When a person finds out they have high cholesterol, it can be difficult to find the right path to a healthier diet. Which foods should you eliminate? Which ones should you be adding to your grocery cart? Nutrition Facts tables are speaking to you; learn how to listen!
Changing lifestyle habits is an excellent strategy
Have you been thinking of adopting a healthier way of life? Now, an opportunity has presented itself: your doctor has informed you that your cholesterol level is high. Whether you are prescribed medication or not, you have everything to gain by getting rid of some old habits and replacing them with healthier ones. Who knows, maybe simply eating better, exercising and adopting other simple measures will keep you from having to take medication. Otherwise, these improved habits will work together with the medication to reduce your cholesterol, as well as offer you several additional benefits.
Fat: making the right choice
Trans fat, monounsaturated fat, saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat… it can sound so confusing when all you’re trying to do is switch to healthier eating habits. But no need to be an expert nutritionist to prevent cholesterol! Behind all of this complex terminology lie simple notions that can be applied to your daily meal plan.
The first step in helping you maintain acceptable cholesterol levels is adopting a diet that is low in fat. Look for fat contents on labels showing nutritional values. Between 20 and 35% of the calories you consume in a day should come from fat. This represents:
- 45 to 75 grams of fat per day for women;
- 60 to 105 grams of fat per day for men.
All fats are not equal in terms of nutritional value. Unhealthy fats are trans fats and saturated fats; trans fats increase “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and decrease “good” cholesterol (HDL). Food companies must indicate on Nutrition Facts tables the amount of trans and saturated fat in their product. Pay close attention to them by comparing products; that way, you’ll be better able to make wise choices. Also, if you spot the words “partially hydrogenated” or “vegetable (oil) shortening” in the list of ingredients, it means the product contains trans fat. As for saturated fats, they mostly hide in fatty meats and full-fat dairy products, such as butter, cream and cheese. These cause an increase in LDL cholesterol.
To make healthy choices, turn to foods that contain monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat and omega 3. Here is a non-exhaustive list of foods to favour:
- monounsaturated fat: olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, avocado, non-hydrogenated margarine, nuts;
- polyunsaturated fat: sunflower oil, corn oil, non-hydrogenated margarine, nuts, seeds;
- omega 3: trout, salmon, cod, pollock, canola oil, soybean oil, flax seeds, omega-3 eggs, nuts, pecans.
Why do I need fibre?
Most Canadians lack fibre in their diet. On average, adults should consume between 21 and 38 grams of fibre each day, but in reality, our average intake is closer to 14 grams. There are two types of fibre in food: soluble fibre and insoluble fibre. Soluble fibre helps lower cholesterol and control blood-sugar levels. It is especially found in:
- wheat flour and bran;
- legumes, such as beans, peas and dry lentils;
- pectin-rich foods, such as apples, strawberries and citrus fruit.
Again, the Nutrition Facts table is there to inform you on the best foods to choose. Look for products that contain at least 2 grams of fibre per portion.
If your diet is deficient in fibre (which is the case for many people), consider taking a natural fibre supplement, such as psyllium. Extra fibre intake has a wide array of positive effects on health, in addition to reducing cholesterol levels:
- prevents/treats constipation;
- promotes healthy intestines;
- contributes to maintaining a healthy weight;
- helps regulate glycemia.
Sedentary lifestyles and smoking are in the hot seat again
Physical activity is a vital aspect to maintaining a healthy heart. In addition to its positive impact on blood pressure and general well-being, exercise can lead to an increase in HDL cholesterol. It is recommended to be active for at least 150 minutes a week, in segments of 10 minutes or more. Exercise will also allow you to avoid becoming overweight or obese, factors that increase triglyceride levels and decrease good cholesterol.
Smoking accelerates the build-up of cholesterol in the arteries, a phenomenon known as atherosclerosis. In addition, smokers generally have lower levels of HDL cholesterol than non-smokers. Your efforts to quit smoking, however, will soon be rewarded since levels of HDL cholesterol in ex-smokers increase within a few short weeks, rapidly becoming similar to those of non-smokers. What a great reason to quit cigarettes for good!
Changing lifelong habits is never an easy process when you are trying to do everything at once. Focus on one thing at a time. Your first attempts at exercising or comparing Nutrition Facts tables at the supermarket will probably be challenging, but don’t give up! Lowering your cholesterol and maintaining a healthy heart is worth it.