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Foods that fight Cholesterol

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Heart disease is the No.1 killer in Ireland (source: Irish heart foundation) one of the things that we can do to reduce the risks of this is to cut down on the amount of bad cholesterol in our diets. Today our Nutritionist Paula Mee talks us through the foods that we should avoid and include in our diets to help lower our cholesterol levels.

Our last phone in with Paula had a lot of questions in relation to Cholesterol levels so we've decided to get her expert opinion on your most common cholesterol related questions.

Nutritionist Paula Mee

BSc., Dip Dietetics., MSc in Health Sciences., Dip Allergy, M.I.N.D.I.

From Galway, Paula graduated from University College Galway with a BSc in Biochemistry. She then completed her postgraduate qualifications in Dietetics and a Masters in Health Science in Leeds Metropolitan University.

Paula has recently been awarded a Diploma in Allergy from Southampton University. She has also completed the British Dietetic Association's Sports Dietitian course. She is a current member and a past president of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute.

Paula Mee, Nutrition Consulting was set up in 2004 and offers organisations an extensive range of services in nutrition, product development, and marketing communications.

As part of her working week she also operates a dietetic and weight management clinic.

Paula was one of the presenters of RTE TV's Health Squad programme which ran from 2002 to 2006. Paula is the author of Good Food, Great Life 2008 and a co-author of the Health Squad Guide to Health and Fitness 2005. Her website is

Managing your cholesterol with good food choices

What is cholesterol?

. Most people think of cholesterol as a fat, but it's actually a sterol, a waxy, fat-like substance.
. Cholesterol has a reputation as a health hazard when, in fact, some is essential for good health. Without cholesterol, men wouldn't have testosterone and women wouldn't have estrogens.
. It's not true that cholesterol in their blood only comes from the cholesterol in the food we eat. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the cholesterol in your blood is made by your liver. What we eat does contribute to the remaining third. It's the saturated and partially trans fats in what we eat that have the biggest influence on our blood cholesterol.
. Instead of floating free in your blood, cholesterol latches onto blood proteins that carry it through your body. The ones that are familiar to most people are low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).
. One in two Irish people over 50 have high cholesterol and heart disease is still the biggest killer in this country.

Reducing your cholesterol by 1% can lower your risk of heart disease by 2%. This may not sound gigantic, but it's possible for many people to reduce their cholesterol by 10% - 15% just by eating healthily. Making small but significant changes to the diet is really worth the effort.

There are 2 types of cholesterol:

Low density lipoprotein (LDL) is the baddie.

High density lipoprotein (HDL) is the goodie.

As you get older its advisable to have regular medical check-ups to monitor your blood cholesterol level. A high cholesterol is only one risk factor of many for heart disease but never-the-less it's an important one. Your GP can test you and tell you if it's high but before you panic clarify with your doctor whether it's your LDL cholesterol or your HDL cholesterol level that's high.

Problems develop when LDL cholesterol undergoes a chemical process called 'oxidation' and it starts to build up on the artery walls, causing them to narrow. Conversely, HDL cholesterol (the goodie) removes cholesterol from the circulation, and protects against heart disease. Your goal is to have a low level of LDL and a high level of HDL.

The good news is replacing some saturated fat with monounsaturated fat (e.g. olive oil) will improve the ratio of good HDL cholesterol to bad LDL cholesterol in your blood.
When your arteries narrow due to the oxidized LDL, the accumulated material forms a hardened plaque. This means that less blood can flow through the artery to the heart and you may get chest pain (angina), particularly during exercise.
Sometimes a large blood clot can form as a result of the plaque rupturing. This can completely stop the blood supply from reaching the heart. This is a heart attack. Blood clots form when the blood cells stick together. Again there are certain foods that can increase or decrease the tendency of these blood cells to stick together e.g. Oily fish makes blood cells less sticky.
So - Some cholesterol is essential, but too much of it can put you at risk of circulation problems, even a heart attack or stroke.

Our livers make a lot of our body's cholesterol, but what we eat also affects our cholesterol levels too. Whether or not you are taking medication, making the right food choices can really help you to manage your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease as well as other health problems. Fundamentally making better food choices now can really be an effective weapon in the battle for a longer, healthier life.

