September was cholesterol awareness month and it is my fault that I did not blog about this topic during September, so I apologize Head to Toe readers for my late entry on this important topic. However, its never the wrong time to discuss heart health; during this month I spoke with a lot of clients about how to lower their cholesterol levels, we went over the basics and the things most of you out there I am sure already know. I would think to myself each time I said out loud foods to avoid, that I really should make sure I avoid these foods as well. But, it wasn’t until my work had a free cholesterol-screening event that I had a scary wake up call. Yes, even dietitians have high cholesterol! Mine happens to be hereditary, but it is still a level that is high and no excuse to not eat the best I possibly can to prevent any worsening levels. So for me, that means no more butter at restaurants (I don’t have it at home, so why eat it when I am out!?), way less shrimp, no more egg yolks at all and more than moderation when it comes to full fat ice cream. Dad, I hope you are reading this and will plan to join me in these journey since…cough, cough, I said it was hereditary and of course Mom’s cholesterol is fantastic (Ps I love you!).
Number one, it is important to be aware of what your levels are and more important to be aware of how to control them. I hear a lot of people tell me, “I don’t get my levels checked because I am afraid of what they will be.” This is just stupid people, and I will leave it at that.
It is also important to know the risk factors. Family genetics being one of them. If you have any history of heart health in your family make sure you are extra cautious, and again know your numbers.
So here comes the lesson. I don’t think many people even realize what cholesterol is and why there are different types of it. So lets start with, what is cholesterol?
(For any other questions and more definitions and explanations on heart health please refer to the American Heart Association’s website at www.heart.org)
So, cholesterol is a waxy substance found naturally in the bloodstream and cells. Our bodies actually create and use cholesterol to keep us healthy as it is needed for a number of bodily functions. As per the AHA, “Your liver and other cells in your body make about 75 percent of blood cholesterol. The other 25 percent comes from the foods you eat. Cholesterol is only found in animal products.”
Our HDL levels are our, “good” cholesterol levels and a high or healthy level of HDLs in our bodies can actually help prevent heart attacks.
What you may ask will help increase your HDL levels?? The answer is plain and simple, exercise. Studies show 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise weekly can help increase these HDL levels (or a combination of the two).
Now, our LDL levels are produced in our bodies, and if we have a family history of heart disease, our bodies may be over producing LDL. Eating a diet low in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol is really important to prevent increasing LDL levels. Unfortunately, even if you eat very, very well and you do exercise, if you have a family history of this disease diet and lifestyle changes may not be enough. Please, please, please work with your doctors and dietitian’s to find some personalized solutions.
What are the other risk factors?
Multiple factors determine our total cholesterol levels and more than just what we eat and who are parents are actually determines what our numbers are. Risk factors that all play a role in determining our cholesterol level include, diet, heredity, weight, physical activity, age, sex, alcohol intake and stress. In addition to this, smoking can also play a role. Some of these, we simply cannot change. However, the ones we can, we need to start taking seriously.
What changes can I make?
As per the American Heart Association, to help you lower your total cholesterol, blood pressure, and LDL levels while at the same time increasing your HDL or good levels you can do the following:
- Choose low fat foods when you have the option. Look on your food labels for foods low in saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol levels. (Ok and sodium too while you’re at it)
- Tips for label reading: even if the nutrition label states, “Trans Fat Free,” read the ingredient list. If there is hydrogenated anything or partially hydrogenated anything in that product, put it down. You would be surprised where you may find these words. Avoid them.
- Egg yolks: these puppies are highly debated in the health world, and we are not going to get into all of that, however, what I will get into is the amount of cholesterol they contain. One egg yolk on average contains roughly 212 mg of cholesterol, with your recommendation for a low cholesterol diet being 200 mg of cholesterol per day. Need I say more? Order egg whites.
- Get your exercise on! We talked about this earlier, but it is so important and it doesn’t need to be that hard. The best part about this recommendation is that you can break up your exercise. 30 minutes can be broken up into 10-minute sessions three times. Three cardio exercise sessions (where you are raising your heart rate) a day is just as fabulous as one all out 30-minute cardio sesh. Just do what you have to do to fit it into you day.
- If you are overweight, start with shedding those extra pounds. This can do wonders for your heart and overall health.
- Watch your alcohol intake, in general the recommendation is for 1 drink per night. Now if you skip a night that doesn’t mean these drinks roll over like vacation days. One drink per night. Bottom line.
- Stop smoking (and don’t start if you don’t already smoke!)
- If you have high blood pressure or Diabetes, make sure you are keeping these under control and you are keeping an eye on your levels. All of your levels.
Now some of the best foods that are good for your heart are…..Beans! These high fiber, cholesterol free little miracles can be your main source of protein at your meal, a snack or a side dish. If you don’t already, learn to love them. Since I bored you to death above, I have included some of my favorite new bean recipes below. But please, I hope you learned at least one thing from the above. Please take your heart health seriously and go get your levels checked! Thanks for listening.
White Bean, Basil Dip
Perfect as a dip or a side dish, maybe even a topper to some grilled chicken J
(yield: at least 8 Servings)
- 1 cup Cannellini Beans
- 1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1/8 cup Garlic
- 1/8 cup Lemon Juice
- Sprinkle in Cayenne Pepper (preference)
- Chopped Basil Leaves
Blend and enjoy.
Chick Pea Side Salad:
Serves ~4-6 -
- 3 cups grape tomatoes (chopped)
- 1 cup diced peppers
- 1 cup chick-peas (canned chick peas/garbanzo beans)
- 3/4 cup red onion (chopped)
- Basil Leaves (diced)
- 1 1/2 tbsps white wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
- 1 tbsp Agave nectar (optional)
Mix together veggies and chick peas. Whisk together your vinegars and oil. Eat up.
- Jenna A. Stock, RD