The dietary considerations for health involve not only cholesterol but also the nature and amount of fatty acids, carbohydrates (simple sugars and starches). The total energy consumed is also important.
There are two types of cholesterol-carrying particles of major interest for vascular disease: LDL (low density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein). The LDL is the ‘bad’ cholesterol as its concentration is associated with higher risk of disease, against which the HDL is thought to reflect the removal from your bloodstream, making it the ‘good’ cholesterol.
Here are some quick tips on what you can do to make your diet heart-healthy, and get your cholesterol levels down:
• Eat fewer foods with saturated and trans fats. Saturated fat comes mostly from animal products, and is solid at room temperature. This would include butter and the fat on meat. Trans fats are created when oils are partially hydrogenated (a process that turns liquid fats into solids, such as in the case of margarine). Foods to avoid would include full-cream dairy products, hard margarines, butter, fatty meat, processed meats such as sausages, and coconut and palm oils.
• Eat more mono-unsaturated fatty acids. These are high in calories, so don’t overdo it. In this category are avocadoes and olive oil. These should preferably replace other fat in the diet and may be increased even further provided there is no weight gain and that other essential foodstuffs are not displaced from the diet.
• Check food labels. Many processed and baked products contain undesirable amounts of fat, but it isn’t obvious to the average consumer. Get into the habit of checking the ingredients in products such as chocolate, sweets, cakes, desserts, biscuits and baked goods. Many pre-prepared foods and processed meats contain significant amounts of fat and also high sodium levels. The latter can increase your blood pressure.
• Eat more foods with omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids can help reduce blood pressure, thereby reducing your chances of developing blood clots, and benefiting heart health in general. They may also influence mood and brain function favourably. Fatty fish, such as mackerel, herring, sardines and salmon are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and it is recommended that you eat these twice a week.
• Add nuts to your diet. Although nuts are high in calories, many of them can improve blood cholesterol and keep your blood vessels healthy. Eat just over 40 grams of nuts per day – recommended are walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pecans, pistachio nuts and hazelnuts, but do make sure they are not salted or coated with sugar.
• Eat more plant-based foods. These are low in (saturated) fat, provide fibre for the bowel, and anti-oxidants. On the list nutritionists recommend are oat bran, oat porridge and cereals, barley, beans, chickpeas, kidney beans and split peas, aubergines, citrus fruits, soya beans, other soya-based foods, broccoli, apples, strawberries, mangoes and sweet potatoes. Plant sterols and stanols are naturally found in many of the foods mentioned above, and have the ability to lower cholesterol.
• Reduce intake of simple sugars. By sweetening foods the simple sugars often lead to significant increases in consumption, increased storage of energy in adipose tissue and also affect the production of fat in the liver. Though the effect on blood cholesterol may be small, there are measurable increases in blood triglyceride and decreases in HDL cholesterol. Furthermore, obesity predisposes to the development of diabetes.