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How to take care of your heart

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Coronary artery disease (CHD) is the largest killer in the UK, causing around 73,000 deaths each year.

That is an average of 200 people a day or every seven minutes. Almost one in six men and one in ten women die from coronary artery disease, but things could be very different.

In the UK, around 23,000 people under the age of 75 die from CHD each year. Most of these deaths are preventable. There are many simple steps you can take to reduce your risk of heart disease.

What is coronary artery disease?

Coronary artery disease (CHD) occurs when the blood supply to your heart muscle is reduced because the arteries that carry blood to your heart become narrow or blocked. This is caused by a gradual build-up of mushy deposits of fat in your arteries.

Read more about the causes of coronary artery disease.

What Increases Your Risk for Heart Disease?

There are several factors that increase your risk of developing CHD, but there are many things you can do to reduce your risk:

  • stop smoking
  • maintain a healthy weight
  • a healthy, balanced diet
  • stay active

Eating a healthy, balanced diet and exercising regularly can help you keep your weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol at healthy levels, and improve your heart health.

A healthy lifestyle can also lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a risk factor for CHD, and prevent other health problems such as kidney disease and some cancers.

Find out how a healthy lifestyle can help you take care of your heart.

However, there are a few things that you cannot change that put you at higher risk for CHD:

  • Family history of heart disease - if your father, mother, brother or sister has or had coronary artery disease or stroke when they were under 65 for women or under 55 for men
  • Ethnic Background - South Asian people in the UK are up to 50% more likely to die from CHD than whites, while people of African Caribbean background are more likely to have high blood pressure, which means they are more likely to develop CHD
  • Age - The likelihood of CHD increases with age
  • Gender - Men are more likely to develop CHD at an earlier age than women

Still, if you're in a risk category, you can reduce your risk of developing CHD by making lifestyle changes to protect your heart.

Stop smoking

If you are a smoker, quitting is the biggest step you can take to reduce your risk of heart disease. Smokers are almost twice as likely to have heart attacks as people who have never smoked. Within a year of quitting smoking, the risk of a heart attack drops to about half that of a smoker.

Inhaling someone else's smoke is also harmful. Non-smokers who cohabit with smokers are at higher risk of heart disease than people who don't. The chemicals in cigarettes like nicotine, tar, and carbon monoxide can:

  • Damage the lining of your arteries, which leads to a build-up of fat deposits
  • Raise your blood pressure and heart rate, which means your heart has to work harder
  • Reduce the amount of oxygen your blood can carry to the heart and body
  • Make your blood more likely to clot

Visit the Smokefree website or ask your GP for help quitting. You are more likely to quit smoking for good with NHS smoking cessation services.

Eat well

Eating a healthy, balanced diet can help reduce the risk of CHD.

You should try to eat:

  • at least five servings of different types of fruit and vegetables
  • plenty of starchy foods, especially whole grain breads, brown rice, and pasta
  • some meat, fish, eggs, beans, and other non-dairy sources of protein
  • Some dairy and dairy products - choose low-fat varieties
  • only a small amount of food and drink high in fat, sugar, or both

The Eatwell platter shows the different types of foods our diet should be made up of and the proportions we should eat of each type.

Eat more fiber

Eat lots of fiber to lower your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Adults should aim for at least 30 grams of fiber per day.

Your diet should include a mixture of sources of fiber. Good sources of fiber are:

  • Whole wheat bread, bran and whole grain cereals
  • fruit and vegetables
  • Potatoes with their skin on
  • Oats and barley
  • Legumes like beans, peas, and lentils
  • Nuts and seeds

If you need to consume more fiber, do it gradually and drink plenty of fluids as well. A sudden increase can cause you to produce more wind, feel bloated, and cause stomach cramps.

Get your 5 A DAY

Eat at least five servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables each day. Fruits and vegetables can be good sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. There are many ways to get your 5 A DAY.

