Millions of people worldwide suffer from high cholesterol. Although the condition is a major risk factor for both heart disease and stroke, it is easily diagnosed and can be managed.
Cholesterol is a type of lipid (fat). While your body needs it (cell membranes integrity, hormones), with proper nutrition, your body can make all it needs. However, cholesterol is also found in certain foods. Too much cholesterol can cause atherosclerosis, which is hardening, and thickening of your arteries. This buildup eventually causes narrowing of the arteries and makes it difficult for blood to travel through them. It can also lead to blood clots and inflammation, making it more vulnerable to rupture that can eventually causes heart attack and stroke.
Generally, there are two types of cholesterol, HDL and LDL. HDL is considered “good” (Happy) cholesterol and helps lower the risk of coronary artery disease (CAD) and stroke. LDL is the “bad” (Lousy) cholesterol and has been shown to raise your risk of CAD, heart attack and stroke.
Many things affect your cholesterol levels, including the foods you eat, being overweight, being inactive, age and most importantly family history. It’s important to have your cholesterol tested regularly beginning at the age of 20 (AHA recommendation). How often you get tested depends on your cholesterol levels and risk factors. The testing consists of a simple blood test.
The good news is that high cholesterol can be managed. There are a number of medications available that work to lower cholesterol and although it is not the whole equation, diet can also help.
Avoiding a diet high in bad fat and high carbohydrates is important when it comes to keeping your cholesterol numbers low. Our body cannot store a lot of carbohydrates so the excess is turned into fat and contributes to obesity and high cholesterol.
A heart healthy diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish and low-fat or nonfat dairy foods. Healthier fat (mono-saturated, poly-saturated) should make up about 30% of total calorie intake. A balanced diet is the key. Below is a list of foods that you should keep stocked in your home to ensure better heart health.
Heart Healthy Foods:
Oatmeal: Soluble fibers like oatmeal; nuts, blueberries and apples top the list as for heart healthy foods. Soluble fiber attaches to cholesterol particles and takes them out of the body, helping to reduce overall cholesterol.
Try adding plant-based protein. Soy is a great substitute!
It’s also important to limit your intake of red meat.
Salmon: Omega 3’s fatty acids found in salmon and other fish like lake trout, herring, sardines have been shown to increase HDL and lower LDL cholesterol.
Avocado: The mono-saturated fat found in avocados may help raise HDL
Green leafy vegetables: Spinach and other vegetables, contain nitric acid, which turns into nitrous oxide, relaxing arterial walls making it less stiff and decreasing risk of damage.
Nuts: Consider incorporating a handful of nuts as a snack in a balanced diet. Walnuts, Cashews and Almonds are high in protein and contain fibers, unsaturated fat, Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, plant sterols, and L-arginine that have been linked to better heart health.
Extra-virgin olive oil and soft, more liquid, Margarine: These are both great substitutes for butter, especially ones that contain plant sterols.
Minh Nguyen, MD, FACC
Coordinated Health Cardiologist