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Nourish Your Heart

09 July 2024
Nourish Your Heart

Delve into the heart of New Zealand's health crisis. Alicia Temple explores the connection between diet, lifestyle and genetics in combating heart disease.

Heart disease is New Zealand’s single biggest killer; every 90 minutes a New Zealander dies from heart disease and almost 1 in 3 deaths are caused by cardiovascular disease.

It’s not just heart attacks either. Heart disease refers to a spectrum of conditions affecting the blood vessels, like blockages in the brain leading to strokes, and narrowing vessels contributing to issues like dementia. Narrowing of peripheral vessels can cause problems such as impotence, ulcers, and pain during movement. Simply put, any blood vessel in your body could get narrow or blocked due to heart issues.

Despite these sobering facts, there's hope. Science shows that positive lifestyle changes, including a focus on what we eat, can help put the brakes on heart disease.

Protect your heart with plants

Decades of robust data shows that giving plants the starring role on your plate is good for heart health. Let’s take a look at a few of the factors in play:

  • Controlling cholesterol: Saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol in the diet can increase LDL cholesterol levels (often called ‘bad’ cholesterol), while soluble fibre found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help lower them.
  • Reducing blood pressure: High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a major risk factor for heart disease. The same dietary and lifestyle changes that lower cholesterol levels can also significantly reduce blood pressure.
  • Controlling blood sugar levels: The relationship between diabetes and heart disease is well acknowledged. High blood glucose from diabetes can damage your blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart. Over time, this damage can lead to heart disease. Managing blood sugar levels is crucial for preventing cardiovascular complications. Dietary interventions can increase insulin sensitivity for type 2 diabetes and improve blood glucose control for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
  • Improving antioxidant status and endothelial function: Eating foods rich in antioxidants like fruits and vegetables can boost heart health by reducing oxidative damage and improving endothelial function. Endothelial function is how well the cells lining blood vessels work to regulate blood flow and vessel health.
  • Reducing chronic inflammation: Inflammatory processes play a role in the development of hardening of the arteries. Inflammation is a messenger for our immune system, letting our body know when a threat exists. About 70% of our immune system is located in our gut…making what we eat extremely important to controlling chronic inflammation. Research suggests people who have the highest intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes have a higher bacterial gene count—associated with less inflammation, improved immune function and lower body weight.

One of the negative impacts of consuming animal products is a substance produced when you digest red meat, called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). TMAO raises the risk of cardiovascular problems. It contributes to the formation of cholesterol plaque in blood vessels, potentially paving the way for heart disease. Vegetarians and vegans, who avoid meat, produce little TMAO and levels can be reduced in just weeks[1] when dietary patterns are changed.

Every Little Bit Counts

Perhaps you are not ready to switch to a strict whole-food plant-based diet and are wondering if smaller changes will improve your heart health? They will; in fact, small reductions in meat are beneficial. A 2019 study[2] examined the eating habits of over 400,000 people, revealing the risk of heart disease rose with every 100-gram increase in daily red and processed meat intake.

If you are thinking of switching to ‘white meats’ like chicken it may not have the benefits you think. A separate study[3] from the same year found that both red and white meats can raise cholesterol levels in similar ways, more than consuming equivalent levels of plant-based proteins.

Research[4] also suggests that avoiding those one-off treats will pave the way for a healthier heart. Indulging in just one high-fat milkshake can swiftly morph our healthy red blood cells into tiny, spiky troublemakers. These transformed cells can cause chaos in our blood vessels, laying the groundwork for cardiovascular issues if we make the same poor choice time and time again.

The ‘F’ Word

Fibre used to be something only our grandmas spoke about, well, gran knows best! It is in the spotlight for its health benefits. Most New Zealanders eating a standard western diet do not consume adequate fibre, but large studies have shown that individuals following plant-based diets typically have fibre intakes that meet or exceed recommendations.

Fibre is made up of the indigestible parts of plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, which pass relatively unchanged through our stomach and intestines. It helps get rid of excess bile and changes our gut hormones, collectively helping control our cholesterol, body weight, blood sugar, and blood pressure, reducing the risk of heart disease.

Heart Health is in Your Hands

Many of us may feel like we are doomed by our DNA. The truth is that although family history may increase your risk slightly, factors in your control such as diet, exercise and avoiding smoking, play a much more significant role in heart health.

Only about 20% of how long a person lives and their state of health is dictated by genes—the remaining 80% is how we choose to live.

So why does heart disease seem to run in families? Consider that families share more than genes—they also share the same environment, diet, and behaviours like smoking or a more sedentary lifestyle.

Navigating Plant-Based Choices: From Supermarkets to the Dinner Table

Plant-based nutrition may appear to be the lifestyle choice for heart health. Approach with caution; the aisles of supermarkets are teeming with an array of 'plant-based' choices, but not all products are created as nature intended. Many are high in sugar, sodium, unhealthy fats and other nasty additives. The allure of convenience mustn't blind us to the nutritional integrity of these choices.

Pay close attention to labels when shopping for packaged foods. Look for products with recognisable whole food ingredients, no hidden animal-derived components like gelatin and those that contain at least 3 grams of fibre per serve. Keep salt to a minimum — multiply the milligrams of sodium by four and aim to keep this lower than the kilojoules per serving.

Rather than feeling concerned about our biggest killer we must feel empowered that our lifestyle choices like nutrition, managing stress, getting active and avoiding smoking, hold immense power in the fight against heart disease. By embracing a plant-rich diet and making small yet impactful changes each day, we can take proactive steps towards a brighter, heart-healthy future.

Always remember that anyone making significant dietary changes should do so under medical supervision, especially if affected by any existing conditions like high blood pressure and cholesterol.

By Alicia Temple

Alicia Temple is a communications expert who is passionate about sharing evidence-based information to create a healthier and more compassionate world. She has a Diploma in Nutrition and a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/p...
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.go...
  3. https://ajcn.nutrition.org/art...
  4. https://www.laboratoryinvestig...

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