Cut down on fat

Reduce your total fat intake, especially saturated fat. These lead to high cholesterol levels and are therefore bad for your heart. Foods high in saturated fat include butter, hard cheese, fatty meat, cookies, cakes, cream, lard, suet, ghee, coconut oil, and palm oil.

Replace foods high in saturated fat with lower fat versions or eat them less often and in smaller amounts. Include small amounts of unsaturated fats, which are good for cholesterol levels. Foods high in unsaturated fatty acids include oily fish, vegetable oils and spreads, and nuts and seeds.

If you grill, steam, poach, boil, or microwave your food instead of frying or frying it, there is no need to add fat while cooking.

Learn more about fats in your diet.

Eat less sugar

Cut down on sugary foods and drinks so that you only have them in small amounts on occasion. Cakes, cookies, chocolate, candy, and some soda and juice drinks contain "free sugar". Free sugar includes the sugar that is added to food or beverages, as well as the sugar that is naturally found in honey, syrups, and unsweetened fruit juice.

Many foods and beverages with added sugar are high in calories (or kilojoules), so eating too often can lead to weight gain. Being overweight can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Free sugar should not make up more than 5% of the energy (calories or kilojoules) you get from food and drink every day. That's a maximum of 30 g of free sugar per day for adults, which corresponds to about seven sugar cubes.

Find out how to reduce sugar.

Reduce salt

Your body needs small amounts of salt. But too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, which is linked to heart disease.

Adults should eat less than 6 grams of salt a day - that's roughly a teaspoon. Around 75% of the salt in our diet is already in the foods we buy. For example, popular foods like bacon, sausages, and bread, and ready-made meals are often high in salt.

To reduce the amount of salt you eat, avoid adding salt at the dining table or while cooking. Get in the habit of checking food labels for salt content as you shop. A food is high in salt if it contains more than 1.5 g of salt or 0.6 g of sodium per 100 g.

to eat fish

Eat at least two servings of fish a week, including one serving of oily fish. Pregnant women should not eat more than two servings of oily fish per week.

Oily fish contain unsaturated fats that can help keep your cholesterol at healthy levels. Examples of oily fish include mackerel, salmon, fresh tuna (but not canned tuna), sardines, trout, kipper, and pilchards.

Check to see if the fish are pickled and choose fish in water or tomato juice instead to reduce the added salt.

Snack on nuts and seeds

Eat a mixture of unsalted nuts and seeds. Some nuts and seeds can provide you with unsaturated fats, which in small amounts are useful in your diet and can help lower your cholesterol levels.

Drink less alcohol

If you drink alcohol, stick to the recommended daily limits. Drinking more regularly can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, and a higher risk of heart disease.

Learn more about a healthy, balanced diet in Food and Diet.

move

An active lifestyle can reduce the risk of heart disease. Past activity levels don't count: it depends on how active you are now.

Regular exercise can lower your blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight. Physical activity is not only good for your body but also for your mood.

Adults should get 150 minutes of moderate activity every week. One way to achieve this goal is to be active for 30 minutes five days a week. Inactive people gain benefits very quickly when they return to work.

For your physical activity to count, you need to be active enough to feel warm and easily out of breath. Activities can range from a brisk walk to more intense exercises like running or vigorous dancing.

No matter how active you are, prolonged sitting is unhealthy and linked to weight gain. You can reduce the amount of time you spend sitting by incorporating activities into your day and taking breaks if you have to sit for long periods of time. While talking to coworkers or friends, why not go and get up and move around between screen time sessions?

Get more tips on reducing your sitting time.

Learn more ways to get more active in health and fitness.

Your NHS health check-up

If you're between 40 and 74 years old and still in no health condition, the NHS Health Check is your chance to get a free midlife MOT.

It checks your circulatory and vascular health and examines your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, stroke, and dementia. Your NHS health check-up can spot early signs of these conditions and help you reduce your risk.