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Foods that are surprisingly bad for your cholesterol

'Low cholesterol' label alert

Blood cholesterol is more affected by the type and amount of fat you eat rather than the amount of cholesterol a food contains. Check the nutritional analysis and serving size before you tuck in. Foods with a ‘red’ traffic light flash for total and saturated fat should be eaten in small amounts to limit their effect on ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol levels.

Thai takeaway

Thai food is a popular, spicy choice and it can be a healthy option, but like all meals the type and amount of fat used in cooking can influence blood cholesterol levels. Coconut oil, coconut milk and coconut cream are rich in saturated fats. Remember that coconut oil and coconut cream are not low calorie options, so if you need to control your weight to help manage your cholesterol levels, choose noodle dishes with chicken and vegetables as a heart-healthy option.

Better breakfast

Muesli and granola can be a healthy choice, but check the label first. Some brands come with a hefty amount of sugar and, more worrying for your cholesterol levels, saturated fat. Choose a wholegrain cereal and add fresh fruit as a healthier breakfast choice.

Prawns – enjoy on a cholesterol lowering diet

If you’re watching your blood cholesterol levels it seems logical to avoid cholesterol-rich foods such as prawns and other shellfish, yet research shows that shellfish have almost no effect on blood cholesterol levels at all. That’s because our blood levels of cholesterol depend not on dietary cholesterol intake, but on how much fat we’ve eaten, particularly saturated fat. Prawns are a low fat food and so have little effect on blood cholesterol levels. When we eat a cholesterol rich food our liver scales back production of blood cholesterol, and so total cholesterol remains the same. So if you enjoy a prawn cocktail, remember it’s not the prawns that are cholesterol-risky, but the high fat dressing. So choose the low fat option of your favourite prawn cocktail and do your heart a favour.

Mexican food

Mexican food has recently seen a surge in popularity in the UK – especially Mexican meal kits. However, if you go the ‘whole hog’ with the refried beans, sour cream, guacamole dip with plenty of meat and cheese at a mealtime you’re bound to increase blood cholesterol levels – and not in a good way. Enjoy corn or flour tortillas but fill with lean meat or chicken. Drained tinned kidney beans mashed with a fork are a healthier alternative to refried beans, and a dollop of thick natural yoghurt or crème fraiche to top your tortilla, rather than the same amount of sour cream, significantly lowers your fat intake – and helps your blood cholesterol level too.

Butter dilemma

Butter or margarine? It's a dilemma faced weekly when we have such a choice in the supermarket. All butters are 80% fat, which makes them a high fat, high calorie product. Traditionally, margarines were 80% fat, too. Over the years, manufacturers have produced lower fat versions that range from 40-70% fat. These lower fat products are often just called 'spreads'. So which to choose? First of all, flip the tub of your favourite choices and compare the ‘per 100g' values on the nutritional analysis panel. Best choice is a lower fat spread, for example one containing 60-70g fat per 100g. Next, compare the types of fat in the spread. Of the fat that's in the product, we’re looking for the one with the highest amount of monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat, and the least amount of saturated fat.

Pasta pointers

The success of the Mediterranean diet is largely due to its focus on a varied diet with modest meat intake but rich in fruits and vegetables, wholegrains and with monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) from olives and olive oil the main dietary fat. Monounsaturates have less of an effect on blood cholesterol than other fats do, and they also help to protect our arteries from damage – two important means of ensuring heart health. It’s easy to 'Medterraneanise' your pasta meals – choose tomato based sauces rather than creamy sauces, and limit the lasagne and cannelloni stuffed with cheese. Cooking pasta at home? Buy the wholemeal (brown) version. Unlike brown rice, it cooks quickly and tastes similar to white pasta. Your fussy eaters may not even notice the difference.

Energy bar balance

Power bars, or energy bars, are often thought of as a health food but beware. It's easy to think of energy bars as giving you a physical boost, but in fact they’re a high calorie snack bar designed for athletes to help meet the calorie demand of training. If you're trying to reduce your weight, compare the nutrition labels, and choose the lowest calorie bar as your preferred option.

Ghee grief

Indian food is hugely popular in the UK and it can be a good choice. However, ghee is a staple in Indian cooking. Ghee is clarified butter, which is butter that has been boiled to remove its natural water content. This means ghee has more fat and more calories per 100g than butter, and is also higher in saturated fats than butter. So if you fancy an Indian takeaway or you’re eating out, reduce your fat intake by avoiding meats in butter sauces; choose plain naan and rice rather than peshwari or pilau; and limit fat rich choices like onion bhaji and poppadoms. It’s also worth letting your side dishes cool a little before eating, as the oil in the dish will rise to the top, so you can scoop this bit away and enjoy the rest of the dish.

Chicken and turkey

Chicken and turkey are healthy low-fat diet choices that help control cholesterol levels, and a Sunday roast dinner is a popular weekend meal. Chicken and turkey are low fat meats but what we do to them can make them a less healthy choice. Chicken Kiev (chicken breast stuffed with garlic butter and covered in breadcrumbs) makes for a high fat choice, and chicken en-croute (wrapped in pastry, and usually with an additional flavoursome stuffing) is also a high calorie, high fat option. Leave these chicken dishes for occasions, and roast, bake or casserole chicken for a lower fat everyday meal.

Dairy decisions

Yes, milk is good for you. It's packed with essential nutrients like protein and calcium, with even full fat milk being only 4% fat. It’s a different story for milk products, though. Cream, hard cheeses (like Cheddar or Red Leicester) and Channel Islands milk are high in both fat and saturated fats, so limit your intake if you’re trying to lower cholesterol. Lower fat hard cheeses and cottage cheese are better options. Look for 30% reduced fat Cheddar and Cheshire cheeses with a taste and texture as good as the original full fat versions. Naturally lower fat 'hard' cheeses such as Edam, Feta, Brie, Danish Blue, Camembert and Austrian smoked cheeses contain less than 30g fat per 100g cheese (or less than 10g fat per 30g serving), so there's plenty of options if you like cheese but need to control cholesterol levels. If you're watching your weight to help lower cholesterol, choose lower fat milks such as semi-skimmed, or skimmed milk, in preference to whole milk.

Understanding and lowering elevated cholesterol

Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on January 11, 2017

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