Research shows that more than 5.5 million South Africans are at risk for disease due to their high cholesterol levels. Are you one of them?
Then you might be interested to know that certain foods can be particularly useful in controlling your cholesterol levels. We did the legwork for you and listed them here.
Note that these foods are arranged in random order, and that being listed first doesn't mean that the specific food or food group is superior to any of the others. Also keep in mind that it's essential to always follow a varied diet that contains foods from all the different food groups.
1) Olive oil and olive products
Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E. Research has shown that foods with a high monounsaturated fatty acid content lower "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and increase 'good' high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
Anyone with raised cholesterol levels needs to increase his HDL cholesterol and lower his LDL cholesterol levels, which olive oil and products made of olives, will promote.
Have one or two tablespoons of olive oil a day over salads or use for cooking, and add some olives to your salads. Keep an eye open for margarine made from olive oil as this also has the benefit of a high monounsaturated fatty acid content.
2) Polyunsaturated, 'lite' and Flora 'pro-activ' margarine
Soft or tub margarine with a high polyunsaturated fatty acid content will also help to lower LDL cholesterol.
Then there are the 'lite' margarines, which have a reduced fat, energy and salt content – all factors that can contribute to heart health.
Flora 'pro-activ' margarine has been specifically developed to lower LDL cholesterol by up to 25% if you use it every day. This type of margarine contains added plant sterols that prevent the uptake of fats from the diet and lower blood fat levels. You can use this margarine to replace butter or other types of margarine on bread and cooked vegetables.
Legumes include dry, cooked or canned beans, lentils, peas and all the soya products (cooked or canned soya beans, soya mince, cubes, milk, tofu and tempeh).
Legumes have a high dietary fibre content and are rich in protective nutrients, including minerals, B vitamins and phytonutrients. These nutrients protect the heart and the dietary fibre content lowers cholesterol and energy intake.
Legumes are also naturally low in fat and don't contain any cholesterol. On top of this, they have a low glycaemic index (GI). The South African Food-based Dietary Guidelines recommend that we should eat dry beans, peas, lentils and soya regularly.
Make an effort to eat legumes at least three to four times a week, ideally every day.
4) Fat-free yoghurt and other fat-free dairy products
Full-cream dairy products and most cheeses have a high saturated fat content and need to be avoided if you have raised cholesterol levels.
However, this doesn't mean that you should cut out this food group altogether. Cutting out dairy products will deprive you of calcium, a mineral that's essential for the healthy functioning of the heart and many other important roles in the human body, such as the prevention of osteoporosis.
You can, however, use fat-free milk, yoghurt and cottage cheese in a low-cholesterol diet. Once the fat has been removed from a dairy product, it also removes practically all the cholesterol.
Fat-free yoghurt is a particularly good choice as it is rich in protein, calcium and Lactobacillus microorganisms which may help to lower blood cholesterol levels.
5) Antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables
All fruits and vegetables can help to lower cholesterol and protect the heart. Two groups are particularly useful, namely those fruits and vegetables that are rich in vitamin C, or rich in beta-carotene.
a) Vitamin C
Foods rich in vitamin C include all the citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, lemons and naartjies), all berry fruits (cranberry, strawberry, blackberry etc), guava, spanspek, mango, the entire cabbage family (green and Chinese cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts), as well as sweet and chilli peppers.
Foods rich in beta-carotene include all dark yellow fruits (apricots, yellow peaches, spanspek and mango) and vegetables (pumpkin, sweet potatoes, butternut, carrots) and all dark green vegetables (broccoli, cabbage and spinach).
If you have heart disease or raised cholesterol levels, make sure you get your five portions of fruit and vegetables per day.
6) Garlic and other members of the onion family
Garlic has been used for centuries to promote good health. Research shows that members of the allium family, such as garlic, spring onions and other onions, can be used to lower cholesterol and protect the heart. Use garlic liberally in cooking and on fresh salads.
Researchers believe that the high garlic content of the so-called Mediterranean diet is one of the factors that make this diet so heart-friendly.
7) Whole, unsifted or unprocessed grains
All unsifted and unprocessed grains and cereals, and the foods produced from unmilled flour, are rich in B vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre (both soluble and insoluble), but low in fat and cholesterol.
Grains and cereals made of unprocessed wheat (wholewheat and seed bread, crackers, high-bran cereals) help to ensure regularity because they have a high insoluble fibre content. On the other hand, oats and oat bran have a high soluble fibre content which can actively lower blood cholesterol levels.
Have a bowl of oats or muesli, which contains raw oats, every day to keep your cholesterol in check.
Researchers have discovered that people who eat fish three or more times a week are less likely to suffer from heart disease and high blood pressure. This is primarily due to the high omega-3 fatty acid content of fish.
The best fish sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fatty fish like salmon, tuna, trout and sardines, but eating any type of fish will benefit your heart.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce atherosclerosis, ventricular arrhythmias, blood fats, atherosclerotic plaques and blood pressure – all good reasons for eating fish regularly.
9) Venison and ostrich
South Africans are known for their love of meat, and many people who need to follow a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet are horrified by the restrictions on eating red meat.
You can, however, eat moderate portions of venison and ostrich on a low-cholesterol diet, because these meats are low in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Just make sure that you don't add large quantities of fat to the meat during preparation and cooking.
The present boom in our ostrich industry is due to the fact that this meat is so low in cholesterol that it has become a popular item on the menus of health-conscious people all over the world.
10) Omega-3-enriched foods
As mentioned before, the omega-3 fatty acids can play a significant role in helping to reduce the risk of high cholesterol levels. Unfortunately, modern Western diets don't contain sufficient omega-3 to meet our needs.
Some food manufacturers have taken this to heart and now produce standard foods that are enriched with omega-3 fatty acids. In South Africa, you can purchase milk, eggs and bread that are enriched with omega-3. You may have to hunt around, but you should be able to find these products in most large supermarkets.
The eggs in particular can make a difference. The rule for egg intake is that anyone with heart problems should not eat more than four eggs a week. So make sure that if you eat eggs, they are omega-3 enriched, because the increased levels of omega-3 balance out the high cholesterol content of the eggs.
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Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com.