Good nutrition and an active lifestyle are fundamental to good health and a healthy heart. But by the time you hit mid-life, chances are you have developed a few unhealthy food and lifestyle habits, leading to chronic diseases including heart problems. Health issues like obesity, heart, BP and diabetes have become synonymous with people in the age group of 40-50. Of late, many middle-age men and women are coming to us for ECG tests, lipid profile diagnosis (in the fasting state) and angiographies. Most of them belong to the high-risk group because of their unhealthy lifestyle and eating habits.

A report by the National Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, points out that by end of 2010, the number of people with coronary heart disease will reach 46.9 million. Many individuals who fall in the high-risk group cannot abstain from binging on junk food. A research by AC Nielsen reveals that 64 per cent of men in the age group of 40-50 in cities like Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Kolkata cannot stay away from unhealthy food which is a major cause of heart disease and diabetes. This coupled with a busy and high-stress life-style is leading to a diet of convenience. A diet that is devoid of vitamins and minerals, and overloaded with fat, sugar and high calories. Often, men and women in their 40s and 50s, frequent “cool eating joints” with their children and unwittingly binge on junk food. The primary reason why men and women in their 40s and 50s binge on junk food is because the concept of heart health is alien to many.

Obesity places a person at greater risk of acquiring serious disorders, such as hypertension, diabetes mellitus, coronary artery disease, stroke and osteoarthritis. The cause is usually an excess of intake of calories and consumption of junk food.

The moment one reaches 40, men and women should be extra careful about their food habits and insist on having a balanced diet with adequate exercise. Else one might end up with high cholesterol levels which could result in cardiac problems. But many consider healthy food to be boring and insipid. This is far from true. The benefits of a healthy diet are manifold: More energy, less illness and disease and a longer, more fulfilled life.

Avoid fatty foods

Some foods are considered to be unhealthy as they contain high calories (saturated fats). These foods lack antioxidants properties and fibre content. Such foods when consumed can lead to a high probability of occurrence of many diseases. The food that contains saturated fat and Trans fat are considered as bad because these raise blood cholesterol when taken in excess. Foods such as meat, butter, coconut cream and vegetable oil blended with palm oil contain saturated fat and should be ideally avoided. Similarly, foods that are high in Trans fat must be avoided.

Replacing saturated fat in the diet with polyunsaturated fat and mono-unsaturated fat may help to lower blood cholesterol. For this reason, polyunsaturated and mono-unsaturated fat can be considered ‘good’ fat.

Foods high in polyunsaturated fat include margarine and vegetable oils such as corn oil, soyabean oil and sunflower oil. Foods high in mono-unsaturated fat include olive oil, canola oil, groundnut oil and avocado.

There is overwhelming evidence that a high blood cholesterol level increases the risk of developing atherosclerosis (hardening of blood vessels due to accumulation of fatty deposits on the inner lining of arteries), and with it the risk of coronary artery disease or stroke.

Avoid excess salt, sugar

Sweets can be tempting for anyone. But you should avoid excess consumption of foods that contain sweets as it leads to hypoglycemia, suppression of the immune system, arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, headaches, and even depression. Refined sugar is one of the bad carbs mentioned above. Similarly, one must always limit sodium consumption to 2,300 mg per day – the equivalent to one teaspoon of salt. Processed foods like canned soups or frozen meals, a current fad, contain sodium levels higher than the prescribed.

What’s a healthy food?

Consumption of fruits and vegetables has been widely acknowledged as healthy foods. Fruits and vegetables are low in calories and are packed with vitamins, minerals, protective plant compounds and fiber. They are a great source of nutrients and vital for a healthy diet.

Eat lots of pulses, beans, and milk products, such as curd, low fat paneer, and low fat cheese. Soya paneer is also a really great source of protein. Nuts are high in unsaturated fatty acids and low in saturated fats, which contribute to lowering cholesterol levels. Nuts contain protein, but careful: Most nuts have a lot of oil. The best bets are almonds and walnuts. A lack of protein in our diets can result in slow growth, reduced muscle mass, lower immunity, and weaken the heart and respiratory system.

Further, one should consume foods that contain fibre as it reduces cholesterol, normalizes blood sugar and promotes bowel regularity. Fiber is found in plant foods (fruit, vegetables and whole grains). It helps you feel fuller faster and longer, keeps the blood sugar levels even and helps in maintaining a healthy colon.

Also consume more food that is rich in iron which is an essential component of proteins that works overtime for oxygen transport and cell growth, and can be obtained from green leafy vegetables. Low iron means low hemoglobin as well as lower energy levels.

To promote cardiovascular health, always remember to limit the intake of saturated fats to less than 10 per cent of daily energy intake, and to less than 7% for high-risk groups. A diet comprising of a total fat intake of up to 35% does not increase the risk of unhealthy weight gain in physically active people who consume a lot of fruits, vegetables, legumes and wholegrain cereals.