Every aspect of your cholesterol plan is important. But for most people the “heart” of their plan will be the diet.
Some psychologists would argue that good mental health and a nurturing network of friends matter most. And if you happen to be training for a triathlon, good for you — enough exercise can erase a lot of other lifestyle sins. However, eating is something all of us do every day, often with some degree of abandon, so it stands to reason that therein lies the biggest opportunity for improvement.
When researchers look for a cause-and-effect relationship between our lives and our cholesterol levels, diet always comes out on top. Various studies show drops of 25 percent or more in total cholesterol from simple dietary changes.
For instance, by cutting back your consumption of saturated fat (the kind in hamburgers and ice cream) to less than 7 percent of your total calories, increasing your fiber intake by 5 to 10 grams (about one serving of a raisin bran cereal) a day, and adding a couple of tablespoons of a special margarine designed to help lower cholesterol to your diet regularly, you could lower your LDL (low-density lipoprotein) level between 17 and 30 percent. And that’s before you add more bran, apples, oats, nuts, and other foods that on their own can lower your LDL several percentage points or increase your HDL (high-density lipoprotein).
The right foods can also reduce inflammation (think fatty fish such as salmon), regulate blood clotting (think garlic or black or green tea), lower blood pressure, and more. While healthy cholesterol levels are vital when it comes to avoiding heart disease, there is no way to overstate the countless benefits of eating well.
There are plenty of ways to go about lowering your cholesterol through diet. For instance, there’s the Mediterranean diet (high in fat, but mainly the heart-healthy kind), the Ornish diet (extremely low in all types of fat), the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet, known as DASH (rich in grains, fruits, vegetables, and nonfat dairy), and the American Heart Association’s Step I and Step II diets (relatively low in fat and protein). In many ways the success of these diets and the expert findings and opinions behind them help map out a common ground of healthful eating habits. While many experts in the field may defend their particular view or territory, the greatest benefits lie where the territories overlap — a moderately low total fat intake, a healthy balance of “good” and “bad” fats, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and a moderate amount of protein. This overlap area also happens to correspond almost perfectly with what we know about how our early ancestors ate.
A successful cholesterol lowering eating strategy is not a special “diet” you follow for a couple of months until your levels improve. Any diet you need to get “on” implies that eventually you will get back “off” it — and then what? Rather, this is the way to eat for life, one you’ll find enjoyable enough to embrace permanently once you give it a chance.