Take advice - not cholesterol - to heart this September

  • Published
  • By Ellen Harris
  • Health and Wellness Center Nutrition Program Manager
Editor's Note: Ellen Harris is a registered dietitian, a licensed dietitian and nutritionist, and has her master's in education. She writes to remind the Hanscom community that September is National Cholesterol Month and to use the tips she provides as steps toward a healthier life. Contact her at the Health and Wellness Center at ellen.harris.ctr@hanscom.af.mil or (781) 377-6560. 

Cardiovascular disease is one of the most serious health problems of our time, but also one of the most preventable. Fortunately, the body's cholesterol level can be a major predictor of potential risk for cardiovascular diseases like heart disease, stroke and hardening of the arteries. 

While cholesterol is commonly associated with elements we shouldn't put into our body, it is actually essential to human life, in moderation. The fat-like substance found in all cell membranes is produced in the liver and can also enter the body by means of foods high in saturated fat. It is transformed into vitamin D, bile, and steroid hormones (including estrogen, testosterone, adrenaline, and cortisol). 

It is the excess of cholesterol which can contribute to cardiovascular problems. Here are four keys to improve your cholesterol levels: 

1. Eat more plant-based foods rather than animal-based. All foods of plant origin are cholesterol-free. 

2. Eat foods as close to their natural states as possible. Too many refined carbohydrates -- such as in sweets like juice and refined grain in white bread -- and a surplus of alcohol, can raise the level of triglycerides. While triglycerides are the most common type of fat in the body, they can cause health problems when consumed in excess. Here's how to limit them: 

- Limit dietary cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol comes only from animal sources, especially organ meats and egg yolks, and also meats and poultry. The amount of cholesterol we get from our food is believed to be less important than the types of fats we eat; however, it can be critical in some health conditions, particularly heart disease. Consume smaller amounts of meat and dairy, making those servings lean cuts of meats, poultry without skin, and reduced-fat dairy. Research suggests that if cattle are fed grass, their by-products will have a slightly healthier balance of fats, including some conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Limit eggs to an average of one per day, and choose those that are omega-3 enhanced. 

- Eat more fiber. Also known as roughage, animal products are void of fiber; only plants contain it. Some fiber binds with the undesirable Low-Density Lipoprotein (remember "bad cholesterol" by the L as in "lousy") and takes it back through the liver and out. Sources of this soluble type of fiber include citrus fruits, apples, legumes, oats and barley. However, all whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes (beans, peas and lentils) have healthy fiber. 

- Know the type of fat. Fats that come from plants and fish, which are polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, help create more High-Density Lipoprotein (remember "good cholesterol" by the H as in "happy"), which act as scavengers and escort the LDL back to the liver to be removed. Fish is recommended about twice a week, especially cold-water fish, including salmon, herring, sardines and tuna. (Cold water fish feed on blue-green algae which raise their level of healthy omega-3 fats). 

- Completely avoid bad fats. These are trans fats, which are usually found in packaged or fried foods, and saturated fats, found mostly in meat and dairy. They can contribute to inflammation, possibly blocking the arteries. 

- Fight inflammation. Inflammation is the body's natural reaction to irritation, injury, or infection. Our bodies react to excess - cholesterol included - with inflammation. In an ongoing or prolonged state, this can lead to the development of disease. Anti-oxidants and other chemicals from fish and plants, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and their oils, fight inflammation, which can delay or prevent the onset of disease or help heal inflammation. 

3. Quality and Quantity. The third key is having moderate or smaller portions. 

- Some Japanese from Okinawa who have lived to 100 years old have a saying, "Hara Hachi Bu," which translates to, "Eat only until you are 80-percent full." 

- The American Heart Association recommends that we limit our saturated fat intake to about 16 to 20 grams per day for a 2000-calorie daily average. The remainder of our fat intake should be predominantly of plant origin. 

4. Exercise. A fourth key to better health and healthier cholesterol levels is an active physical life.