still the most consumed fish in Britain Dover sole is many people’s favourite flat fish! Dover sole has a longer and narrower shaped body than other flat fish and delivers a wonderful, almost sweet taste, with flaky texture when cooked. And it’s good to know that British fish is always responsibly and sustainably sourced.

Aside from its delicious taste, Dover sole is super-healthy with only around 100 calories per 100 grams and very low in fat.  It’s also high in protein.  However, it’s all about the cooking because frying can really increase the calorie and fat content due to the high surface area of the fish. Dover sole is much better lightly seasoned with flour and then grilled.

APPLES

Think of autumn fruit and thoughts will always turn to apples. Whilst we see apples in the supermarkets all year round, British apples are now in season.  This means they should be cheaper and we’re also giving our bodies exactly what they need at the right time of year by eating seasonally. The flavour, texture and scent of in-season apples will also be enhanced.

Interestingly, imported apples are often stored for months in a cool environment where the oxygen balance has been chemically lowered.  This halts the natural maturing processes, so they can be kept for several months without going soft.  However, when the fruit is then exposed to normal temperatures, in the supermarket, it will mature quickly and go soft.  The longer storage times will lead to depleted nutrient levels in the fruit, especially vitamin C, so this is another great reason to eat in season!

Apples are so versatile in many recipes and make a perfect high fibre, on-the-go snack.  But with British pork also in season, roast pork with apple sauce would be an excellent menu choice.

POTATOES

Potatoes are a great staple family food; filling, high in vitamin C and fibre.  And they’re definitely best eaten in season and fresh, not only for the taste, but also for retaining vitamin C (which starts depleting as soon as potatoes are harvested).  Once bought, potatoes prefer to be taken out of their plastic packaging and not stored in the fridge.  They’re also best stored in a cool cupboard as they don’t like too much light.

Many people resist eating potatoes, worrying they are fattening.  But it’s often the lashings of butter, the frying, or the cream in a potato dauphinoise that adds the calories!  Whilst jacket potatoes have a high carbohydrate content, if they’re eaten with some protein such as tuna, for example, the meal has much less effect on blood sugar levels.  And as a potato’s best source of nutrients and fibre is found in the skin, it’s a win-win!

CHICKEN

Another staple in the British diet, chicken is certainly at its best during food fortnight and moving into the autumn season.  British chickens are very safe and are generally vaccinated against salmonella, a bacteria that can cause nasty food poisoning.  We’re actually very proud of our quality chickens and they must meet criteria based on the Assured Chicken Production standards; these products have a distinctive red tractor logo.

Recipe ways with chicken are endless and with its high protein content (more than fish) and being a low fat meat, it’s always going to be a popular choice for many of us.  Chicken also contains the whole family of B vitamins which provide us with energy.

In terms of taste, chicken works equally well with sharp flavours (think lemon chicken), spicy dishes (fragrant, Thai curries) or sweet recipes (such as sweet and sour chicken).

Chicken broth is also a firm favourite during convalescence, particularly after a viral infection such as the flu.  Chicken broth naturally works as a decongestant and is especially effective and nutritious when stock from boiled chicken bones are used.  It’s easy to digest, and is a great source of protein and energising vitamins.

PEARS

Another great British grown fruit, pears are totally delicious at this time of year.  Pears are one of the least allergenic foods and are well tolerated by nearly everyone.  They’re also very appropriate as a weaning food and in exclusion diets.  Moreover (just like apples), pears provide good levels of vitamin C, fibre from pectin and heart-loving potassium.

Pears are perfect in sweet or savoury dishes: try them with a blue or goat’s cheese salad, with chocolate in a pudding, in a crumble with blackberries or with duck breast pan-fried.

Whichever foods you choose, British foods in season are always going to be high quality and you’ll be supporting local and national businesses to ensure continuing high standards whilst getting the best levels of nutrition.

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Protein essentials: why you need it and how to get it!

Protein is an essential part of our daily diet, alongside fats and carbohydrates. It plays an important role is so many body functions but often we do not consume enough.

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, looks at why protein is so important and some great options for vegetarians!

SMALLER--4 Suzie Blog pic

WHY IS IT ESSENTIAL?

Protein is an essential part of nutrition, second only to water in terms of the body’s physical make up. Protein makes up around 20% of our body weight and is found in muscles, hair, nails, skin and internal organs, particularly the heart and brain.

Protein plays a key role in the immune system, helping to form antibodies that fight infection, as well as supporting many hormones and enzyme reactions.  It’s certainly essential for growth and development, therefore is especially important during pregnancy and childhood.

Proteins are actually comprised of amino acids. There are eight essential amino acids that the body cannot make, therefore these need to be eaten in the diet: we can become deficient if the diet does not contain the proteins, vitamins, minerals or enzymes needed to produce each one.  The good news is that with a healthy, balanced diet these deficiencies can be avoided.

WHAT MAKES A ‘BALANCED’ DIET?

In general terms, a balanced diet is one that incorporates sufficient levels of all essential nutrients including amino acids.  Put simply, people who eat a predominantly non-vegetarian diet don’t need to worry about specific amino acids; meat, dairy, eggs and fish have varying amounts of each one but all contain some of the essential amino acids.

Pescatarians (people who don’t eat meat, but eat fish and other animal-sourced foods) will also be getting what they need, with a balance of food groups.  People who eat no animal foods at all (known as vegans) should combine grains and pulses to ensure the body is getting what it needs.  However, certain vitamins, specifically vitamin B12, is only found in animal products, so supplementation would be advisable.

HOW OFTEN SHOULD I EAT PROTEIN?

Ideally protein is needed at every meal and thankfully nature has made that task a little easier by providing so many options!  Meat, dairy, chicken, fish, turkey, eggs, soya, grains, pulses, nuts and seeds provide an abundance of options for every individual requirement.

It’s important to include protein at every meal, primarily to ensure sufficient total intake but also to help balance blood sugar levels and keep energy sustained throughout the day.

HOW MUCH DO I NEED?

That question is not quite so easy to answer!  It’s generally dependent on body weight.  A man will normally require more than a woman but a good rule is around 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.  This means a woman weighing 60 kilos will need around 48 grams of protein per day as a minimum.  As an example, a normal sized chicken breast will contain around 20 grams of protein. Those working in more strenuous manual jobs will require more protein, as will athletes (including recreational athletes).

Interestingly, many women worry that eating too much protein will cause them to ‘bulk up’. Whilst there may be body-builders who are likely to over-consume protein, generally the highly refined Western diet is still more likely to contain too little protein.  This can lead to muscle wastage, hormone imbalances and lack of blood sugar control, so ensuring you are getting enough really is essential for a healthy body.

WHAT ABOUT VEGETARIAN SOURCES?

There are a number of excellent sources of vegetarian protein.  Grains come in many different guises; wheat, rye, oats, corn, barley, bulgur wheat spelt, millet and rice are the main ones. Quinoa looks like a grain but is technically a seed, but it’s still an excellent source of protein containing all the essential amino acids.

Soy products including natto, tofu and tempeh are great fermented forms of protein and also deliver other excellent benefits for the digestive system.  Nuts, seeds and all types of beans also have good amounts of certain amino acids.  Combine them with a grain and you’ve got a full house!

Hopefully these ideas for including more protein in your diet will ensure you are maximising your get-up-and-go every day!

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For everything you need to know about vitamins, minerals and herbs visit Herbfacts