By Justinne Lou Go, RND
WHILE leaving our hearts to the care of a lover can be one way to nurture our heart health, taking care of our hearts is very much related to the food we eat as well. And taking care of the heart doesn’t have to start only when the blood pressure is up or when undesirable values for blood lipid profile are seen in laboratory test results. Prevention is always better than cure, all the more in this generation where heart disease victims are getting younger and younger. Many young adults between the ages of 21-30 are now suffering from hypertension (high blood pressure) or bad blood lipid profiles (dyslipidemia) already. This can definitely be attributed to alcohol now being consumed by younger age groups and of course the pro-inflammatory diet which is now the typical diet, also known as the Standard American Diet (SAD), with the abounding convenience store food and fast food all too readily accessible.
For the longest time, fat has been taking the blame for heart health risks. However, recent studies as well as statements from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) in the U.S. have revealed that cholesterol from food is no longer the main issue, but rather trans fat. We should not also disregard the role of sugar from refined carbohydrates and the overall quality of one’s diet and lifestyle as the main contributors to heart disease. More importantly, we all should know that there are different kinds of fats — saturated, unsaturated and trans fat — and that fat is still important in the diet; to absorb fat-soluble vitamins and to support the body’s immune system and brain health. Saturated (found mostly in red meat) and trans fat (hydrogenated fat such as margarine) are the notorious fats we need to avoid whilst unsaturated fat (mostly from plant sources) is what we want more of, to reduce chronic inflammation in our body, and thus, reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases.
To combat the development and progression of chronic inflammation and disease, there are particular fats needed in our diet called essential fatty acids — the omega-3’s and omega-6’s. They are named so because they cannot be produced in our bodies and so we need to get them from our diet. We do not have to worry about getting enough omega-6s in our diet though because this is abundant especially in the typical modern diet. We get omega-6s from poultry, eggs, meat, and certain vegetable oils such as corn oil, sunflower oil and soybean oil. Omega-3s might be familiar to you as this essential fat has long been emphasized for its role in promoting heart health.
Omega-3 fats come in three forms — alpha-linolenic acids (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA are the types that we need most, commonly found in oily fish, and which we often find in baby milk formulas as they are known for promoting healthy fetal growth and brain development. ALA is found mostly in plant sources such as nuts and seeds (i.e. flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil) and can be converted into EPA and DHA although very inefficiently.
A healthy balance of omega-6s and omega-3s in our diet should be part of our nutrition goals. Since omega-6s are abundant in the typical modern diet, most people have a poor ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s (20:1) which is what drives chronic inflammation and the risk of developing chronic diseases. The ideal ratio for omega-6s to omega-3s is 1:1. There is no specific recommendation for the daily dose of omega-3s, however most health organizations recommend a combined minimum of 250-500 milligrams of EPA and DHA per day. This can be achieved by having at least two 3.5-ounce servings (that’s about palm-sized in width and length) of fish weekly. For those with heart disease or at risk for this, a recommendation of up to 4,000 milligrams is advised.
Although omega-3s are best known for their heart health-promoting properties, it has also been shown to have remarkable benefits on brain health, preventing mental decline and illness, reducing inflammation in the body, preventing and managing cancer and auto-immune diseases, supporting bone health, improving sleep quality, preventing age-related eyesight decline, and supporting slow aging and healthy skin. There’s more to love about omega-3s than it just being good for the heart, so don’t miss out on this in your diet. This gives us reason to eat fat, but good fat at that.
The discussion above supports the benefits of including healthy portions of fish regularly in the diet, thus the Mediterranean Diet or being a pescatarian will definitely reap plentiful health benefits. If you already enjoy fish or would like to start, make sure to have a serving of fish at least twice a week and choose smaller fish such as sardines and anchovies more often to prevent ingesting too much toxic mercury from large fish. If you’re not a big fan of fish, you may take omega-3 supplements instead but make sure to choose the ones with a combination of EPA and DHA and consult with a medical professional for advice on selection and dosage of your supplement. It would also be good to incorporate nuts and seeds — particularly walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds — in your daily diet; sprinkle them on salads, smoothies and even your peanut butter sandwiches for an extra healthy fat boost. Your heart and skin will thank you later.
Remember though, that there is no one superfood that can cure all. This emphasis on the importance of omega-3s and a healthy ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s in the diet is just for you to be aware and conscious to include this in your diet as part of an adequate, balanced and nutrient-dense diet. Always consult with a Registered Nutritionist-Dietitian for advice on the adequacy of your diet and nutrition.