Great food choices to help lower cholesterol

By Marilyn Csernus, MS, RD, CDE
Nutrition & Wellness Educator, University of Illinois Extension Ogle County

Could you be making better food choices to maintain heart health? Including certain foods into your diet on a regular basis can help keep cholesterol numbers in check.

February is American Heart Health Month, and a healthy diet is one of the important lifestyle measures that affect cholesterol numbers.

Overall, a diet lower in total fat, and particularly saturated fat and trans fat, helps promote heart health.

Saturated fat is found in full fat dairy products, meat and some oil and solid fats, including butter and lard, as well as foods made with these added fats.

Trans fats found in stick margarines and some commercially made cookies, cakes and crackers are especially bad for raising our “bad” cholesterol (LDL).

Eating a heart-healthy diet should go hand-in-hand with other healthy lifestyle measures such as avoiding tobacco products, maintaining a healthy weight, reducing stress and getting regular physical activity.

Think about adding the following items to your grocery list to help boost your intake of heart-healthy foods:

• Nuts, especially almonds and walnuts — Eating a handful of nuts (about 1 to 1.5 ounces) is a good way to replace unhealthy fats with healthy fats found in nuts. Buy nuts that do not have added salt or sugar. Nuts are packed with calories, so keep serving sizes small. Think about replacing other less healthy fats such as meat or cheese on a salad with a handful of nuts.

• Olive, canola and peanut oil — Like nuts, these oils are heart healthy and help lower bad cholesterol without lowering good cholesterol. Substitute these oils in place of other unhealthy fats in the diet such as stick margarine, butter and lard. Choose extra-virgin olive oil to get the most cholesterol-lowering effect. Extra-virgin olive oil is less processed and contains antioxidants.

• Fish and omega-3 fatty acids — Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, lake trout, albacore tuna, halibut and herring are high in omega-3 fatty acids These are essential fats that the body needs but does not make, and must get through food. Certain omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to be beneficial to both healthy people and those who already have cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association recommends two servings per week of these heart-healthy fish.

• Soluble fiber — Soluble fiber reduces “bad” cholesterol or LDL cholesterol. Oatmeal is a good source of soluble fiber, and if you prefer a cold cereal, choose one made with oat bran or oatmeal. Good sources of soluble fiber are oatmeal, oat bran, nuts, seeds, beans, dried peas, legumes, lentils, strawberries and blueberries. For a change, try steel-cut oats with blueberries and walnuts.

• Foods with added plant sterols or stanols — A few foods on the market are fortified with plant stanols or sterols. These are substances occurring in plants that block the absorption of cholesterol. Consuming 2 grams per day of plant stanol or sterols from eating or drinking fortified food products may reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol by 10 percent. Soft-tub margarines, orange juice, yogurt drinks and granola bars are some of the products fortified with plant stanol or sterols. Foods in these categories that are fortified with plant stanol or sterol esters will be labeled as containing this cholesterol-lowering substance.

• Fruits and vegetables — Half of our plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables. Fresh, frozen or low-sodium canned vegetables are the best choices. Fruit should be fresh, or if frozen or canned, without sugar added. Filling up on fruits and vegetables helps decrease our intake of less healthy foods.

Visit the American Heart Association website at to learn more about reducing the risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association website has great recipes available to help get you started eating healthy.

From the Feb. 27-March 5, 2013, issue

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