Smart choices from your pantry shelf can make a significant difference to your heartAccording to the new healthcare mandate, all insurance policies are required to offer free annual health checkups that include blood tests. This is a crucial time to get a standard cholesterol test, and possibly the VAP test (vertical auto profile). The VAP test may not be covered by your provider, but is now recommended for revealing more accurate analysis.
What your doctor will be on the lookout for is elevated levels of calcium LDL (low-density lipoprotein), known as the “bad cholesterol.” High levels of it in the blood are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. LDL transports cholesterol to cells within the body, which use it to repair their membranes. Unfortunately, it can also carry cholesterol to the coronary arteries, where it combines with other substances to form plaque. The result is atherosclerosis, which can lead to angina or cardiac arrest.
Luckily, a number of common foods contain substances that can help to lower LDL cholesterol and protect against its harmful effects.
The pasty texture of oatmeal porridge is due to a type of soluble fiber called beta glucan. As oats are digested, the beta glucan dissolves into a thick gel that binds to cholesterol in the gastrointestinal tract. The cholesterol is then excreted along with the fiber. Because beta glucan reduces the amount of cholesterol absorbed by the gut, the body must remove cholesterol from the bloodstream in order to produce the bile necessary for digestion. Studies have shown that eating two to four portions of oat-based foods each day can lower total LDL cholesterol by an average of 5 percent within four weeks. Besides oatmeal, good sources of beta-glucan include oatmeal, oat breakfast cereals (but watch the sugar and salt content), and real oat bread, not the kind that has only a few oats added to allow for a more appealing label.
The cacao bean is rich in oleic acid, the same heart-healthy monounsaturated fat found in olive oil. It also contains polyphenols called flavonoids, which act as powerful antioxidants. When LDL cholesterol is oxidized, it travels to the lining of the arteries and forms a plaque which restricts blood flow and can result in heart disease. Flavonoids help protect LDL from dangerous oxidation. In one study, participants consumed 50 grams of dark chocolate a day over a 15-day period. Compared to a control group that consumed white chocolate, their LDL cholesterol went down by an average of 20 percent while their HDL cholesterol (“good cholesterol”) increased by the same amount. Choose a chocolate bar containing at least 70 percent cocoa to receive similar benefits.
Walnuts are rich in phytosterols and alpha linolenic acid. These natural compounds interfere with cholesterol absorption and help the body to remove excess cholesterol from the bloodstream more efficiently. Studies have shown that eating approximately 12 walnuts a day can reduce LDL cholesterol by up to 10 percent. Walnuts have an additional benefit for heart health: They help to lower blood pressure by enhancing the function of the endothelial cells that line the walls of the blood vessels. Chopped walnuts can be tossed onto salads, stirred into yogurt or cold cereal, mixed into baked goods, or used as a crunchy topping for fruit desserts.
Salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 essential fatty acids. Studies have shown that sufficient levels of omega-3 in the diet increase HDL, also known as the “good cholesterol.” HDL transports cholesterol particles to the liver, removing them from the bloodstream before they can form arterial plaque. Omega-3 also lowers levels of triglycerides, another blood profile indicator of potential heart problems. Epidemiological research has found that diets rich in oily fish significantly lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Other fish with high levels of omega-3 include trout, mackerel, herring, skipjack tuna, sardines, and anchovies.
Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, a powerful antioxidant. Lycopene helps to prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which leads to the formation of plaque in the arteries. It also lowers levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood. In one study, participants consumed 60 mg of lycopene a day. After three months, their average LDL cholesterol was reduced by 14 percent.
Cooking tomatoes changes the structure of lycopene, allowing more of it to be absorbed by the cells. Eating tomatoes along with healthy fats also increases the absorption of the antioxidant. Tomato soup, marinara sauce and tomato salads made with olive oil are all good sources of lycopene.
Including more LDL-lowering foods in your daily diet can decrease your risk for heart disease and stroke. However, certain other changes may be just as important. Smoking, heavy drinking, obesity, and lack of exercise can all raise LDL. To ensure the right balance between “good” and “bad” cholesterol, combine a healthy diet with a healthy lifestyle.