Many of us dread doctor appointments, even when we love our doctors. This is especially true if we’ve been encouraged to change our diet and exercise regime, but didn’t make much progress. Hey, it happens. You blink and another year’s gone by. But, those annual check ups and tweaks to our self-care are pretty important, particularly if we’re dealing with one of the most common issues facing people today—high cholesterol.
You might be confused about cholesterol’s true impact on heart health because there’s been a lot of buzz about it recently, so I teamed up with Jen Reilly, our resident R.D., to bring you more of the facts on this somewhat hot topic.
Cholesterol used to be thought of as the one and only determinant of heart disease risk. However, researchers have now figured out that cholesterol is just one piece of the puzzle (with triglycerides, blood pressure, obesity and diabetes being some of the other pieces) (study).
A low-fat diet used to be what was recommended for lowering cholesterol and preventing heart disease. Diet recommendations have now changed and are focused on making sure you’re getting enough omega-3 fats, which can raise your good cholesterol, avoiding trans fats and limiting saturated fats, which can increase your bad cholesterol.
Some researchers and diet experts have begun to downplay the role of saturated fat when it comes to heart disease risk and cholesterol levels (research article). However, their conclusions are based on observational studies, which are not as reliable when it comes to showing definitive cause and effect. Saturated fats (and mostly the ones from animal sources) are still only a part of the heart disease equation, but should be limited if you want to keep your ticker and other parts of your body healthy.
New to the heart disease risk party is sugar. Research is now pointing to avoiding simple carbs and added sugars, especially added fructose, as it increases triglyceride levels and other risk factors for heart disease (study). The good news is, many of the heart health recommendations are still the same: lots of plant-based foods, fiber, keeping a healthy weight, exercising—and avoiding smoking, of course!
But, the fact remains that over 102 million adults in the US have high cholesterol. That’s a lot of folks! Although cholesterol isn’t the only indicator of heart disease—it still matters (study) because it can increase your risk for build-up in the walls of your arteries.
So, here are the three main warning signs your doctor is looking for when monitoring your cholesterol: 1. A low level of good cholesterol (HDL) in comparison to your total cholesterol level. 2. Bad cholesterol that contains lots of the riskier small, dense particles (there are three kinds of particles and the smallest is not good for your ticker). 3. High triglycerides (cholesterol’s cousins) (study, study, and study). This can lead to blockages and a heart attack or stroke—not something we wanna mess around with.
In addition to what we’ve discussed above, here are some additional ways you can adjust your food choices to prevent high cholesterol and heart disease.
4 Ways to Lower Cholesterol & Boost Heart Health With Food
Hopefully, your health practitioner has mentioned that food choices, exercise and weight control can have powerful effects on your cholesterol and triglycerides. If not, see if he/she will give you a 6-month chance to make changes and retest your levels before prescribing statins. It usually takes about 6 months for your body to react to diet changes, so be patient and persistent.
You’ve probably heard the typical recommendations when it comes to keeping your arteries clear. Eat more veggies. Stay away from too many saturated animal fats, trans fats, and fried foods. Limit sweets and simple carbs that will increase your triglycerides (and possibly increase the worst kind of bad cholesterol). Maintain a healthy weight, reduce stress and exercise. When it comes to the diet portion of your plan, there are some additional tweaks you can make to increase your artery-clearing power.
- Learn to love yellow. Turmeric root contains curcumin, which gives curry its bright yellow color. It helps to lower inflammation, LDL cholesterol (the bad one) and triglycerides. It can also help prevent arterial plaque formation and increase your good HDL cholesterol levels—getting your cholesterol ratio in a better place. Woo-hoo! You can use the root in fresh juices and add turmeric powder to nondairy milk or your tofu scramble. It’s also a wonderful addition to curries, soups and stews. Try adding 1 teaspoon per day of ground turmeric powder to meet the health-boosting recommended amount of curcumin in your diet. Or, you can supplement according to package instructions, which are typically 400 to 600 mg turmeric extract 3 times daily (with 95 percent curcuminoids). As always, check with your doctor first.
- Eat more magnesium-rich foods. Magnesium is another anti-inflammatory badass which helps to lower the worst LDL cholesterol (study). You’ll want to aim for 400 mg per day in your diet to experience the positive effects. But, it’s recommended that you increase your intake slowly to avoid the scoots (diarrhea). One cup of spinach plus 1/4 cup of pumpkin seeds is all you need to hit the magic 400. Other great sources include Swiss chard, beet greens, almonds, avocado, black beans, figs, dark chocolate and bananas.
- Up your soluble fiber. Soluble fiber absorbs liquid in your digestive tract. So when you eat soluble fiber (chia and flax are the best sources), less LDL ends up floating around in your body. Our dietitian has seen her patients lower their LDL cholesterol levels by adding just 2 tablespoons of chia seeds to their diets every day. Hint: Chia seeds can be ground in a coffee bean grinder so they don’t get stuck in your teeth (not cute). Enjoy them in smoothies, puddings, salad dressings, oatmeal and even applesauce. Other great sources of soluble fiber include strawberries, beans, lentils and oats. For more fiber info, check my blog here.
- Take 1000mg omega-3’s daily (or ensure through foods). The essential fatty acids found in Omega-3’s can help raise good HDL cholesterol and lower bad LDL cholesterol. Consider taking a supplement if you’re not able to get enough Omega-3’s in your diet through flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds or walnuts (learn more in my healthy fats blog here).
To make these tips even easier for you, I created a handy chart with my top 5 recipe substitutions for lowering cholesterol below.