What – and how much – you eat and drink are key to reducing cholesterol levels, maintaining a healthy blood pressure level, controlling diabetes and losing or maintaining weight. Your doctor will urge you to follow recommendations developed by nutritionists and physicians to modify the factors that may put you at risk of heart disease:
1. Limit Fats
Saturated and “trans” fats are sometimes called “bad” fats because they raise total blood cholesterol as well as LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol). Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products such as meat, dairy, eggs and seafood. Some plant foods, such as palm and coconut oils, are also high in saturated fats. When possible, choose lean cuts of meat and low-fat or non-fat dairy products.
Trans fats, or trans fatty acids, are created when food manufacturers "hydrogenate" liquid oils so they will hold up better during processing and will last longer. Packaged foods, stick margarine and vegetable shortening, as well as some French fries and other fried foods sold at restaurants, may contain trans fats.
The American Heart Association recommends that:
- Saturated fats make up less than seven percent of total daily calories.
- Trans fats make up less than one percent of total daily calories.
- Cholesterol be restricted to 300 milligrams a day for healthy adults; less than 200 milligrams a day for adults with high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad," cholesterol or those who are taking medication to lower cholesterol.
The body needs some fat to function. So when you use fat, choose “good” monounsaturated fat, found in olive and canola oils, and polyunsaturated fats, found in nuts and seeds. Like all fats, these “good” fats are high in calories, so they should be eaten in moderation.
2. Control Cholesterol
Lowering cholesterol has been shown in studies to reduce the risk of dying from heart disease, having a nonfatal heart attack and needing heart bypass surgery or angioplasty – treatments that ensure that blockages in the arteries do not prevent blood from reaching the heart.Blockages occur when there is too much cholesterol, a waxy, fat-like substance that is needed for normal body function, in the blood for the body to process. Too much cholesterol in the blood leads to a build-up of fatty deposits inside the artery walls.
Your diet and the rate at which your body processes cholesterol can contribute to more cholesterol than the body needs. A diet low in saturated fat and high in fiber can help prevent too much cholesterol in your bloodstream – and the build-up of fatty deposits.
A cholesterol level check – recommended for adults every five years by the National Cholesterol Education Program – identifies the amount of “good” and “bad” cholesterol in your blood, as well as the level of triglycerides (another type of fat in the blood).
Desirable or optimal levels of cholesterol are:
- Total cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL.
- “Bad” cholesterol (Low Density Lipoprotein – LDL: Less than 100 mg/dL. LDL cholesterol is referred to as “bad” because too much of it can clog the arteries.
- “Good” cholesterol (High Density Lipoprotein –HDL: 40 mg/dL or higher. HDL is referred to as “good” cholesterol because it carries cholesterol away from the arteries. Research suggests that high levels of HDL can lower heart attack risk.
- Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL.
- If you already have a diagnosed blockages, your "bad," or LDL, cholesterol should be less than 70 mg/dL.
3. Fill Up on Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables offer much for a healthy heart to love: They’re low-calorie, yet loaded with vitamins, minerals and soluble fiber, the kind that helps lower cholesterol. Plus, eating more fruits and vegetables may keep you from higher fat snacks, cheese and meat. Of course, it’s important not to undermine the natural advantages of fruits and vegetables by coating them with cream sauces, butter or heavy sugar syrups.
4. Help Yourself to Whole Grains
Fiber – the part of plant foods that our stomachs do not digest – helps lower cholesterol. Eating whole grains – those not processed or milled to remove their bran and germ – is a good way to get more fiber, as well as vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Whole grains are found in 100 percent whole grain breads, pasta and brown rice. Some breakfast cereals, such as oatmeal, bran flakes and shredded wheat, also offer whole grains.
5. Pay Attention to Portions
Controlling the number and size of servings you eat is also important to your heart health. Excessive eating piles on the calories (and weight) and may increase the amount of saturated fat you eat and cholesterol you consume. Nutritionists recommend that you track the number of servings you eat. And make sure your servings aren’t “super-size.” They suggest small portions of meat, poultry and fish – about the size and thickness of a deck of cards – to make room for larger portions of vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
6. Limit Alcohol Consumption
Beverages containing alcohol – beer, wine and mixed drinks – should be consumed in moderation. Because individuals vary in size and in the way their bodies process alcohol, there is no single definition of “moderate” alcohol consumption. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, drinking in moderation is defined as:
- No more than two drinks per day if you are a man.
Please note: This definition of moderation refers to the amount consumed on any single day. It is not intended as an average over several days.) For more information about food choices and appropriate calories, visit the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 and MyPyramid.gov.