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Heart attacks and strokes are among the biggest killers worldwide, and the leading cause of death in South Africans after HIV/AIDS. Previously associated with the elderly, a staggering 80% of deaths occur in people under the age of 65, with an expected increase of heart problems in the working age group of 35 to 65, according to The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa.

“There is little doubt that the modern diet is the major reason for an epidemic increase in heart disease – the cost of which is, on average, 20 fewer years of life. There is nothing natural about dying from heart disease,” says Patrick.

The irony is that the most powerful medicine is not found in a pharmacy: it is simply found in the food you consume.

Around the world, cultures with the lowest prevalence of cardiovascular disease have presented as prime studies of observation in the fight against heart attacks and strokes due to their primarily plant-based diet, consumption of healthy fats, pickled or fermented foods, small portions of rice and flavouring their meals with herbs.

“The reason for their lack of heart problems comes down to their diet. Mediterranean and Asian countries have a higher intake of vegetables and fish, and a lower intake of meat,” explains Patrick.

With rising meat prices, many have cut down their intake, opting for more weekly vegetarian meals. While this is a good start towards preventing heart disease, there are a few other healthy adjustments that can be made. Patrick shares a few of the secrets to eating for a healthy heart:

  1. Less meat is best. London’s Department of Public Health and Policy found that meat-eaters were twice as likely to have a heart attack, while another study found that eating vegetarian forms of protein reduce the risk of a heart attack by 39%. Try to minimise your animal protein intake (yes, this includes eggs).
  2. Switch to fish and tofu. It is well known that eating carnivorous fish (salmon, tuna, herring and mackerel) are beneficial for many reasons and should be your main protein at least three times a week. Soya (in tofu) has healing properties that reduce cholesterol levels.
  3. Eliminate sugar and processed foods. High blood sugar and insulin levels both damage the arteries. Don’t be misled by processed foods like cereal, which have hidden sugars in the form of sucrose, glucose, maltose and honey, as they are just as bad. Buy unsweetened products and add fruit or xylitol.
  4. Go for dairy-free alternatives. Even worse, dairy consumption is a stronger predictor of cardiovascular disease than meat, eggs or sugar.
  5. Quit refined carbohydrates. The ideal is to buy food as close to its natural state as possible. Choose wholewheat and wholemeal products.
  6. Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Apples and pears contain fructose that take a while for the body to digest, keeping blood sugar levels even, while colourful vegetables are richest in antioxidants. Eat at least seven servings per day.
  7. Ditch the stimulants. Coffee, tea, nicotine or whatever your vice increases cholesterol and raise your blood sugar levels.
  8. Say no to salt. Most foods contain more than enough salt in them so there’s really no need to add extra salt to your food. The more salt you eat, the more potassium is needed to balance salt levels. The problem with this is that the more salt we consume, the lower our potassium levels and low potassium levels are linked to high blood pressure.
  9. Keep this to a maximum of four or fewer drinks a week.
  10. Essential in reducing cholesterol; eat a clove (or two) of garlic a day.
  11. Seeds and seed oils. Packed with vitamins, minerals and good fats, you should try to eat a tablespoon of seeds a day.

While these dietary changes can help significantly in preventing heart disease, homocysteine levels, an amino acid found naturally in the blood, should be monitored. A high H score has been found to cause a whole host of diseases, poor recovery and rapid aging.

“Whether you are young or old, sick or healthy, the best time to measure your H score is now. If you are young, remember that homocysteine does much more than predict risk for diseases – it also shows how well we’ll cope with life’s long rollercoaster ride,” advises Patrick.

Be sure to get a blood homocysteine test annually, available at a number of laboratories including Lancet and Ampath, to check your H score. Should you find that it is high, Patrick recommends supplementing with Patrick Holford’s H Factor; a combination of amino acid TMG, antioxidant Glutathione, B vitamins and Zinc.