It's never too early -- or too late -- to act on lowering your cholesterol. Although people with a total blood cholesterol level over 240 are considered to have the greatest risk of heart disease, the numbers can be a bit misleading, because most heart attacks occur in people whose cholesterol is below 250. So if your total cholesterol puts you in a low- or borderline-risk group, don't assume it's safe for you to ignore your lifestyle habits. Likewise, if you've already had a heart attack or been diagnosed with heart disease, there's no need to throw in the towel. There's still plenty you can do to prevent another attack, and home remedies are available to keep your disease from worsening.
Make some permanent changes. Making a commitment to lowering blood cholesterol and improving heart health requires a change of mind-set and daily habits for the long haul, not a temporary fad diet. Adopting a healthier lifestyle also means avoiding "yo-yo" dieting -- losing weight and gaining it back repeatedly. Yo-yo dieting has been shown to cause cholesterol levels to rise.
Ignore the magic bullets. This week it's rice bran, last week it was garlic, the week before it was oat bran and fish oil. All were touted as the solution to your cholesterol problem. While it's the American way to search for shortcuts, such an approach just doesn't cut it when you're dealing with your health.
Stay away from saturated fats. It might seem counterintuitive, but while the amount of cholesterol in your diet has some effect on the level of cholesterol in your blood, it's actually the amount of saturated fat you consume that has the greatest dietary influence on your blood cholesterol levels. The more saturated fat -- the kind found in dairy products made from whole milk, the marbling in red meat, the skin of poultry, and certain oils commonly used in commercially prepared baked goods -- in your diet, the more cholesterol in your blood. Be sure to check food labels to compare the saturated-fat content and choose the one with the lowest.
Avoid trans fats. Another culprit is partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which contains trans fatty acids, substances that increase the cholesterol-raising properties of a fat. Trans fats are found in processed baked goods, margarines, and many other foods. Check margarine labels and buy trans-fat-free margarine. (You might also ask your doctor if it is worthwhile for you to try one of the new margarines spiked with substances called plant sterols and stanols. They tend to be more expensive than regular margarines, but consuming one of these special margarines may lower LDL cholesterol by up to 14 percent when it replaces other sources of fat in your diet.) Choose snack foods without partially hydrogenated fats; again, be sure to check labels.
Let TLC guide you. The TLC -- Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes -- Diet is a dietary plan from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute designed to help people with heart disease or those at high risk for developing it (such as those with high blood cholesterol levels). It is a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol that will help reduce your blood cholesterol level to decrease your chance of developing heart disease or experiencing future heart attacks and other heart disease complications.
Learn to count grams of fat. The TLC Diet outlines the percentages of daily calories that should come from saturated fat and total fat. And it's true that most package labels these days indicate what percentage of a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet the specific food would contribute in calories, fat, and saturated fat. But what do you do if your recommended daily calorie intake is well above or below 2,000? You can do some minor calculations to determine the maximum number of grams of total fat and saturated fat you should consume in a day; then compare the grams of fat listed on the food label to your personal limits to decide if a food will fit in your daily diet. How many grams of fat, and how many grams of saturated fat, can you have each day? First multiply your total number of calories per day by .25 (depending on your activity level, age, gender, and weight, you may be allowed 30 or even 35 percent of calories from fat -- in which case you would multiply by .30 or .35, respectively; ask your doctor or a registered dietitian what level you should aim for). Next, divide that result by 9, which will give you the maximum grams of total fat recommended for you. (You divide by 9 because each gram of fat provides 9 calories.) Because you should get less than 7 percent of your day's total calories from saturated fat, you can multiply your total number of calories per day by .07 and then divide by 9 to determine that limit as well.
Eat as much like a vegetarian as possible. Dietary cholesterol is found only in animal products; animal products also tend to be higher in fat (skim milk products are exceptions), especially saturated fat. Foods derived from plant sources, on the other hand, contain no cholesterol and tend to be lower in fat. The fats they do contain are generally polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, which are healthier than the saturated kind. (The exceptions are coconut oil, palm oil, palm kernel oil, and partially hydrogenated oils, which contain higher amounts of saturated fatty acids.) You'll be doing your arteries a favor if you increase your intake of vegetable proteins, such as beans, whole grains, and tofu, and keep servings of high-fat animal products to a minimum.
Increase your complex carbohydrate intake. Eating plenty of complex carbohydrates will fill you up and make you feel more satisfied, leaving less room for fatty meats and desserts. Complex carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, dried beans, whole-grain pastas and breads, brown rice, and other grains.
