Author: Rosetta Danigole, Lead Dietitian at University Medical Center New Orleans
September is National Cholesterol Education Month, a good time to consider food and lifestyle choices that benefit your health and prevent illness like heart disease.
For a long time, dietary cholesterol was considered a risk factor for heart disease. More recent recommendations suggest foods high in dietary cholesterol and low in saturated fats – foods like eggs, shellfish and liver – are acceptable and not of as great a concern as once thought in increasing cholesterol levels for most of the population. Keep in mind, however, that saturated fats – those fats found in animal products and solid fats, such as red meat and butter – are still considered to raise cholesterol levels.
Nutrition is an emerging science and dietary recommendations may change, but there are some tried and true guidelines:
A healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits and whole grains, low or nonfat dairy, seafood, legumes and nuts.
It is moderate in alcohol and lower in red and processed meat and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.
More studies show it is not only about the cholesterol numbers. It’s about the inflammatory process associated with disease.
In order to reduce inflammation and reduce the damage caused by oxidative stress and the negative effects of so-called “bad cholesterol,” here are some dietary tips:
- Fruits and vegetables: At least 4 to 5 cups a day.
- Nutrition Staff Tip: Try to make it 3 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit for reduced sugar and calories.
- Fish (preferably oily fish, like salmon): At least two 3.5-ounce servings a week.
- Nutrition Staff Tip: While eating tilapia, for instance, is a good choice, the oily fish has more benefits — try it twice per week.
- Fiber-rich whole grains: At least three 1-ounce servings a day.
- Nutrition Staff Tip: Breakfast is a great time to get this one in. Try oatmeal instead of grits this month — but go easy on the brown sugar.
- Nuts, legumes and seeds: At least 4 servings a week, opting for unsalted varieties whenever possible
- Nutrition Staff Tip: Keep this as your snack daily — you only need a small handful. Portion it out when you get home and make 4-5 small bags per week so you won’t forget!
Other dietary measures:
- Sodium: Less than 1,500 mg a day.
- Remember: One teaspoon of salt contains 2,400 mg if sodium per day. Processed food is packed with sodium, so avoid processed foods and the salt shaker. Read labels!
- Sugar-sweetened beverages: Excessive sugar is very inflammatory. Avoid if at all possible. Drink water and herbal tea instead. Natural sweeteners such as Stevia seem to be a good choice.
- Processed meats: Most people should try to avoid this altogether. We suggest peanut butter, fresh tuna and chicken salad sandwiches with olive oil mayonnaise, and grilled chicken sandwiches to name some options. Also, there are other options such as bean burgers and hummus burgers if you want to try something new and vegetarian.
- Saturated fat: The American Heart Association continues to recommend no more than 7% of your fat intake come from saturated fats. Trans fats have been of special concern over the last few years. Read your labels and be aware that anything that is a commercially baked good has the potential of some trans fats.
NOTE: Having a cholesterol level that is very low also has potential negative effects and may increase risk of dementia, autoimmune disorders and infections.
Try not to focus on the numbers. Focus on healthy lifestyles, healthy diet and exercise. Epidemiological data reveals that cardiovascular disease occurs within people who have low, normal and high cholesterol. The implication from this is that total cholesterol is not the only marker for the assessment of cardiovascular risk.