Women's Heart Advisor January 2012 Issue

Explore Innovative Ways to Improve Your Cholesterol

Lipid management begins with diet. Here’s how you can start.

So your cholesterol is high, and your doctor wants you to try natural methods to lower it before prescribing a statin. High cholesterol is a major risk factor for coronary artery disease (CAD), because the body deposits extra cholesterol in the arteries, forming plaques that can rupture, causing a heart attack.

A diet featuring healthy oils, whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as lean proteins, can help lower your cholesterol.

Fortunately, high cholesterol can be modified—unlike other major risk factors such as your gender and family history of heart disease. And the benefits can be lifesaving: Lowering your cholesterol by one percent lowers your risk of heart disease by two percent. And it doesn’t take much to make a difference. Here are some things you can try.

Eat More Vegetables And...
Foods that are high in saturated fat, such as meat and full-fat dairy products, can raise cholesterol levels. So it seems logical that eating less of these foods would cause cholesterol levels to drop. And they will—but not as much as you would think. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on August 24/31, 2011, a diet lower in saturated fat caused LDL cholesterol to drop only three percent.

What about a vegan diet that eliminates all meat and dairy products? While it’s true that vegan diets are very low in cholesterol, low in fats and high in fiber—all of which help to reduce LDL—such diets are difficult for most people to follow, and they may be unnecessary.

The easiest and most logical way to lower cholesterol is to eat a predominantly vegetarian diet that also contains large amounts of cholesterol-lowering foods, such as almonds, soy and barley. In the JAMA study mentioned above, patients following this type of diet saw their LDL drop 14 percent in six months. In other studies of a similar diet called the Portfolio Diet, LDL levels fell an astounding 30 percent. The Portfolio diet also includes plant-sterol margarine, over-the-counter psyllium and fruit.

Look for Alternative Protein Sources
Many vegetarians rely on eggs for protein, but egg yolks are high in dietary cholesterol. If you have high cholesterol, limit your egg consumption to three or four per week.  Egg whites and liquid egg substitute are tasty cholesterol-free alternatives. 

Legumes such as cannellini beans and kidney beans are wonderful sources of plant protein. Rich in cholesterol-lowering dietary fiber, antioxidants and other heart-healthy nutrients, they should play a leading role in your meals on a regular basis.

Fish and shellfish are also excellent sources of protein, as well as heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Take Care with Carbs
We need carbohydrates for energy, but unless you are an athlete, you don’t need as much as you think. Limit your intake of simple carbs to less than 5 percent of your daily calories by remembering this: if it’s white, don’t eat it. That means no white flour, sugar, potatoes or rice. Instead, make sure 50 percent of your calories come from complex carbs, such as whole grain bread and pasta, brown rice, oatmeal or oat brain cereal, and vegetables. Lots of vegetables.

Eat More Fiber
Soluble fiber can help reduce cholesterol. The average U.S. diet does not contain the recommended 20-30 grams of soluble and insoluble fiber daily. Good sources of soluble fiber include oatmeal, oat bran, barley, legumes, psyllium and most fruits.

Watch Your Oil Intake
Like vegan diets, fat-free diets are very hard to manage in today’s world. The good news is that monosaturated fats from olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, nuts, seeds and avocados do not increase blood cholesterol levels. Sunflower oil has been shown to lower LDL up to five percent, while raising levels of “good” HDL cholesterol more than 12 percent.  Snack on a handful of nuts and add avocado to salads and sandwiches. Just remember that while a little monosaturated fat is good, more is not better: fats have more than twice the number of calories as proteins and carbs.

Move It
Finally, cholesterol lowering is boosted by exercise, and it doesn’t take much to produce big benefits. Research shows that even small amount of exercise–less than 30 minutes a day—can reduce the risk of heart disease by about 14 percent. Best of all, you’ll get the biggest benefit from low-impact exercise, so get out there and walk away your cholesterol.