CHOLESTEROL: THE SILENT ASSASSIN PART II - WHAT SHOULD I EAT?
Now, where were we…….? Oh yes, Cholesterol the SILENT ASSASSIN. Previously I talked about how Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally with the World Health Organisation putting the figure at a whopping 31% of all deaths worldwide. Furthermore, it is estimated that 80% of these deaths were preventable. I queried, therefore, why more people do not get their cholesterol checked given that this is a key indicator for Cardiovascular disease.
As a Nutritionist, I am required to understand the relationship between diet & disease and naturally as a result of this, I am passionate about educating others so they too can make better food choices, for themselves & for their families. In this blog, I will touch on the science behind cholesterol, dispel certain myths around what causes it and give you some straightforward pointers towards dietary habits which will keep your heart healthy and cholesterol levels in check.
Most people will likely have a basic knowledge of cholesterol and an idea of certain foods to avoid, however, I find in my role as a Nutrition Coach that there are some common misconceptions around what causes ‘bad’ cholesterol. Saturated Fat has long been hailed as the main culprit in the cholesterol conundrum, with joints of meat mistakenly replaced with bowls of pasta in the war against heart disease. Yet this is not to see the full picture. Saturated fat is only one contributing factor and there are other factors to consider, all of which are interrelated in a complex bio-chemical web of cause & effect. Indeed, frequently I come across individuals who have reduced or eliminated saturated fat from their diets, only to replace it with something else – most commonly a plate filled with refined carbohydrates - sugars. Now here is where it gets interesting folks……when we replace a diet high in saturated fat with one high in refined starches, we can actually increase blood cholesterol levels!
As many of you are probably aware, high sugar intake is linked to chronic inflammation and therefore a diet high in refined carbs triggers an inflammatory response, which COMBINED with LDL Cholesterol in the blood, causes plaque to build up in the artery walls - eventually this becomes unstable & ruptures, causing a heart attack. In short, it is a perfect symphony of mechanisms and there is no solo performer at play.
“The lesson is not to load up on saturated fat but to pay attention to what you’re replacing it with if you’re making changes in your diet. Cutting back on animal-based fats is a good move for your heart, but if you’re switching to carbohydrate-dense foods like starches, pastas and things made from refined flour, then you’re doing just as much harm to your heart as eating saturated fat” Quote from https://time.com/4052306/saturated-fat-heart-disease/
If this is all starting to sound rather complicated, the solution is very simple: EAT THE RIGHT FOODS - MOSTLY PLANTS! If we consume mostly wholefoods, from living botanical plants, then improvements in heart health can be seen remarkably quickly. To clarify, wholefoods include not only plants as we typically know them in the form of vegetables, fruit, salads, herbs & spices but also your wholegrain carbohydrates such as wholegrain pastas, legumes, quinoa, barley and oats, all high in fibre and full of vital nutrients. If we eat MOSTLY these foods and include some good quality animal fats then little space is left for ultra-processed foods that are high in added sugars.
To put it in a visual, I like to reference the Food Pyramid below which gives a balanced representation of what a healthy diet should look like, this might be a plant based diet (emphasis on the word BASED) or the Mediterranean Diet which numerous studies have proven to be an excellent protector of heart health.
Take a moment to consider the pyramid and imagine how your diet might look if it was represented in this way. Then maybe ask yourself how and where can you make adjustments to strike a better balance. What habits can you change? What are you already doing well? Each and every one of us can make improvements to our heart and overall health.
To conclude, the checklist below might help you consider some options for change that work with your dietary preferences and your lifestyle:
EAT MORE PLANT BASED ‘WHOLE’ FOODS: as above
LIMIT REFINED CARBOHYDRATES / ULTRA PROCESSED FOODS: as above these are high in added sugars and highly inflammatory
INCREASE FIBRE INTAKE: eat more whole-grains and fibrous veggies like okra, eggplant & broccoli
REDUCE BAD FATS: eliminate trans fats completely and eat only small quantities of good quality saturated fat
INCREASE GOOD FATS: polyunsaturated fats from oily fish & seeds like sunflower & flax and monounsaturated fats from olive oil, nuts & avocados
EXERCISE REGULARLY: aim for at least 150 minutes a week
CHOOSE PLANT STEROLS: they help lower LDL Cholesterol and are beneficial in fortified foods such as rice bran oil, breakfast cereals and yogurts.
DON'T SMOKE: smoking raises LDL cholesterol as well as lowering level of HDL (good) cholesterol
At Seeds of Changes my mantra has always been that it is not about perfect: it's about making good choices and putting the effort in to sustain those choices - daily. That is where transformation happens and that is how change occurs.
"Heart Disease is nothing more than a toothless paper tiger that need never exist and if it does exist, it need never ever progress. This is a completely benign FOOD BORNE ILLNESS."
Dr Caldwell Esselstyn