Heart Awareness Month: Eating for the health of your heart

By Jessica Lazar the Green Dietician

This month is Heart Awareness Month in South Africa and the 29th of September is World Heart Day. Did you know that 225 South Africans die of heart disease every single day[i]? Heart disease is the 2nd most common cause of death in South Africa, with 1 in 5 South Africans dying of heart disease[ii]. Luckily 80% of these deaths are preventable[iii].

How do you prevent heart disease? By changing your lifestyle of course! Diet, exercise and stress management all contribute to better heart health. A plant-based diet has been shown to prevent and even treat heart disease. Risk of dying from Heart Disease is 24% lower in vegetarians than those who eat meat[iv]. In addition, vegetarians have been shown to have lower cholesterol levels than people who eat meat and vegans (who don’t eat any animal-based foods), have been shown to have even lower cholesterol levels than both vegetarians and meat-eaters[v].

High blood pressure is one of the main contributors to death from heart disease, with 2 in every 5 heart attacks in South Africa being caused by high blood pressure[vi]. Studies have shown that diets high in fruits and vegetables help to lower blood pressure and that vegans are 2.5 times less likely to have high blood pressure than meat eaters[vii].

Many of the components in plant foods such as fibre, antioxidants, unsaturated fatty acids and sterols help to actively lower cholesterol levels, keep our arteries flexible and protect our bodies against heart disease. By reducing our intake of saturated fats and cholesterol, mostly found in animal products, we can also lower our risk of heart disease, especially when we replace these foods with healthy plant foods such as vegetables, pulses, whole-grains and soy products. All-in-all a plant-based diet is one of the best dietary patterns for preventing heart disease and many other lifestyle-related diseases.

What does a plant-based diet consist of?

A plant-based diet includes vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, legumes, pulses, nuts, seeds and soy products.

Soy foods are high in plant sterols which are known to lower cholesterol in the blood.[viii] Soy products have been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and to lower bad cholesterol levels in the blood.[ix] In addition, soy foods are high in healthy Omega 3 fats (which also help to protect our hearts), fibre (which helps to lower cholesterol levels), protein and iron.

People who are strictly plant-based avoid all foods of animal origin, including meat, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, yoghurt, butter and cheese. You don’t have to be 100% plant-based though to enjoy the health benefits of a plant-based diet but you should aim to eat plenty of healthy plant foods and to reduce animal foods, especially those that are high in saturated fats such as meat, cheese, butter, ghee and cream. If you miss meat, meat alternatives such as Fry’s are a great option. Fry’s meat alternatives low in saturated fat, cholesterol-free and are a source of fibre.

In contrast, meat products are high in saturated fat which has been shown to increase cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.[x] Meat is definitely rich in protein and iron but it has no fibre and very little Omega 3 fats which help to lower cholesterol. Therefore, replacing some of the meat in your diet with meat alternatives can be a great way to improve your health, still get enough protein and iron in your diet and reduce your risk for heart disease.

Here are some simple swaps which can help you to improve your heart health and enjoy a more plant-based diet:

  • Instead of using cow’s milk in your tea, coffee or cereal, switch to a plant-based milk alternative. Soy milk is particularly rich in protein and nutrients and has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and many other diseases.
  • Instead of putting butter or cheese on your bread or crackers, switch to healthy plant-based spreads such as avocado, peanut butter, hummus or even omega-3 rich margarine.
  • Instead of using meat, chicken or fish in your curries, stews and hot dishes, try the Fry’s range of meat alternatives. These are made naturally cholesterol-free which can help to lower your risk for heart disease.
  • Instead of having eggs, bacon or cheese for breakfast, try switch to a good whole-grain porridge or cereal or whole-grain bread with one of the above toppings. You can even make a breakfast fry-up with some baked beans, Fry’s sausages and whole-grain toast.
  • Instead of snacking on biltong, cheese or yoghurt, switch to fresh fruits, nuts, seeds or vegetable sticks with hummus.
  • Instead of using cream in cooking or baking, try boiling some cashew nuts and blending them with water to make a delicious and healthy plant-based cream.
  • Going to a braai? Take along your Fry’s meat alternatives and remember to include plenty of salads and vegetables. Mushrooms, mielies, potatoes, peppers and aubergine are all great for popping onto the braai.

Some other tips for improving your heart health:

  • Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, high-fibre whole-grains and beans. Aim for at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day and add beans, chickpeas or lentils to your cooked dishes and salads. Make sure that your breads, crackers, pastas and rices are high in fibre and whole-grain.
  • Watch your salt intake. High salt intake increases blood pressure.[xi] Use fresh herbs and spices to flavour your meals and aim to forego salt during cooking. Cheese, processed meats, packet soups and salty snacks are all high in salt. Make sure to limit your intake of salt to 5g per day and to check labels on processed foods for sodium content.[xii]
  • Limit alcohol to no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men.[xiii]
  • Get active. Physical activity reduces your risk of heart disease and many other diseases and helps to keep both your body and mind healthy. Aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise.[xiv]
  • Stop smoking. Smoking increases your chances of getting heart disease by 5.6% for every cigarette smoked. [xv]
  • Manage your stress. Stress increases the risk for heart disease and contributes to poor lifestyle habits such as overeating, smoking, drinking alcohol and not getting enough sleep.[xvi] Getting active, getting enough sleep and eating a good diet are all ways to help manage stress. In addition, working on your emotional and mental health are important ways to manage stress. Whether this be meditation, yoga, spirituality, prayer, psychotherapy, counselling, medication, massage, journaling, dancing or just talking to a friend, make sure to make time for your mental wellbeing.


[viii] Food labeling: health claims; soy protein and coronary heart disease. Food and Drug Administration, HHS. Final rule. Fed Regist. 1999; 64(206):57699-57733.

Xiao CW. Health effects of soy protein and isoflavones in humans. J Nutr. 2008;138(6):1244S-1249S.

[ix] Welty FK, Lee KS, Lew NS, Zhou JR. Effect of soy nuts on blood pressure and lipid levels in hypertensive, prehypertensive, and normotensive postmenopausal women. Arch Intern Med. 2007;167(10):1060-1067.