Whether you’re 25 or 75, if you’ve just been diagnosed with high cholesterol, you may be wondering “now what?!”
First, don’t panic.
Lifestyle changes can help you get your cholesterol back in check and keep your heart healthy if your levels are good. For National Cholesterol Awareness Month, we explore a powerful lifestyle change at the end of your fork.
A Carb that Blocks Cholesterol? Hello Fiber!
Diet, exercise, and stress management are the three factors that influence cholesterol most, says Martin Milner, naturopath, and CEO and medical director of the Center for Natural Medicine. While we cannot change our family history or DNA, we can work on those three areas to improve our heart health and overall health!
Today, we’re focusing on dietary changes that can significantly affect your cholesterol levels. First though, do you understand cholesterol’s major role in the body, lipid profile parameters, and what levels are considered too high? Dr. Milner answers these questions and other questions most frequently asked about cholesterol in this article.
The article explains that 80% of the cholesterol in your blood is made by your liver and the rest comes from food. Since our livers make all the cholesterol we need, it’s easy to get an overabundance of cholesterol from food. Luckily, there’s a type of carbohydrate the body can’t digest that inhibits our absorption of cholesterol … fiber!
Soluble fiber in foods like legumes, oatmeal, nuts, beans, and lentils dissolves into a gel that collects fat, dietary cholesterol, bile salts, and sugar as it moves through the intestines. Instead of causing our bodies to make more cholesterol, these common culprits are excreted.
Fiber also helps remove excess cholesterol building blocks that our bodies don’t need for functions like making hormones, cell membranes, and vitamin D. Removing the excess means the cholesterol won’t land in our arteries.
Sneaking Fiber into Your Diet
How do you know if you’re eating enough fiber? Dr. Milner has an easy test. Make an “OK” sign with your thumb and pointer finger. If your stools are not that size, you’re not eating enough fiber, he says.
Daily, we need a minimum of 20 grams of fiber, both soluble (dissolves in water) and insoluble (doesn’t dissolve in water). Ideally, we’ll work up to eating 40 grams a day, Dr. Milner adds. Even if you have a plant-based diet, you may not be eating enough fiber.
He explains that a half cup of oats has only has four grams of fiber, so just eating more is not a viable solution. But we can supercharge our oats with flax or chia seeds, which have tons of fiber! A tablespoon of flaxseeds has two grams of fiber and a tablespoon of chia seeds, which are easier to digest, has four grams of fiber. Adding a tablespoon of ground chia seeds to your oats doubles the fiber. Many other nuts and seeds are also high in fiber. Check out this list for others to add to your breakfast, salads, and snacks.
Beware, fiber has been proven to reduce the absorption of drugs and nutrients, so Dr. Milner recommends you eat or take fiber on an empty stomach and wait an hour to take your supplements or your medications. If you take a morning medication, please wait an hour before eating your fiber, he adds.
Trick Your Liver with Plant Sterols & Stanols
Studies also show that plant stanols or sterols in food or supplements, taken with meals, can reduce cholesterol levels. Why? Dr. Milner explains that these plant cell membranes are similar in structure to cholesterol and trick your body into thinking it has enough cholesterol. Nuts and seeds have the highest sterols. You can get stanols and stanols from fruits, vegetables, bran, legumes, nuts, and cereals. Yogurt, spreads, milk and other foods are often fortified with these plant membranes.
“Plant sterols make your liver think your cholesterol levels are higher – so your liver doesn’t make as much cholesterol,” adds Dr. Milner.
Bye-Bye Saturated Fats; Welcome Lean Proteins
In addition to adding cholesterol-blocking nutrients to your diet, removing saturated fat is key. Less than 7-10% of your calories should come from saturated fat, says Dr. Milner.
But we need at least 50 grams of protein a day and many meats are high in saturated fats. What to do? Dr. Milner suggests substituting proteins that are low in saturated fats like fish, chicken, and soybeans, a complete protein.
Oily, cold-water fish like salmon, herring, and tuna also provide essential fatty acids (EFAs) that are great for heart health. He recommends a minimum of two servings of oily fish a week as a meal, salad topper or snack.
If you need help making dietary changes, please ask your medical provider for a referral to a nutritionist or dietician. You deserve the help!
While this article focuses on dietary changes, exercise and stress management are equally important to heart health. Thankfully, we have great resources to help you with both. This article provides expert advice on getting into shape and avoiding injuries. For stress management, try one of these deep breathing exercises.
Lifestyle changs are not overnight fixes for high cholesterol levels, but studies show they can help reduce levels in a month or two.