The changing reputation of fat and cholesterol

Fat is bad, right?  It is highly caloric, adds pounds and inches to the waistline, and is one cause of heart disease.  That is what we have been told for, well, a long time.  And don’t even mention cholesterol.  That guy packed his bags and was chased out of town long ago.

Not so fast. Healthy eating recommendations are changing once again.  It is enough to make a dietitian cry, or at least eat crow.

A new set of Dietary Guidelines will be out later this year, and the advisory committee has published its report for consideration.  These current recommendations are based on better research than in the past.  Here are some of the committee’s recommendations concerning fat and cholesterol.

  • 1.  Replace saturated fat (SFA) with unsaturated fat (PUFA).  This is not really new because we have been prompted for several years to eat less fatty meat and fewer whole fat dairy items, both sources of saturated fat.  In place of those foods folks are encouraged to include low-fat or non-fat dairy, fish, oils, nuts, dried beans, and monounsaturated sources such as avocados in daily eating plans.

Total fat is not considered the issue, but the type of fat is.

  • 2.   Along with the idea above, another recommendation is to eat less red and processed meats.  This will not only improve our health, but that of the environment as well.  Interesting that the committee chose to address the environment.
  • 3.  Do not be overly concerned with dietary cholesterol.  It used to be that the daily limit for cholesterol consumption was 300 mg. Eggs weigh in around 200 mg, so we were advised to limit eggs to one per day. But dietary cholesterol has lost some of its importance as far as heart disease is concerned.

Worthy of note, diabetics are still cautioned to not overdo their cholesterol intake due to heart disease risk.  And blood cholesterol, the type that is measured with blood tests, may still be a concern.  A person’s LDL or low density cholesterol, if elevated, can increase one’s risk of heart disease.

There are other recommendations to limit sugar, refined carbs, and alcohol in our diets.  And the committee is also concerned about young people and their high consumption of caffeinated beverages.

It will be interesting to see how many of the recommendations the Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA decide to include in the new Dietary Guidelines.


Managing cholesterol levels

In a few short days it will be Septembe,r and the National Cholesterol Education Month campaign will begin.  There have been other columns on heart health here recently, but I think a reminder about maintaining healthy cholesterol levels is appropriate.

‘This is fresh in my mind because I had to tweak my diet and exercise plans recently.  My cholesterol was up too high, and I managed to reduce my total cholesterol by 40 points with exercise and diet changes  Now I have to work to keep it there!

So what can one do to improve?

So glad you asked.  Here are a few suggestions:

Make soluble fiber a priority. This fiber dissolves in water and forms a gel that helps to trap and remove cholesterol from the body.  Aim for at least ten grams each day.

Soluble fiber is found in oats, barley, flax, legumes, carrots, citrus fruits, apples, pears, and dried beans and peas, just to name a few.  Along with the fiber, include plenty of fluids to help the fiber do its work.  Add soluble fiber slowly.  This fiber can have a laxative effect if eaten in high amounts all at once.

Reduce saturated fat.  The American Heart Association advises people to consume no more than seven percent of total calories as saturated fat.  For a 2000 calorie intake, that would be 16 grams or less.  A grilled cheese sandwich by itself could rack up 10 grams of saturated fat.

To reduce that saturated fat in your diet, choose only low or non-fat dairy products, soft tub margarines, and the lower fat cuts of meat such as loin and round cuts.  Better yet, substitute chicken, fish, or soy for some of the meat you prepare.  Have one or two meatless days each week.  (And pass on the donuts at the office.)

Substitute healthy oils for other sources of fat.  Extra virgin olive oil, canola oil, seeds and their oils, walnuts, almonds, and avocados are all healthy replacements for other fats. This only works well if the not-so-healthy fats are replaced by the oils and nuts instead of added to the diet.  Otherwise, you will also add extra calories to the day and could gain weight, which is counterproductive to cholesterol control.

Get rid of added trans fats.  Totally.  Get this down to zero.  Foods to avoid include those with partially hydrogenated fat in the ingredient label.  Examples are fried foods, baked items, buttery crackers, processed savory snacks, and desserts, especially store-bought varieties.

