Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Go Red for Women's Heart Health

There is much research, fundraising and publicity dedicated to breast cancer in Australia, yet Women's Heart Health seems to be an unspoken topic. Did you know the heart disease is actually the biggest killer of Australian women? According to the Australian Heart Foundation, heart disease kills more women each year than breast cancer. Heart disease kills one Aussie woman every hour, every day. Scary, huh? So why aren't we talking about it? Well now is the time - Thursday 11th June 2015 is Go Red for Women Day, the Heart Foundation's biggest fundraiser for women's heart disease.

The term 'Heart Disease' (or 'cardiovascular disease or CVD) includes having either a heart attack or a stroke. Heart disease affects women of all ages, with the major risk factors being high blood pressure, high cholesterol and being overweight or obese. Many people do not even know if they have these conditions, and thus it is important to visit your GP regularly for check ups and a risk assessment. The good news is that heart disease is preventable, and, even if you have already been diagnosed with heart disease, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

What you eat and how much you move your body are key factors for your heart health. Here are some steps you can take NOW to improve your heart health: 

1. Be Active - Be active for at least 30 minutes each day. You may cringe at the thought of "exercise," so look for options that appeal to you. Instead of hitting the gym or pounding the pavement, look for activities which you enjoy. It may be a yoga class, a game of tennis,  swimming, dancing in your lounge room or playing frisbee or kick-to-kick with your kids. Look for every opportunity to move; even little things like parking your car in the furthest carpark, getting off the bus one stop early, or taking the stairs instead of the escalator, all add up to benefit your heart. 

2. Limit unhealthy fats - the type and amount of fat you eat has an impact on your heart health. Limit foods high in trans fats and saturated fat, such as take away, deep fried foods, pastries, short-breads and processed snacks such as chips and chocolates. Also make an effort to choose lean meats - that is, avoid highly marbled meat and remove the outer white fat from meat and the skin from chicken.

3. Opt for heart healthy fats -  include foods containing poly-unsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats in your diet. These foods include olive oil, canola oil, avocado, fish, nuts and seeds. Aim to have fish 2-3 times per week for optimal heart health. Include a 30g handful of nuts regularly also. You can read more about nuts and heart health here

4. Fibre up - fibre is critical for the management of blood pressure, cholesterol, weight and thus overall heart health. Aim to eat around 30g of fibre each day. This can be achieved by eating 2 pieces of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables each day (1 serve = 75g vegetables) as well as wholegrains and legumes. Choose wholegrain carbohydrates such as oats, quinoa, brown rice and multigrain bread  rather than refined white versions. Legumes are a fantastic, versatile, nutritious and cheap way to boost your fibre intake, so try throwing some kidney beans in your stews or some chickpeas or bean mix in salads. Check out the Australian Grains and Legumes Council website for more tasty ways to increase the fibre in your diet.  

 5. Cut the salt - salt is a key culprit for raising blood pressure. Australians eat a great amount of salt each day through processed foods such as take away, convenience meals, bread, breakfast cereals, tinned foods and ready-to-eat sauces, spreads and marinades. Avoid adding salt to your cooking and remove the salt shaker from the dinner table. Flavour your meals with other options such as fresh or dried herbs, spices, pepper or lemon juice. Your food will taste different initially, but persevere, as your taste buds will adapt with time! 

6. Limit added sugars - eating a very high sugar diet can affect your weight and in turn, your heart health. Foods which are high in added sugars tend to be the highly processed foods which are low in fibre and nutrients, and therefore not nutritious anyway! Keep high sugar foods such as cakes, biscuits, lollies, chocolate and soft drink for special occassions only. Moderation is the key.

7. Choose water - water is the best way to keep yourself hydrated. Drinks such as soft drink, cordial, energy drinks and fruit juice are high in sugar and not necessary. Alcohol can be enjoyed in moderation, though do limit to no more than 2 standard drinks per night, and include 3 alcohol free nights weekly. It is true that red wine contains heart-healthy nutrients - but only if you limit to one glass! This is a prime example where just because some is good, does not mean more is better!!

