It’s time for a heart-to-heart chat. Cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in the UAE and around the world, representing 31 per cent of all global deaths – or about 17.9 million people annually, according to the World Health Organisation.
Of UAE residents polled in a survey, 71 per cent reported at least one risk factor for the disease, the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi found after surveying 1,000 people in the country last year.
Poor diet is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. An overall healthy diet reduces a majority of the controllable risk factors for CVDs.
And with CVDs likely to be responsible for 30 million deaths by 2030, the onus on improving heart health remains on individuals. “A healthy balanced diet is your best weapon to fight cardiovascular disease,” says Marlene Cornes Marsh, a Senior Clinical Dietitian, at Dubai Health Authority (DHA). She says a three-pronged lifestyle approach that includes a healthy diet, regular exercise and good sleep can go a long way to ensuring sound cardiovascular health. “Poor diet is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. An overall healthy diet reduces a majority of the controllable risk factors for CVDs,” she adds. Overall, seek to maintain a healthy weight, healthy cholesterol levels, normal blood pressure and glucose levels, and cut out smoking.
Eating for heart health
“A healthy and well-balanced diet can reduce your risk of developing heart disease and stop you gaining weight. Achieving heart health through diet simply means consuming fresh food, avoiding processed foods, and choosing healthier low-fat, low-salt and low-sugar options whilst shopping or in restaurants,” says Dubai-based Nafeesa Ahmed, Director - Nutrition & Lifestyle Management at Zulekha Hospital Dubai. Since exercise appears to have a compounding effect on diet, consider finding outdoor activities you enjoy, she adds.
“Choosing a heart healthy diet can help prevent heart disease, maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of diabetes and stroke,” says Azza Aljneibi, Nutritionist, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. She advises aiming for a five to eight combined servings of fruits and vegetables each day or about three to five servings of vegetables and two to three servings of fruit. “Focus on dark, leafy greens and foods with high fibre such as spinach, cabbage and broccoli. Try to eat a rainbow of colours, from green to orange to red to ensure you have diversity in your diet. Increase your intake of whole grains and plant proteins and limit sweetened or fried foods. Switch to good fats such as nuts, olives, olive oil and seeds. Eat fish two to three times per week.”
Turning up the heat on red meat
If you don’t see red meat among their recommendations, that’s because experts generally caution against it – or at least, too much of it.
Although meat – animal protein in general – contains several essential nutrients, including iron, vitamin B-12 and zinc, it is a major source of saturated fat. Years of nutrition research have linked red and processed meat consumption with a slightly higher risk of heart disease. Indeed, too much red meat can skew your cholesterol levels towards harmful levels, which is a risk factor for heart and circulatory disease.
Traditional diets across the region and South Asia are rich in grilled meats.“Open-flame and/or high-temperature cooking methods such as grilling and barbecuing may influence the production of harmful chemicals when cooking,” Nafeesa says. “These chemicals, a group called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are known cancer-causing agents that can also affect insulin sensitivity and increase the risk of diabetes.”
She advises against excessively high temperatures when grilling and cautions against charring the meat – whatever kind you choose. “Instead, turn it more frequently and once adequately cooked, stop there. Remove any burnt pieces before eating.”
Aljneibi believes meat can play an occasional part in our diet, as it has over the years, but she favours fish over beef, lamb, and poultry. “There is nothing particularly wrong with indulging in a meal of grilled meat from time to time. I advise people to try and limit themselves to lean cuts of meat and only eat red meat once or twice a week to protect their heart,” she says, adding that processed meats have no place in the modern diet because they’ve been proved to be less healthy than the alternatives. “Instead of turning to chicken, fish is a fantastic alternative to meat as it has not been linked to heart disease and there are some absolutely delicious regional grilled fish recipes.”
“Think, too, about plant-based protein such as nuts, legumes and beans,” Nafeesa adds.
The skinny on trans fats
The other major dietary component to approach with caution is a group of dietary fats called trans fats. They are principally found in packaged and pre-processed items including cakes, cookies and anything fried and battered, as well as in shortening and stick margarine. Trans fats have no beneficial impact on the body, but actively put you at risk for heart disease and stroke. By raising your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowering your HDL (good) cholesterol, they contribute directly to the build-up of cholesterol in your arteries.
“Trans fats are considered the worst type of fat that individual can eat,” Marsh declares. While some meat and dairy products – beef, lamb, and butterfat – contain small amounts of natural trans fats, most artificial trans fats are formed when hydrogen is added to ingredients such as vegetable oil and margarine. More research on naturally occurring trans fats is required, but the ill effects of artificial trans fats are well documented, and they are banned in many countries.
“What you eat each day affects your health and how you feel now and in the future,” she says.