Exercise for 30 minutes most days of the week.  This will help increase the good cholesterol HDL, decrease weight (which helps normalize cholesterol, too), and improve health overall.  Start slowly and work up to your goal.  If you are out of shape, a visit to your doctor for the ok is necessary. ( I increased my walks from 30 minutes to 45 minutes or an hour.)

While visiting with the doctor, discuss using products that contain plant sterols and stanols. These plant compounds are similar in form to cholesterol and can block the absorption of it.

The above suggestions will work best along with a healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  (Check the Ottawa Cardiovascular Centre for more information of eating for healthy cholesterol levels.)

Starting a walking regimen

I renewed my commitment to a daily walk not long ago, and decided to increase my meanderings to an hour each day.  I enjoy the fresh air and the exercise that I get.

Getting out early in the morning helps with my comfort level during the warmer months.  And early out helps me get my walking accomplished before the day’s responsibilities start knocking on the door (or buzzing on my phone).

This might be a good time for all of us to review our health goals.  I still think of September as a new year of sorts with the beginning of another school year.  And, considering that walking is great for weight maintenance, heart health, and one’s bone density, why not choose this for a goal?

If you are thinking of starting a new exercise regimen and want to add a few more steps to your day, here are a few suggestions.

  • Buy a pedometer to see how many steps you take.  Make a goal of 10,000 steps per day.
  • Park a few more blocks or parking spaces away from your destination.
  • Take the stairs.  Or, walk a few flights of stairs and then use the elevator.  Slowly increase the number of stairs you walk as you gain stamina.
  • Take a break from your favorite TV shows and walk around the house or walk up and down the stairs a few times.  Much better than getting up for a snack!
  • Or put the treadmill, that is gathering dust or collecting clothes, in front of the TV and walk while you watch.
  • Find a park and walk with friends, family members, or the dog.
  • At the office walk to your colleague’s desk instead of sending an email.
  • Set up regular walking dates with friends who share your goal.
  • Get a good pair of walking shoes so your feet enjoy the experience, too.

If it has been awhile since you have exercised, be sure to check with a medical professional to make sure that you are physically fit.  For more information on walking, check out the Mayo Clinic site.


Heart healthy eating–part two

In the last post I offered three ways to decrease risk of heart disease: increase fiber with fruits and veggies; choose good carbs such as whole grains (also sources of fiber); and avoid the unhealthy fats.  Here are a few more suggestions.

4.  Replace unhealthy fats with healthy versions.

Healthy fats include unsaturated types found in olive oil, canola oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, soy products, flax, and wheat germ.  Fatty fish are recommended, too, for the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.   These include salmon, sardines, mackerel, and halibut.  Try to include two servings a week.

Do you like a spread on your bread or potato?  Choose soft, tube margarines without tropical oils over the stick variety. Or, drizzle some extra virgin olive oil on your bread.  But just a bit.  A tablespoon is about 125 calories.

Remember that even the healthy fats pack a lot of calories.  So replace the unhealthy fats with healthy fats and do not just add them to your current intake.  

And, avoid fried foods.  Bake, broil, and roast instead.

5.  Reduce salt.

We eat too much salt.  People who are salt sensitive respond with elevated blood pressure. The guidelines for salt are now at 1500 mg per day, according to the American Heart Association.  The Dietary Guidelines are a bit more lenient, suggesting 2300 mg per day for healthy folks.  To decrease your salt intake, look for foods with less than 200 mg per serving.  

Limit processed foods such as cured meats, pickled foods, canned foods with salt, and savory snacks.  Soy sauce is a big offender.  Instead, try spices, herbs, and lemon to flavor dishes.  Choose the lower salt versions of beef and chicken broth.  These may not be at eye level on the grocery shelves, but they are available!

Eating more fruits and vegetables will help, too, because these foods are natural sources of potassium and can help lower blood pressure. 

With these guidelines in mind, check out some of the instant rice and potato mixes the next time you are shopping and see how much sodium is in a serving.  You will be surprised.

6.  Review healthy eating plans to help make dietary changes. 

There are several eating plans that can help put these recommendations together. The Mediterranean Diet in one that I like.  It includes whole grains, fruits and veggies, less meat, and, of course, olive oil,  It is not a low-fat diet, but a well-rounded one. 

