By Justine Britten, Liz Page and Allison Wood
September is National Cholesterol Awareness Month, so it’s a great opportunity to educate yourself about the vital role cholesterol plays in your health.
Most people are aware that you want to have low LDL (“bad”) and high HDL (“good”) cholesterol. But there are a lot of misconceptions about what makes your LDL and HDL go up or down. Should you avoid egg yolks? Should you stick to low-fat foods, or is sugar the real culprit?
To help clear things up, we’ve compiled a list of tips that we, as dietitians, routinely share with our patients — especially those who are trying to improve their cholesterol numbers, or who have a family history of heart disease and want to reduce their own risk.
- Avoid saturated fats. Dietary cholesterol (from eggs or shellfish) has less effect on your cholesterol levels than saturated fats. Common sources of saturated fat include butter, beef fat, coconut oil, dairy products and shortening.
- Eat “healthy” fats. Many foods, such as fish, olive oil, avocados and nuts and seeds, contain heart-healthy fats. Aim to eat fatty fish like salmon, tuna or mackerel at least twice a week. And unsalted almonds, walnuts or pistachios make a great midday snack (just watch your portions, because nuts are high in calories).
- Boost your fiber. Choosing foods rich in fiber can help reduce your LDL — or “bad” — cholesterol. Whole grains like oatmeal, brown rice, beans and fresh fruits and vegetables (especially dark, leafy greens like spinach, kale and collards) are great sources of fiber. For variety, mix up the grains in your diet with quinoa, barley, buckwheat or farro.
- Ditch the sugar. Current research shows that added sugars may contribute to heart disease. Excess intake of sugar is associated with both increased risk of cardiovascular disease and elevated LDL cholesterol. Avoiding empty calories like soda, energy drinks, candies, juices and other desserts can reduce excess sugar in your diet.
- You can eat eggs! According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, eating eggs in moderation is not detrimental to your heart health. Full of essential vitamins, minerals and protein, eggs make an excellent meal or snack. Just avoid cooking them in butter or shortening, and go easy on the salt.
There are many factors that can contribute to your risk of heart disease. Diet, exercise, lifestyle and genetics (a family history of heart disease) all play a role. Speak with your primary care physician about your personal risks and what you can do to reduce them. Your doctor may encourage you to see a registered dietitian, who will work with you on a heart-healthy diet to help manage your cholesterol, blood pressure, weight and other issues.
Justine Britten, MPH, RDN, LDN, Liz Page, RDN, CNSC, LDN, and Allison Wood, MS, RDN, CNSC, LDN, are dietitians at Rush Oak Park Hospital.