8. Butt out - smoking is actually the biggest risk factor for heart disease; according to the Australian Heart Foundation, people who smoke are twice as likely to have a heart attack and three times more likely to have a stroke than those who do not! The Quitline is a great place for information and support to help you quit smoking.

Now that you are aware of the prevalence of heart disease in Australia, I hope you will join me by wearing red for women's heart health on Thursday June 11th. Get involved in fundraising events in your local area by checking out the Heart Foundation's Go Red For Women page,  and most importantly, make a lifestyle change today to reduce your risk of heart disease. 

- Emily.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

10 Insights from the Mediterranean

This week, I returned home from a 2 week cruise of the Mediterranean. A fabulous 2 weeks of adventure, sightseeing, sunshine, good company and of course, delicious food. It is well documented that the Mediterranean diet promotes well-being and longevity, and can in fact reduce one's risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, amongst many benefits. The Mediterranean diet is no fad diet, it has been a traditional pattern of eating for hundreds of years. As such, the Mediterranean diet is a suitable pattern of eating for the entire family, is suited to entertaining, and best of all is not based on obscure and expensive foods. All in all, the Mediterranean diet is a delicious, inexpensive, simple and nutritious style of eating.

There were a number of things that struck me about the eating (and drinking) patterns in the Mediterranean, including the following 10 observations:

 1. Snacking was uncommon 
I rarely observed anyone eating outside of main meal times. The main meals were generally substantial and nutritionally balanced, thereby supplying sufficient energy to sustain one until the next meal. I did not see anyone eating bags of chips, biscuits or muesli bars between meals; such foods were not displayed obviously at every turn of the head, as they are in Australia. The only foods I saw available between meals were fresh fruit, roasted nuts and roasted corn cobs. Highly nutritious options if you did happen to need an afternoon top-up.

Fruit stall in Barcelona, Spain

 The cutest strawberry punnets in France 

 Nuts on sale in France 

 A street cart selling roast chestnuts and corn in Istanbul, Turkey

2. Coffee was consumed in small cups, sitting 
Locals drank their coffee, unadulterated and appreciatively, in cafes, seemingly often in company. They were not sipping Grande Vanilla Moccha Lattes, or other syrupy concoctions, from half litre cardboard cups whilst they shopped or waited for public transport. In this way, they avoided mindlessly consuming empty calories, as occurs commonly in Australia.

3. Fish was favoured, red meat less common
I was away for 2.5 weeks and never once ate red meat. Most days my diet was based solely on fish; tuna salad at lunch and baked fish for dinner. For this reason, the Mediterranean diet is rich in poly-unsaturated fatty acids, including omega-3 fatty acids, which are crucial for a healthy heart, brain and eyes. Fish is also low in fat, thereby assisting weight regulation. If I did eat something other than fish, it was generally chicken, turkey or pork. All lean, there again promoting weight regulation, heart health and diabetes risk reduction.   
4. Olive oil was revered
The infinite olive groves and commonplace decorative olive trees proved how important olives and olive oil are to the Mediterranean. Every meal was cooked in olive oil, or dressed with a drizzle of oil. No coconut oil, no butter, no lard. Just locally produced extra virgin olive oil. Yes, the olive oil is high in fat, the health-promoting poly-unsaturated type, renowned for supporting heart health. Bottles of extra-virgin olive oil adorned every dining table, signifying just how essential it is to the Mediterranean diet.

French countryside. Olive-growing paradise. 
Variety of fresh olives 

5. Fresh Produce and Simplicity is key 
As a walk through numerous food markets proved; fresh produce is preferred in the Mediterranean. The markets occur daily so food can be purchased and cooked fresh, direct from the fisherman/butcher/farmer/baker/delicatessen. Generally the meals prepared with said produce were simple, honouring the natural flavours of the food. Grilled vegetables for entree, fish and salad or meat and salad for mains. Pizza with minimal toppings such as tomato, cheese and basil, or simple pasta with tomato, meat and cheese. No 'Meatlover' or 'The Lot' pizzas, no heavy sauces or dressings masking the true flavour of food, no heavily processed foods. Just fresh local produce, enjoyed close to it's natural state.

