By Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD, and her colleagues Jennifer Fleming, MS, RD, Melissa Hendricks, RD
September is National Cholesterol Education Month. This is a great time to make sure that your blood cholesterol levels are in check because high cholesterol, in particular low density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C), is a major risk factor for heart disease.
Too much cholesterol (a fat-like substance) in your blood leads to plaque build-up in your arteries, causing them to become narrowed, and reducing blood flow to the heart. This is problematic because if not enough blood and oxygen (which is carried in the blood) get to your heart, you may suffer chest pain. Complete blockage of blood supply to your heart results in a heart attack (myocardial infarction). Consequently, controlling your blood cholesterol levels is very important to reduce risk of a heart attack.
The National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) recommends an optimal LDL-C level of less than 100 mg/dL for individuals with heart disease. Additional information about recommended LDL-C levels
is available through the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
How to Control LDL-C Levels – Follow the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) Diet
The TLC diet is low in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. Major sources of saturated fat in the diet include fatty meats and full-fat dairy products. Thus, eating lean meats, skim milk and low fat dairy products can decrease saturated fat intake significantly. Sources of trans fats are pastries, cakes, cookies, and savory snacks (like crackers and chips), as well as some hard margarines. Trans fats are found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils – please check the Ingredient Label and the Nutrition Facts Panel to see if the food is a source of trans fats. Eggs and animal products are major sources of dietary cholesterol. The key message is to "go easy" on these foods, eating no more than two egg yolks per week.
Soluble fiber and plant stanols or sterols have potent cholesterol-lowering effects.
Sources of soluble fiber include oats and other grains, legumes, and fruits and vegetables. Learn more about soluble fiber here
Sources of stanols and sterols include some supplemented margarines, and other food products such as orange juice, cereals, granola bars, yogurts, cheeses and chocolate. The TLC diet recommends including 2 grams of plant stanols/sterols a day to facilitate a reduction in LDL-C cholesterol levels. Having a heart healthy body weight will do much to control LDL-C levels. Slow, gradual weight loss is recommended, and one of the best ways to achieve this is simply by eating less and exercising more.
As always, the basis for any healthy diet is to include lots of fruits and vegetables (8-10 servings per day) and whole grains (about 3 servings per day). For more information about how to use fruits and vegetables for weight control, visit www.fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov
A simple guideline that Registered Dietitians advise is to balance your plate with the right portions of a variety of foods. Half your plate should be filled with vegetables, one fourth with lean meat, poultry or fish and one fourth with grains. To round out your meal, add a glass of fat-free or low-fat milk and a serving of fruit for dessert.