March 7, 2023
Nutrition is critical for heart health
We sat down with Dr. Dana Olstad, PhD, a registered dietitian, to discuss how nutrition and cardiovascular health are linked and to get some tips on eating for a healthy heart.
Q: What is the connection between nutrition and cardiovascular health?
A: Poor dietary patterns are a top contributor to cardiovascular diseases in Canada and globally. It is important to note that it is the quality of the entire dietary pattern that matters. There is no single food or nutrient that can increase or decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Q: Can making diet changes really improve my health?
A: In short, yes. The quality of the foods that people eat daily influences their health. The quality of the average person’s diet in Canada is quite low and scores about 59 points on a 100-point scale, so there is a lot of room for most of us to improve. You don’t have to change overnight. Start by thinking about how you can replace some of the less healthful foods in your diet with foods that are nutrient-dense and lower in energy (i.e calories). Try to make realistic changes and choose foods you enjoy eating. This will help you stick to your new plan.
Q: What’s the risk of unhealthy eating?
A: We need to think about the quality of our entire dietary pattern, rather than focusing on single foods or nutrients. Having the occasional treat is not a problem. But if most of the foods you eat are nutrient-poor, highly processed foods, you may be missing key nutrients and getting too many calories, both of which can increase your risk of cardiovascular and other chronic diseases. It is better to start eating healthfully now to prevent chronic disease rather than waiting to change your diet after you develop health problems.
Q: There are so many diet trends, how do I know what a truly heart healthy diet is?
A: There is no single ‘right’ way to eat that will improve your heart health. However, two dietary patterns that can improve your overall health are a Mediterranean-style dietary pattern and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. These diets follow similar principles in that they are rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seafood, and they include minimal processed meats, white refined grains, sugar-sweetened beverages, added sugars, desserts and the usual foods we would think of as junk foods like chips, cookies and chocolate bars. Other dietary patterns can be healthy too, but don’t cut out entire food groups. For instance, some diets eliminate grains and/or dairy products. This is problematic as these food groups contain key nutrients that are difficult to get enough of from other foods. Supplements cannot make up for the nutrients we don’t get in foods as nutrients don’t generally have the same effects when they come from a pill. All components of foods are designed to work synergistically, so we should get our nutrients from food as much as possible.
Q: Where can people learn more about making proper nutrition choices?
A: The first thing is to avoid fad diets and look for reputable advice from experts, not social media influencers or the latest diet book. Registered Dietitians are health professionals with a degree in nutrition science, so they are the most trustworthy source of nutrition information. Most other health professionals, including physicians, have little to no formal nutrition training.
Q: Tell us about your research. What are your goals?
A: In Canada and internationally, people with lower incomes tend to have poorer quality diets than those with higher incomes. A large part of this comes down to the fact that healthy foods tend to be more expensive than less healthy foods. There are many other reasons why this is the case though, such as not having enough time to prepare healthy meals because you are working multiple low-wage jobs, eating comfort foods to cope with stress, or not wanting to risk buying healthy foods that may go to waste because your kids don’t like how they taste. My research looks at how we can use policy to support all Canadians, especially those with lower incomes, to allow them to buy healthy food to improve their long-term health.
Q: Why is this research important?
A: Diet is one of the top risk factors for chronic disease. If people with lower incomes have poorer quality diets than those with higher incomes, they will also have higher rates of chronic disease. That’s exactly what we see in Canada, people with lower incomes are more likely to have poor health. It is not right that people suffer just because they have less money than others. Everyone should have the same opportunity to buy healthy foods that will keep them well.
Learn more about Dr. Olstad’s research at www.foodrxalberta.ca or at https://profiles.ucalgary.ca/dana-lee-olstad