Read your meat. The small orange labels stuck to packages of meat at the grocery store aren't advertisements or promotions; they're actually grades of meat. "Prime," "Choice" and "Select" are official U.S. Department of Agriculture shorthand for "fatty," "less fatty" and "lean." Prime is 40 percent to 45 percent fat by weight; choice is 30 percent to 40 percent fat, and select or "diet lean" is 15 percent to 20 percent fat. So when you do add meat to your meal, opt for "select" cuts.
Change the way you cook. Broiling and steaming are heart-smart ways to cook food. Unlike frying, these methods require no added fat.
Skin your poultry. The skin of chicken (and turkey, too, for that matter), is an absolute no-no for people who are watching their fat intake. It contains high amounts of saturated fat.
Skip the pastry. One hidden source of saturated fat is pastry -- donuts, Danishes, piecrust, eclairs, and so on. These confections are often made with shortening, butter, and/or hydrogenated fats -- just the kinds of ingredients that should be limited by people striving to eat less saturated fat. Stick with whole-grain bread and rolls, and read labels to be sure you know what's in the package.
Eat fish. Although fish oil does not lower cholesterol, it has a dual benefit for the heart. In the simplest sense, if you choose halibut instead of prime rib, you're avoiding a huge amount of saturated fat and cholesterol, since fish is low in both. But your heart gets a bonus, since fish is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, unsaturated fats that have been shown to protect the heart. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice a week. Fatty fish have more of those healthful omega-3 fatty acids, so the best varieties to add to your menu are mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon.
t fear eggs. But don't think you can raid the henhouse anytime you like, either. Eggs were long considered no-no's if you were concerned about heart disease, since eating just one provides a bit more than the recommended daily limit of cholesterol (200 milligrams). But in recent years, cardiologists have relaxed the rules a bit. Eggs can fit into a healthy diet if you omit other sources of cholesterol on days when you indulge.
Eat smaller meat portions. One way to trim your saturated fat intake without giving up the steaks you love is to keep your portions to about three ounces, the size of a deck of cards. Also, make whole grains the center of your meals, and use meat as more of a garnish or side.
Give up organ meats. Although rich in iron and protein, these meats are also tremendously high in fat and cholesterol. That goes for pate, too.
Increase your fiber intake. Fiber, especially the soluble kind found in fruits and brans, has been shown to lower cholesterol levels. If you follow the recommendation to eat more complex carbohydrates, you'll naturally boost your fiber intake. You might also consider punching up your fiber consumption with a daily one-teaspoon dose of a psyllium-husk powder, such as Metamucil. Women should aim for 25 grams of fiber each day, and men should try to get 38 grams. You don't want to go much above that, but that's unlikely, since we average only about half the recommended intake as it is. Be sure to increase your fiber intake gradually to give your system time to adjust, and drink plenty of fluids, so that fiber doesn't end up plugging your internal plumbing.
Quit smoking. Although most of us are aware that smoking can cause lung cancer and can raise the risk of experiencing a heart attack, few people know that smoking can actually affect cholesterol levels. When you quit the habit, your HDL, or "good," cholesterol goes up.
Add exercise to your daily routine. Studies have shown regular aerobic exercise (the type that gets your large muscles moving and your heart pumping faster for sustained periods) can boost levels of HDL in the blood. Exercise also helps reduce weight and lower triglyceride (another type of fatty molecule in the blood that, when present in high levels, can increase the risk of heart disease) and LDL levels. Aim for at least 30 to 45 minutes of moderate exercise, such as walking, most days.
Move, move, move. In addition to scheduling regular heart-pumping exercise, you need to graduate from a sedentary lifestyle to a more active one. That means fitting in extra physical movement whenever you can, such as taking stairs instead of elevators, running errands on foot or by bicycle rather than by car, and parking at the far end of parking lots. Consider getting a pedometer as a mini-motivator, and aim to accumulate 10,000 steps a day.
On the next page, learn about kitchen cures and home remedies that can help you lower your cholesterol numbers and keep them down.
To learn more about heart disease and home remedies to treat heart problems, visit these links:
- To see all of our home remedies and the conditions they treat, go to our main Home Remedies page.
- Learn about cures you can use at home to improve the health of your ticker in Home Remedies for Heart Disease.
- Read Home Remedies for High Blood Pressure to learn about steps you can take at home to ease hypertension.
- To learn more about the science behind heart attacks, read How Heart Disease Works.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.