If you knew there was a heart attack or stroke in your future, and there was something you could do to minimise the chance of that happening, would you do it? Having a heart attack or stroke isn’t something anyone wants to happen, that’s for sure.
Keeping a check on your cholesterol levels is one way to diminish your risk. Getting your cholesterol checked isn’t the sexiest or most exciting thing to do, but knowing your levels could help decrease the risk of a life-changing health crisis.
My recent experience
I recently went to my GP for an unrelated issue, and while I was there, she suggested we do the regular blood tests and check everything that needs to be checked. A few days later, having fasted before the test, I went along to the local pathology centre and had the blood taken. I stared at the picture on the wall as she inserted the needle, as I still hate needles, no matter how many I’ve had!
I didn’t think any more of it until, a few days later, I received a text message asking me to make a follow-up appointment regarding the results. Having never received a call back before, I was a little concerned and my mind started to catastrophise on what the doctor would say. Much to my relief, the issue was that my cholesterol is a little higher than it should be. Thankfully, it’s not high enough for me to go on medication (yet), but my GP and I had a frank chat about diet and exercise.
My cholesterol has been on the high side in the past, but I managed to lower it by improving my diet and increasing my exercise. For the past year, I’ve been a Weight Watchers coach, giving me a stronger focus on diet and exercise, so I have to say I was rather surprised by my latest high cholesterol reading.
How do our cholesterol levels work?
Our cholesterol reading is made up of a combination of figures which gauge both “good” and “bad” cholesterol levels in our blood. To have an ideal overall reading, that is less than 5.5 mmol/L of blood, we need to have higher levels of the good cholesterol, which is called high-density lipoprotein or HDL, as well as a lower number for our “bad” cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein or LDL. Unfortunately, my HDL levels are a little low and my LDL levels are slightly higher than the desirable level.
While my reading isn’t at a crisis point yet, I want to do my best to keep things in check so that I don’t have to go on lifelong medication.
So I returned home to undertake some research to determine what I need to eat more of, what I need to eat less of and the specific types of exercise required to achieve this goal. I already walk 5-6 mornings each week, but apparently, that isn’t cutting it when combined with my age, weight and family history of heart disease.
Here’s what my research into lowering cholesterol without medication revealed…
From Pritikin Longevity Centre:
- Limit foods which are high in saturated fats, trans fats and dietary cholesterol – such as butter, fatty red meat, full-fat and low-fat dairy products, palm oil and coconut oil. The main dietary sources of cholesterol include egg yolks, organ meats and shellfish.
- Omega-3 fatty acids protect against heart disease and can be found in salmon, mackerel, halibut, trout, herring and sardines – Eat these at least twice per week
- 2 serves of non-fat dairy foods are suggested each day
- Limit red meat due to its high levels of saturated fat, and select cuts that are under 30% fat
- Increase intake of fibre-rich foods such as beans, oats, barley, fruits and vegetables
- Choose protein-rich plant foods over meat, e.g. legumes, beans, nuts and seeds
- Lose as much excess weight as possible – it has a multitude of positive effects
- Take plant sterol supplements – 1 to 2 grams per day
- Take psyllium husks as soluble fibre – Approx. 3 teaspoons per day
From the Australian Heart Foundation:
The Heart Foundation suggests we ensure there our diet contains the “good fats” – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, which help balance out the cholesterol levels in our blood. Polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fats, which lower heart attack risk by lowering your heart rate and improving heart rhythm, decreasing the risk of clotting, lowering triglycerides, reducing blood pressure, improving blood vessel function and delaying the build-up of plaque in coronary arteries.
The following foods contain monounsaturated fat:
- Almonds, cashews and peanuts
- Plant-based cooking oils such as canola, olive, peanut, soybean, rice bran, sesame and sunflower oils
Good sources of polyunsaturated fat (omega-3 and omega-6):
- Tahini (sesame seed spread)
- Chia seeds
- Soybean, sunflower, safflower, canola oil + margarine spreads made from these oils
- Pine nuts, walnuts and brazil nuts
The Heart Foundation recommends including omega-3 from marine, plant and animals sources in your diet.
Incorporating more of the healthy fats in your diet can be achieved by eating 2-3 serves of fish, using nuts and seeds in your breakfast, eating a handful of unsalted nut as a healthy snack, replacing butter with plant-based oils, margarine, tahini, nut butter or avocado in cooking, on sandwiches and toast, selecting wholegrain bread containing linseeds, and adding good fats to your main meals by using avocado, pine nuts or sesame seeds with salads, vegetables and stir-fries.
Something which the Heart Foundation recommends we avoid are both saturated fats and trans fats.
Saturated fats are mostly found in the visible fat on meat and chicken, in dairy products, palm oil, coconut oil, as well as processed foods such as biscuits, pastries and takeaway foods which contain butter, palm oil, cheese and meat. The Heart Foundation recommends we derive only 7% of our energy from saturated fats, but Australians currently obtain around 12% of our energy from this source, which is roughly 70% more than we need. Yikes!
Trans fats are an undesirable fat which can be found in foods using partially hydrogenated vegetable fats, such as deep-fried foods, biscuits, pastries and cakes. In order to maintain good heart health, the Foundation recommends that less than 1% of our total energy comes from trans fat.
Where your fats come from:
|Sources of saturated and/or trans fat||Sources of unsaturated fat|
|Processed meat (like sausages, burgers and salami)
Fatty or fried take-away foods
Packaged cakes and biscuits
Hard and full fat soft cheeses
Full fat dairy products
Fat on meats
Oils made from olives, nuts and seeds (like olive oil, canola, sunflower, safflower)
Lean meats and poultry, eggs
Margarine spreads (both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated)
Source: Heart Foundation - https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/healthy-eating/food-and-nutrition/fats-and-cholesterol/replace-unhealthy-fats-with-healthy-fats
From Harvard University:
A recently updated article from Harvard University states that if your diet gave you high cholesterol, it can also help you to lower your cholesterol. The article claims this can be achieved by adding foods that lower LDL and cutting back on foods which raise the body’s LDL levels.
It is suggested that the following foods, which are high in either soluble fibre, polyunsaturated fats or plant sterols and stanols, which block cholesterol absorption in the body. The foods are: Oats, barley, wholegrains, beans, eggplant, okra, nuts such as almonds, walnuts, peanuts, vegetable oils, apples, grapes, strawberries, citrus fruits, foods fortified with sterols and stanols, soy, fatty fish and fibre supplements.
At the same time, and in agreement with the Heart Foundation and Pritikin, the study states it is vital to cut back, or preferably eliminate, saturated-fat-rich foods and trans fats. Harvard also recommends losing weight (if needed) and increasing exercise, as excess weight boosts harmful LDL while inactivity depresses the protective HDL.
In conclusion, it was great to find these experts agreeing on most points about lowering cholesterol levels. While my diet has been pretty good recently, there are always ways to improve it, and these tips have spurred me on to incorporate more healthy fats and a little more varied exercise in my daily routine. I’ll update you on my progress once I go back for my next round of test later in the year. Only time will tell whether my cholesterol reading can be lowered with diet and exercise.
Please note: This blog post does not constitute medical advice. If you have any health concerns, you should consult your local healthcare professional.
Do you have high cholesterol? If you’ve been successful in lowering your cholesterol levels through diet and exercise, what are your top tips?
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