It’s almost impossible not to hear about cholesterol. Advertisements tout foods with no or low cholesterol, while others claim to lower your cholesterol. As if that’s not enough, health advice always includes watching your cholesterol. What exactly is cholesterol? Believe it or not, it’s a fat your body needs to help form certain hormones, cell membranes, and bile. Unfortunately, too much of this soft, waxy substance means trouble.
Because cholesterol can’t dissolve in your blood, like some nutrients, carrier molecules called lipoproteins must transport it. The two main types of lipoproteins are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
Often, LDL cholesterol goes by the name “bad” cholesterol because it can build up on the walls of your arteries and form a hard deposit called plaque. Plaque can make your arteries so narrow your heart has trouble pumping blood through them. A blood clot can also form near the site of the plaque. I f it blocks the flow of blood to your heart; it can cause a heart attack. When a clot blocks the flow of blood to your brain, it can cause a stroke.
On the other hand, HDL cholesterol whisks cholesterol away from your arteries to your liver and, eventually, out of your body. This “good” cholesterol actually protects you from heart disease and stroke.
Like high blood pressure, high cholesterol comes with no symptoms. You’ll never know you have high cholesterol unless you get a blood test and talk with your doctor about the results.
These numbers should be a warning to you — total cholesterol over 240, LDL cholesterol over 160, and HDL cholesterol below 35. They could indicate an increased risk of heart disease. To lower your risk, your total cholesterol should be below 200 and your LDL below 130. HDL cholesterol should be between 35 and 90.
I f you’re worried about high cholesterol, eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less meat, cheese, eggs, whole milk, processed foods, and baked goods.
You’ll also be glad to know that foods high in the following nutrients have the power to lower high cholesterol, and help reduce cholesterol build-up in your arteries.
Nutritional blockbusters that fight high cholesterol
Fiber: Oat bran became a big sensation when scientists discovered it could lower cholesterol. A type of soluble fiber called beta-glucan gives oat bran its power. According to Dr. Barbara Schneeman, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this fiber sparks a process called “reverse cholesterol transport.” Here’s how it works. These gummy beta-glucans slow down your food as it travels through your stomach and small intestine. That way, HDL cholesterol has more time to pick up cholesterol and take it out of the bloodstream — and LDL cholesterol has less opportunity to carry cholesterol to your artery walls.
Most health organizations recommend getting between 25 and 35 grams of fiber into your daily diet. You certainly don’t have to get it all from oat bran. Other good sources of soluble fiber include barley, beans, oatmeal, apples, and other fruits and vegetables.
Unsaturated fats: Trimming fat from your diet helps trim your cholesterol levels — but don’t go overboard. Like some kinds of cholesterol, certain fats actually help you. Some even lower LDL cholesterol.
Monounsaturated fat wipes out bad LDL cholesterol without harming good HDL cholesterol. An Australian study of avocados, which contain 30 grams of mostly monounsaturated fat, showed that as little as half an avocado a day could shrink your total cholesterol by more than 8 percent without lowering good HDL cholesterol. According to a Mexican study, avocados might even boost your levels of HDL by 11 percent. You can also get monounsaturated fat from olive oil and nuts.
Walnuts, in addition to some monounsaturated fat, also have a polyunsaturated fat called alpha-linolenic acid. This fat, part of the omega-3 family, gives walnuts their proven cholesterol-lowering ability. Omega-3 mostly comes from fatty fish, like tuna, mackerel, or salmon, but you can also find it in flaxseed, wheat germ, and green, leafy vegetables, like kale and spinach.
Substituting either monounsaturated or omega-3 fats for saturated fats may be a more effective cholesterol-fighting strategy than switching to a very low-fat, low-cholesterol diet. Very low-fat diets will lower your cholesterol — but they’ll get rid of your protective HDL cholesterol, too.
Antioxidants: Put a muzzle on a vicious dog, and it can’t bite you. Antioxidants use the same approach when it comes to LDL cholesterol. These roving do-gooders muzzle free radicals, keeping them from oxidizing LDL. Once oxidized, LDL travels much more quickly to your artery walls, where it can build up and cause damage.
Dr. Lori J. Mosca of the University of Michigan found that vitamin E in foods — but not in supplements — prevented LDL oxidation. You can find vitamin E in wheat germ, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils. Other antioxidant vitamins include vitamin C and beta carotene, both found in a variety of fruits and vegetables.
Fruits and vegetables also contain more antioxidant substances called flavonoids that fight high cholesterol. For example, Dr. Ted Wilson of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse found that the flavonoids in cranberries prevented LDL oxidation. Other hardworking flavonoids include quercetin, found in onions, apples, and tea, and lycopene in tomatoes.
Garlic: Making garlic a staple of your kitchen can make a big difference in your battle against high cholesterol. This flavorful herb has a surplus of sulfur compounds that hunt down LDL cholesterol without harming the HDL variety. As little as one-third of a clove of garlic can reduce total cholesterol by about 12 percent and LDL cholesterol by 14 percent.
Follow a tasty path to low cholesterol
If you want to live longer and healthier, eat like an Asian peasant. A 20-year Chinese diet study has found that lower class “peasant” Asians eat a humble, traditional diet — full of high-fiber grains and vegetables, with few animal products. Cholesterol levels are low — so low in fact that their average high cholesterol is still about equal to the lowest range in the United States. And only an average of 15 percent of deaths in Asia are due to heart disease, compared with more than 40 percent in the United States.
The super heart-saving Asian diet has won the approval of many nutrition experts because it emphasizes plant-based, rather than animal-based, foods. Following this type of eating pattern may be your path to sound health and a long life.
Grains: Most of your diet should consist of unrefined rice, wheat, millet, corn, barley, and other grains.
Vegetables: Traditional Asian recipes include bok choy, Chinese mustard greens, water spinach, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and bitter melon. However, vegetables like broccoli, spinach, celery, carrots, and peppers are easily adapted.
Legumes: Peas and beans are a huge source of fiber and protein. They should be part of at least one meal a day.
Nuts and seeds: Almonds, cashews, walnuts, pine nuts, and chestnuts are all popular ingredients in Asian cooking.
Fats and oils: Small amounts of peanut, golden sesame, soy, and corn oils may be eaten daily.
Seafood: Fish is full of omega-3 fatty acids and protein, but low in cholesterol.
Meat: Eat red meat sparingly, and cut back on poultry and eggs.
Herbs: No eating plan would be complete without the herbs and spices unique to that culture. Many not only add flavor and spice to the food, but some, like garlic, turmeric, and fenugreek, provide powerful heart protection, too.
Sweets: If you want to follow the Asian diet, you must cut back on sugar and sweets. In Asia, fresh fruits, not sweets, are served for dessert.
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