 Beautiful fresh sun-drenched tomatoes, looking more like pumpkins! 

6. Portion size was controlled  
Most of the meals I experienced were served in numerous courses, yet small portions. I think back to one lunch in Rome. We were served a small plate of pasta, which was received with raised eyebrows from fellow travellers, who commented "That's not much! Is that all we're getting?" True, the plate of pasta was a meagre portion compared to the over-flowing bowls much of Western culture has become accustomed to. What we did not realise, was the pasta was merely the first course, soon followed by an appropriate portion of roast pork and salad. Again, not the typical 350g steak you may expect to find on a restaurant menu in Australia, but a sufficient amount to leave you satiated without over eating.

 An entree of fresh and grilled vegetables in Istanbul, Turkey 

7. Vegetables, always 
Did you know that according the 2011-2012 Australian Health Survey, only 8.4% of Australians ate the recommended daily 5 serves of vegetables?  On my tour of the Mediterranean however, I was pleased to see vegetables featured in most meals. For example, a grilled vegetable antipasti plate to start a meal, a soup as a starter, a salad as a side dish, or vegetables included with meals. The regular consumption of vegetables ensures essential fibre consumption, to assist with weight regulation, heart health and diabetes risk reduction. It also proves that eating vegetables is not a chore, and can and should be an enjoyable, central feature of a meal.

 Delicious Greek Salad in Athens 

8. Red wine was the drink of choice 
As a non-drinker, I cannot comment on the flavour of the wine overseas, though I did notice fellow travellers savouring a glass or two! The Italians were quick to inform us that a glass of red wine has been proven to be health-promoting, thanks to it's high antioxidant, specifically polyphenol, content. I was most pleased, however, to hear them crucially advise that the health benefits occur with the consumption of only one glass..... not multiple. The lesson? Rather than guzzling pints of beer, 'doing shots' or drinking to excess just for the sake of it, savour a good glass of red instead. Quality over quantity, yet again.

9. Fast food outlets were few and far between 
I rarely saw fast food venues during my Mediterranean travels. Sure, I saw the golden arches in a few major cities, and a Burger King and a Subway along the way (right next to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, oddly enough...), however for the most part, these outlets were not on every street corner or at every turn of the head, as they seem to be here at home. Instead, local eateries and quality local produce seemed preferred. I even noticed less advertising for fast food venues, compared to the omnipresent billboards and such which I notice at home. Out of sight, out of mind; a great way to reduce consumption of energy dense, low nutrient fast foods. 

10. There were no food phobias or fads
Well, none that were obvious to me, anyhow. I mean to say, I did not notice any food outlets advertising "Clean Eating" friendly menus, or "Paleo" friendly meals. I did not notice any advertisements for "low fat," "sugar free," "low carb" or "high protein" products. I'm sure they exist somewhere in in the culture, though they did not infiltrate the communities. All foods appeared to be eaten without hesitation, including carbohydrate-rich pasta and high fat olive oil and cheese, for example. The food was simply prepared and enjoyed, without judgement or guilt, but with appreciation.

 Carb-phobia? No thanks. Fresh bread for days in France.

These are simply some of my own personal observations from my 2 week period abroad. I acknowledge that of course there would be exceptions to these themes and that every individual eats in a different manner. I did however, like what I saw and I do believe there are value lessons to be learned from my observations. I have decided that more olive oil, more fish and more Mediterranean vegetables are required in my own diet! One thing is certain; I thoroughly enjoyed my whirlwind adventure through the Mediterranean and would recommend the region, and the Mediterranean pattern of eating, to anyone.

- Em x