No other part of your body benefits more from good dietary choices than your cardiovascular system. What you eat, and choose not to eat, has a dramatic effect on your risk for heart disease and stroke.
Saturated fat, found mostly in meat and full-fat dairy products, is the major culprit in raising blood cholesterol, the main ingredient of artery-clogging plaque. Overindulging in these foods raises the risk of developing heart disease. But you can lower this risk by shifting the emphasis so that nutrient- and fiber-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, and grains make up approximately two-thirds of what you eat each day.
Plant-based foods provide complex carbohydrates as well as vitamins and minerals. And they contain very little fat. Because they’re rich in indigestible fiber, they take up space in the intestines, which can help you control your appetite — and your weight.
These foods have another advantage. “When you look at non-drug alternatives to reduce cholesterol,” says registered dietitian Linda Van Horn, Ph.D., of Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, “you find that a high-fiber component to a low-fat diet is very effective.” Soluble fiber, in particular, has a direct bearing on the body’s production, regulation, and elimination of cholesterol. Although the reasons aren’t entirely clear, it may be that soluble fiber combines with intestinal fluids to form a gel that binds to fat or prevents it from being absorbed into the bloodstream. Whatever the reason, it does work. One study found that by increasing the amount of soluble fiber they ate, people with Type 2 diabetes decreased their cholesterol levels by almost 7 percent. Other studies show that simply adding two servings a day of oats or other cereals high in soluble fiber can reduce cholesterol levels by almost 3 to 4 percent in people without diabetes. These two servings represent only a small portion of the recommended six to 11 daily servings of bread, cereals, grains, and pasta.
While fiber is the most important dietary adjunct in controlling blood cholesterol, fiber-rich foods contain other nutrients, including antioxidants and phytochemicals, which researchers believe also deter the buildup of plaque in arteries. But the mechanism is unclear. “Is it the nutrients in these foods that have a positive effect, or is it that the more of them you eat, the less fat-laden food you consume?” asks Alice H. Lichtenstein, D. Sc., of the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center at Tufts University in Boston. “We don’t know the answer right now, but it’s probably a combination of both.”
What is clear is that you can eat a heart-healthy diet and still include some fat. “We’ve made people aware of cholesterol and fat,” says Sayed F. Feghali, M.D., a cardiologist at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. “There’s no question that saturated fat is the villain when it comes to cholesterol buildup in blood vessels. But we need some fat. We cannot function on a zero-fat diet.”
So be judicious in your choices. Restrict meat and dairy products to less than 10 percent of your daily calories. Try poultry, dried beans, eggs, and nuts for protein and energy. Soy products, when substituted for animal protein, show promise in reducing LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Substitute heart-healthy monounsaturated oils, such as olive, canola, and peanut, for saturated and hydrogenated fats.
Also, watch out for the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” on baked goods and snack foods. They indicate that otherwise heart-healthy unsaturated fat has been manipulated so that oils that would normally be liquid at room temperature stay solid. The process yields trans fats, which raise both total and LDL cholesterol.
Finally, don’t be so preoccupied with fat that you lose sight of calories. It’s too many calories that add unwanted weight, which can put a strain on your heart. If you’re stumped about striking a reasonable dietary balance, check out the eating plans of the American Heart Association (www.americanheart.org).