Udayakumar R, 65, a retired general manager at a private organisation in Tamil Nadu, attributes his uncontrolled diabetes to his busy schedule and untimely meals.
Three years back, a routine examination revealed a tiny block in the heart’s blood vessels. His doctor told him that long-term diabetes could be the cause.
The physician prescribed medications for diabetes and as well as drugs to improve blood flow to the heart. He was advised to eat on time and avoid excess salt, oil, and refined flour (maida).
Experts say middle-aged and older individuals with poor dietary habits and a sedentary lifestyle are prone to cardiovascular disorders. Therefore, it is important for them to focus early in life on adopting dietary patterns that promote a healthy heart.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) people from high-income countries get almost 75 per cent of their salt requirement from ready consumables such as sauces, instant foods, or artificial beverages. The same is the case with people living in low to medium income countries. WHO recommends that the salt intake should be less than 5 grams (2g sodium) per person per day to prevent hypertension and cardiovascular disorders.
What the Norfolk study found
The EPIC-Norfolk study published in 2022 included 24,963 people aged from 40 to 79 years from hospitals across Norfolk, UK. After a median follow-up of 19.5 years the study stated that dietary potassium provides considerable heart health benefits, especially for women. Potassium also helps the body to excrete excess sodium in the urine.
Some of the potassium-rich foods are bananas, salmon, potatoes, milk, nuts, and beans.
Swagata Banerjee, a nutritionist from Kolkata, says, “Added sugar in the beverages inhibits nitric oxide production in blood vessels; [this] eventually constricts the blood vessels and increases the blood pressure.”
She adds that ultra-processed foods contain extra salt to inhibit microbial growth and increase the products’ shelf life. She advises consuming foods freshly made at home as they aid digestion and are free from preservatives.
Refined versus whole grains
A study was conducted in 2020 involving 1,48,858 participants from different countries to determine the impact of refined grains, whole grains, and white rice on cardiovascular health. The products made from refined grains include refined wheat flour, white bread, pasta, noodles, and bakery products.
The study concluded that people with a predominant intake of refined grains were associated with a high risk of hypertension and cardiovascular conditions.
Banerjee adds that it is healthy to eat food made from whole grains like brown rice, millets like bajra, ragi, and jowar, and whole wheat flour enriched with other grains. They are rich in fibre, Vitamins B1 and B9.
Vitamin B9 is necessary to improve blood flow to the heart.
Moreover, in refined grains, the outer layers are extracted during milling and get depleted of nutrients.
Fruit, seeds and vegetables
“Vegetables and whole fruits that are healthy for the heart include spinach, broccoli, green beans, carrot, cauliflower, pumpkin, bitter gourd, pointed gourd (commonly called green potato), apple, guava, banana, grapes, and orange,” says Banerjee.
Dr Vimal Narayanan, senior Siddha consultant from Santhigiri Ayurveda Hospital, Bengaluru, suggests horse gram (common Indian names: kulthi/ huruli/kollu/ulava) as an important food to aid cardiovascular health.
“Horse gram contains no fat and provides stamina, strengthens the heart muscles, and improves
blood circulation. In addition, it reduces flatulence [gas formation] and improves digestion in case of heartburn,” says Dr Narayanan. A healthy stomach, he adds, ensures cardiovascular health.
“Coriander seeds and gotu kola (Indian pennywort) improve the functioning of the heart and blood circulation. Add one teaspoon of coriander seeds and one handful of gotu kola leaves to one litre of water and boil it for a minute. Drink the mix.”
Crab is a rich source of Vitamin B-complex and omega-3 fatty acids and is good for the heart as it reduces the risk of blood clotting and lowers cholesterol levels. However, sea foods can trigger allergy, and one should consult their doctor about including them in the diet plan.
Systemic conditions like diabetes may be associated with heart disorders in some people. In such conditions, the jamun fruit or Indian blackberry is seen to be effective in diabetes management.
Additions make a difference
Ghee has many nutrients essential for the heart and brain, especially for elders. Consuming ghee which is directly heated in the pan results in high cholesterol. Instead, one should add it to flat wheat breads (rotis), curries, or to cooked rice while eating.
One could replace red chili with pepper which helps in absorbing various nutrients and vitamins. It also reduces the cholesterol level in the body and improves blood circulation.
Including curry leaves and buttermilk regularly in food helps to reduce cholesterol and thereby the risk of cardiac illness.
Sprouts and steamed foods are easily digested and are better than fried foods. Ragi, millet, or horse gram sprouts in meals also lower cholesterol and improve blood circulation, thereby strengthening the heart muscles.
Dr Narayanan suggests drinking cumin water regularly to rehydrate the body. This can be prepared by adding two to three teaspoons of cumin seeds in boiling water.
Along with a conscious choice of foods, Dr Narayanan says maintaining a healthy body weight, and daily practices such as walking two to three kilometres, drinking adequate water, and sleeping for eight hours improve metabolism and ensure a healthy heart.