Many people suffer from high cholesterol, which is either inherited or induced by lifestyle. You can keep your cholesterol in check through a controlled diet. However, this is not always easy as there is so much conflicting information about what one should eat and drink if they have high cholesterol. This becomes even more confusing if you add to the equation the many advertised products, which claim to lower cholesterol. Here are a few changes you can make to your diet to help you fight bad cholesterol, but first let’s get you to understand what cholesterol is.
Cholesterol is the lipid (fat), which is produced by the liver. Cholesterol is vital for normal body functions, the main ones being to build and maintain cell membranes (outer layer) and prevent crystallization of hydrocarbon in the membrane. Cholesterol is also essential for determining which molecules can pass into the cells and which cannot. It is also involved in the production of the sex hormones – androgens and estrogens and is essential for the production of hormones released by the adrenal glands including cortisol, corticosterone, and adolsterone among others. It also aids in the production of bile and converts sunshine to vitamin D. Cholesterol is important for the metabolism of fat soluble vitamins, including A, D, E and K and also insulates nerve fibres.
Cholesterol is carried in the blood by molecules called lipoproteins, which come in three forms.
*LDL (low density lipoprotein). This is referred to as ‘bad’ cholesterol. LDL carries cholesterol from the liver to the cells. If too much is supplied to the cells, there can be a harmful buildup, which increases the risk of arterial disease.
*HDL (high density lipoprotein). This is referred to as ‘good’ cholesterol. Experts say HDL prevents arterial diseases and does the opposite of LDL – it takes cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver. In the liver it is either broken down or expelled from the body as waste.
*Triglycerides. These are the chemical forms in which most fat exists in the body, as well as in food. They are present in blood plasma. Triglycerides, in association with cholesterol, form the plasma lipids (blood fat). Triglycerides in plasma originate either from fats in food or are made in the body from other energy sources such as carbohydrates. Calories consumed and not used immediately by the body tissues are converted into triglycerides and stored in fat cells.
How high is high?
The amount of cholesterol in human blood can vary form 3.6 mmol/liter to 7.8 mmol/liter. Experts say any reading over 6 mmol/liter is high and will significantly raise the risk of arterial disease. High cholesterol pauses many dangers including atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries), higher coronary heart disease risk, heart attack, angina (chest pain or discomfort that occurs when the heart muscle does not get enough blood) and stroke. If both blood cholesterol and triglycerides levels are high, the risk of developing coronary heart disease rises significantly.
You need to make changes to your diet and lifestyle if your doctor has told you that you have high cholesterol. You should cut back on the cholesterol and total fat, especially saturated and trans fats, that you eat. Saturated fats, like those in meat, full-fat dairy products and some oils, raise your total cholesterol. Trans fats, which are sometimes found in margarines and commercial cookies, crackers and cakes, are particularly bad for your cholesterol levels. In addition to changing your diet, keep in mind that making additional heart-healthy lifestyle changes is key to lowering your cholesterol. You should exercise regularly, quit smoking, drink alcohol in moderation, and maintain a healthy weight to keep your cholesterol levels low. Here are a few changes you can make to your diet.
Fruit and vegetables. These are rich in vitamins and powerful antioxidants, which help reduce the chance of harmful LDL cholesterol being deposited in the arteries. Ensure you get at least five servings of fruit and vegetables every day. Raw vegetables are highly recommended. Instead of making a rich cheese sauce to compliment your meals, such as steaks, it is best to make a tomato or vegetable sauce.
Soluble fibre. The soluble fibre found in oats, oat bran, beans, pulses and some fruits, such as apples, pears and prunes, as well as certain vegetables, encourages the body to excrete cholesterol before it can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Ensure you have an oat-based cereal for breakfast such as porridge or muesli and instead of cow’s milk, switch to soya. The soluble fibre in oats is known to reduce harmful LDL cholesterol, while soya protein can help reduce levels of LDL cholesterol. If you don’t like soya milk, eat soya products, such as tofu regularly.
You should also try bulgur wheat instead of refined wheat products such as couscous, white bread and pastas. Studies show people who eat three or more servings of wholegrain foods a day are less likely to suffer from diabetes. One serving equals to 25 g of porridge or a large slice of whole meal bread. A bean-based soup, which is rich in soluble fibre, makes a good snack or starter.
Omega-3 fatty acids. Found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, fresh tuna, lake trout, herring and sardines, omega-3 fatty acids help increase protective HDL cholesterol. These fish contain heart-friendly omega-3 fats when eaten fresh and not canned. You should bake or grill the fish to avoid adding unhealthy fats. You can also get omega-3 from flaxseed and supplements.
Nuts. Walnuts, almonds and other nuts contain rich, heart friendly compounds that help reduce LDL and increase HDL cholesterol to keep blood vessels healthy. Eating a handful a day of most nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachio nuts and walnuts, may reduce your risk of heart disease. But remember nuts are high in calories so only eat a little a day if you don’t what to increase your weight.
Olive oil. This contains a potent mix of antioxidants that can lower your ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol. Try using about two tablespoons of olive oil a day in place of other fats in your diet to get its heart-healthy benefits. Cholesterol-lowering effects of olive oil are even greater if you choose extra-virgin olive oil, meaning the oil is less processed and contains more heart-healthy antioxidants.
Red wine. This is rich in flavonoids and studies show they help prevent oxidation of LDL cholesterol to a harmful form. However, wine, like all other alcohol, should be taken in moderation. Other good sources of flavonoids include tea, grapes, onions and apples.
Other cholesterol lowering products. Foods are now available that have been fortified with sterols or stanols – substances found in plants that help block the absorption of cholesterol. Margarines, orange juice and yoghurt drinks with added plant sterols can help reduce LDL cholesterol. You should be careful about taking supplements and herbal teas, which claim to reduce cholesterol. Always consult a doctor or a dietician before taking such products.
Published in May 2013