Fats and protein rich foods
If you cant live without them, reduce fatty foods as much as you can (eat less cakes, biscuits, pastries, confectionary, fried foods and take aways) as this will help to reduce some of the bad fats in your diet such as trans fats and saturated fats. This change will also help you to lose extra weight around the middle which in turn can often help to lower your cholesterol.
If you eat a lot of unhealthy saturated fat (the predominant fat found in butter, cream, hard cheeses etc), try lower fat dairy options or better still try healthier monounsaturated fat (such as an olive oil spread, olive and rapeseed oils, unsalted nuts and avocados.
Reduce the amount of processed meats you eat (pate, bacon, salami, poor quality sausages, burgers etc) and limit your red meat to 3 six ounce servings of lean red meat a week.
If you like eggs and your cholesterol is high, you can eat between 4 to 6 eggs per week, unless your doctor advises you to reduce further.

Fish and fish oils
Eating oily fish (such as salmon, trout, fresh tuna, sardines, herring and mackerel) twice a week can help to reduce the risk of heart disease and also to improve the chances of survival after a heart attack. We don't know exactly how, but it's thought that the protective omega 3 fats in oily fish keep the heartbeat regular, reduce the level of triglycerides (another group of bad fats in the blood), and prevents blood clots from forming in the arteries by making the cells less sticky. So even though it doesn't directly lower your cholesterol levels it is one of the most important changes we can make to our diet in order to lower our risk of heart disease. If you don't eat fish, discuss the use of omega 3 supplements with your doctor.

Soluble fibre
Eat more of this type of fibre found in oats, and cereals made from oats such as porridge or unsweetened muesli, fruits and pulses (peas, beans and lentils). It has been shown to lower the amount of cholesterol absorbed from the intestine into the body.
Soya beans also contain soluble fibre and can lower cholesterol as seen in many Asian diets.

Fruit and vegetables
Eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day can help to reduce your risk of heart disease, because they're rich in potassium which helps to regulate your blood pressure and also full of antioxidants vitamins which help prevent plaque from building up on the inside walls of the arteries.

Reducing the amount of salt you eat will also help keep your blood pressure down. Look out for hidden salt in certain breads, breakfast cereals, processed meats and cheese, dried soups and sauces, salty crisps and nuts. Gradually add less salt to your plate. Use more herbs, spices, garlic and lemon juice instead to flavour food.

Too much alcohol can damage the heart muscle, increase blood pressure and also lead to weight gain. However, moderate drinking (between 1 and 2 units of alcohol a day) can help protect the heart in men aged over 40 and women who have gone through the menopause.

Functional Foods
The term 'functional foods' is used to describe any food that contains an ingredient that gives the food health-promoting properties over and above its usual nutritional value. The active ingredients in functional margarines (such as Dairy gold heart, Benecol and Flora Pro-Activ) are plant stanol or sterol esters. These are naturally occurring substances found in many grains such as wheat, rye and maize. They have a similar structure to cholesterol and so they compete with it in the gut and inhibit the absorption of cholesterol. These spreads may be helpful for people with raised blood cholesterol levels, if they are used to substitute a standard spread and eaten as part of a healthy diet. They can lower blood cholesterol by about 10-14%.


Cholesterol is one of the real "treatable" factors that can help decrease the incidence of things like coronary disease. Strict diet alone can be very successful in lowering your levels of cholesterol and the key issue is to minimise your intake of animal fats such as butter and to eat moderate amounts of red meat.

Good Cholesterol foods:

. Piece of red meat
. Salmon
. Some eggs
. Lentils
. Garlic bulb
. Unsalted nuts
. Mixed Herbs

Bad Cholesterol Foods:
. Processed meat - Salami
. Bacon
. Block of butter
. Pate
. Biscuits
. Salt

Functional Foods:

. Dairy gold heart
. Benecol
. Flora Pro-Activ

Heart disease - Ireland's No.1 Killer
"Approximately 10,000 people die each year from cardiovascular disease (CVD) - including coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke and other circulatory diseases. CVD is the most common cause of death in Ireland, accounting for 36% of all deaths. The largest number of these deaths relate to CHD - mainly heart attack - at 5,000. 22% of premature deaths (under age 65) are from CVD."

Source: Irish Heart Foundation