Protect Your Heart from High Cholesterol & Heart Disease

Wednesday, October 4, 2006 - 2:16pm

By Michèle Turcotte, MS, RD/LDN

A waxy substance manufactured in the liver and supplied by the diet, cholesterol is a necessity for the body, helping:

  • Insulate nerves
  • Make cell membranes
  • Produce certain hormones.

Your body naturally produces enough cholesterol to meet these needs.

Risks associated with high cholesterol

High cholesterol is a leading risk factor for heart disease. Excess cholesterol in the bloodstream can form plaque in artery walls. This plaque causes arteries to become thicker, harder, and less flexible. Eventually, cholesterol will slow down or even stop the blood flow to the heart. When cholesterol becomes so thick that it blocks the flow of blood completely, a clot may form, which results in a heart attack.

Different types of cholesterol

You have probably heard of total cholesterol, but may not have been aware that there are different kinds of cholesterol. High Density Lipoprotein (HDL), also know as good cholesterol, carries fats safely out of your body. Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL), or bad cholesterol, allows fatty plaque to build up in the arteries.

Ideally, your total cholesterol reading should be approximately 200mg/dl, with an HDL of over 35mg/dl, and a LDL of 160mg/dl or lower. A high total cholesterol of over 240mg/dl may indicate that there is too much LDL in your blood. Fortunately, high cholesterol is a risk factor you can control by eating plenty of low-fat, high fiber, cholesterol-lowering foods.

Foods that contain cholesterol

Although only animal products contain cholesterol, many crackers, margarines, chips, and baked goods may contain animal products. To avoid cholesterol, make sure the label reads cholesterol free. However, you must keep in mind that just because the label says that, it does not mean the product cannot elevate your cholesterol. Dietary fats (both saturated fats and trans-fats) and refined carbohydrates (i.e. simple sugars) are the main culprits in elevating total blood cholesterol.

A quarter of most Americans' diets include refined carbohydrates, which are found in white rice, candy, soda, crackers, and white bread. Refine carbohydrates:

  • Lower HDL cholesterol
  • Raise fat in the blood (triglycerides)
  • Increase inflammatory factors in the blood.

Key ways to protect your heart

Heart-protective foods are those that are rich in fiber, especially soluble fiber, and which contain a variety of antioxidants. Consume a primarily plant-based diet. Particularly beneficial produce include:

  • Apples
  • Berries
  • Broccoli
  • Celery
  • Citrus fruits
  • Cranberries
  • Grapes
  • Green beans
  • Green, leafy vegetables
  • Kale
  • Onions
  • "Skin on" potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Tomatoes.

These fruits and vegetables increase good cholesterol and decrease plaque formation. The best grains are:

  • Bran cereals
  • Brown rice
  • Oats
  • Whole wheat bread (more than 2 grams of fiber per slice).

By eating more legumes, such as beans and lentils, you can decrease your cholesterol in just a few short weeks.

Good protein foods include:

  • Beans
  • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna and halibut)
  • Skinless white-meat poultry
  • Very lean meats.

Choose fats and oils with less than 2 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, such as margarine, canola oil, and olive oil. Limit foods high in saturated fat, trans fat and, cholesterol, such as full-fat milk products, fatty meats, tropical oils and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Remember, too, that it is important to control your weight. Balance the number of calories you eat with the number you burn each day.* To do this effectively, maintain a level of physical activity that keeps you fit. An adequate amount of exercise can be accomplished by walking or doing other activities for at least 30 minutes on most days.

*Multiply the number of pounds you weigh now by 15 calories. This represents the average number of calories used in 1 day if you're moderately active.