February marks Heart Month, a time when the Heart and Stroke Foundation will be urging all Canadians to take inventory of their personal risk factors for heart disease. It’s estimated that 8 out of 10 Canadians have at least one risk factor for heart disease, including high LDL (bad) cholesterol.
If you’ve been told your cholesterol is on the high side, it’s important to take steps now to bring your number down. Research suggests the longer it stays elevated in your 30’s and 40’s, the greater the risk of having heart disease when you’re older.
Excess LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream can lead to plaque growth and hardening and narrowing of the arteries. Cholesterol does its damage to arteries over time; the longer you wait to treat it the more damage occurs.
A heart-healthy diet – along with regular exercise and smoking cessation – is the cornerstone of heart disease prevention. Even if you take a cholesterol-lowering statin drug, what you eat matters. A heart smart diet can enhance the drug’s cholesterol-lowering effect, counter inflammation and help keep blood pressure, blood sugar and body weight in check.
What you eat – and don’t eat – can help bring blood cholesterol under control. Even if you don’t have elevated cholesterol, the following foods help pave the way for heart health.
What to eat more of:
Eggplant and okra. These low calorie vegetables do double duty when it comes to heart health: they provide blood pressure-regulating potassium and both are good sources of soluble fibre, the type that lowers LDL cholesterol.
Fatty fish. Salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines are packed with DHA and EPA, omega-3 fatty acids that can lower elevated triglycerides (blood fats) and reduce inflammation. To help lower your risk of heart disease, include 6 to 12 ounces of fatty fish in your diet each week.
If you don’t like fish, consider taking a fish oil capsule providing 500 milligrams of DHA + EPA combined. DHA supplements made from algae are available for vegans.
Green tea. Drinking two to five cups of green tea per day has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol without touching good, HDL cholesterol. Antioxidants in green tea are thought to block the absorption of dietary cholesterol and hamper the liver’s ability to make cholesterol.
Oatmeal. This whole grain cereal is an excellent source of cholesterol-lowering soluble fibre. 1.5 cups of cooked oats serves up three grams of soluble fibre, the amount needed to cut LDL cholesterol.
Other foods to boost soluble fibre at breakfast: cooked oat bran (1 cup = 3 g) and psyllium-enriched breakfast cereals (e.g. 1/2 cup Nature’s Path Smart Bran = 3 g).
Olive oil. High in monounsaturated fat (it outranks all other cooking oils), olive oil helps lower LDL cholesterol when substituted for saturated and trans fats. Extra virgin olive oil also contains phytochemicals thought to help dilate blood vessels, prevent blood clots and decrease inflammation in the body.
Tofu and edamame. Eating foods rich in soy protein, like tofu and edamame, help lower LDL cholesterol, especially when they’re part of a diet that also includes nuts and foods high in soluble fibre. These soy foods are also naturally low in cholesterol-raising saturated fat.
Walnuts. While all types of nuts have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol (and blood pressure), walnuts stand out. They’re rich in antioxidants and, unlike other nuts, they deliver alpha linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid thought to guard against Type 2 diabetes. One serving (14 halves) provides more than a day’s worth of ALA.
What to eat (a lot) less of:
Saturated and trans fats. It’s clear-cut that a steady intake of saturated and trans fats can raise LDL cholesterol. Worse, trans fats, found in many commercial baked goods, snack foods, deep-fried foods and certain margarines, also decrease good, HDL cholesterol.
Choose lean cuts of meat (e.g. sirloin, tenderloin, flank steak), poultry breast and low fat dairy products (1% milk fat or less). Read nutrition labels: choose foods with zero trans fat. Foods with a daily value (DV) of less than 10% for saturated + trans fats are considered low in these fats.
Added sugars. Consuming too much sugar is tied to a greater risk of dying from heart disease. Excess sugar lowers good, HDL cholesterol, raises blood triglycerides and can lead to weight gain.
Limit added sugar intake to 5 per cent of your daily calories – about 100 calories (25 g sugar) for women and 150 calories (37 g) for men. Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages and limit your intake of cakes, cookies, pastries and candy. Read ingredient lists on packaged foods to choose products lower in added sugars.