Or consider the Dash Diet.  This diet plan is receiving good press as a way to lower blood pressure, help with weight loss, and prevent kidney stones.  The Dash Diet is a medium-fat eating plan, focusing on fruits and veggies, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.

7.  Reduce the added sugars that you consume

I don’t think that sugar is a poison or the cause of all our ills.  But I do think that we eat too much in the form of baked goods and sweetened drinks.  A person can drink a lot of calories in the form of sugar before feeling full.  And  a high intake of sugar can cause weight gain and an increase in triglycerides, which can lead to heart disease. Get your sweet fix from fruit, limit yourself to one serving of juice per day, and drink water flavored with lemon or lime.  I do like stevia for an artificial sweetener.  But don’t overdo the artificial sweeteners, either.

Bonus:  A word on chocolate.

Yes, dark chocolate is heart-healthy.  The thought is that compounds in cocoa may protect against heart disease by reducing inflammation and improving cholesterol levels. But remember that chocolate does contain fat, and therefore is a source of considerable calories if eaten in large amounts.  If you enjoy chocolate, choose dark chocolate with at least 60% cocoa solids.

Which suggestion will you try today?




Heart healthy eating–part one

Heart disease is the number one killer of women.  There are several ways to reduce the risk of heart disease in both women and men, including regular exercise and good nutrition.  Here are a few dietary ways to boost your heart health.  If your eating habits need some tweaking,  start with one suggestion and slowly add the rest to decrease your risk of heart disease.

1.  Increase fiber with fruits and veggies.

Adult women need at least 25 grams of fiber every day, and men can handle more.  This includes both insoluble fiber and soluble fiber.  The former is found in the bran layer of grains and in fruit and vegetable peels.  The latter is found in the flesh of fruits and veggies and some grains such as barley, oats, dried beans and peas, apples, prunes, oranges, sweet potatoes, passion fruit, and psyllium (found in All Bran Buds and Metamucil).

Soluble fiber dissolves in water–for example, pectin–whereas insoluble fiber like bran does not. Soluble fiber is particularly useful in helping to lower LDL cholesterol. To lower cholesterol, 10 grams of soluble fiber is a good amount to consume daily.  How much is that?  If you include one cup of oatmeal, one-half cup of beans, one cup of broccoli, and an orange or pear for a snack in your day, you will have approximately eight to ten grams of soluble fiber.

For daily fruit and vegetable intake, adults should aim for four to four and one-half cups a day, depending on your calorie intake.  If you have some fruits and veggies at each meal and with snacks, this amount is doable.  Another way to look at this is to make sure that one half of your plate is covered with these foods.  If you prefer, think of this as 8 to 9 one half cup servings each day.

2.  Choose good carbs such as whole grains.

To be a whole grain product, the first ingredient on a label must be described as whole, such as whole wheat, whole rye, etc.  These products often have the claim of 100% whole grain on the package or may show the whole grain stamp.  The current recommendation is for three servings a day, each serving being one ounce.

If grains are boring, try something new such as quinoa, bulgur, or buckwheat.  Barley is a versatile grain than is not just for soup anymore.  Barley can be made into salads, pilafs, and side dishes.

3.  Avoid the not-so-healthy fats.

We don’t have to avoid all fat anymore, as was the suggestion in the ’90’s.  But there are some fats that are definitely not good for our hearts.  First of all, get rid of the trans fats in your diet.  Trans fats are created when oils are changed to solid fats.  Think can of Crisco.  These solid fats have been treated with hydrogen (hydrogenated) to render them shelf stable and less likely to turn rancid than the oil version.  However, the trans fats that result can raise LDL cholesterol and thus increase heart disease risk.

The FDA has determined that trans fats are not safe and should be eliminated from our processed foods.  Until this happens, be sure to check the ingredient list for partially hydrogenated fats.  This terminology indicates that there are trans fats in the food, even if the label states zero trans fats.  Manufacturers can list zero if the amount is below 0.5 grams.

Also, cut back on saturated fat found in full-fat dairy, meats, tropical oils, and processed foods (cupcakes, donuts, etc.).  Look for cuts of round and loin when shopping for meat and skip the bacon and highly marbled cuts.

Want to learn more?  Stay tuned for part two!