Add flavour, curb cholesterol
It's well known that when you have too much fat and saturated fat in your diet your levels of LDL—often termed 'bad' cholesterol – will rise. A high level of LDL increases your risk of heart disease, heart attacks and stroke. But some foods can help maintain levels of HDL – 'good' cholesterol that helps to clear excess bad cholesterol from around the body. The good news is you don’t have to sacrifice flavour for goodness. Read on for delicious, easy and heart-healthy foods to add to your everyday recipes.
Indulge in dark delights
LDL cholesterol is large fatty balls travelling through the arteries. It's relatively easy for LDL to 'drop' fat onto the artery wall, which starts the process of atherosclerosis and blood vessel damage. A high level of dietary antioxidants can help to stabilise the fat ball to maintain artery health, so lessening the impact of LDL cholesterol on heart disease.
Dark chocolate is rich in cocoa flavonoids - antioxidants thought to be beneficial for heart health. The darker the chocolate, the greater its flavonoid content. Chocolate is a high fat, high sugar treat, so eating an entire selection box isn't a smart idea. Eat in moderation. The higher the percentage cocoa solids in your chocolate, the higher its natural antioxidant content.
Avocados are fatty fruits, rich in healthy monounsaturated fat, which is beneficial for heart health. American studies confirm that avocado consumption is associated with diets of a better nutritional quality, and a lower risk of metabolic syndrome – a collection of conditions known to accelerate heart disease. Avocado slices can be added to a turkey sandwich or salad, while the sweet, subtle flavour of avocado oil can be substituted for other cooking oils. Remember avocados are also high in calories so moderation is also important.
Raise a glass to red wine that contains resveratrol - a polyphenol plant compound that has been linked to better heart health. There's some evidence in animal studies that its antioxidant properties may help reduce inflammation. This may prevent the oxidation of LDL "bad" cholesterol, and make it more difficult for platelets to stick together and form the clots that can lead to heart attacks. More research is needed and of course, drinking too much alcohol can certainly add to health issues. Nevertheless, enjoying a glass of red wine at dinner is fine. Again, just don't overdo it.
Make time for tea
In the UK we drink 165 million cups of tea every day, so it's nice to know that both black and green teas contain powerful antioxidants that could help your heart and reduce cholesterol levels. Whilst the health benefits of green tea are well established, black tea (the type most commonly drunk in the UK) also has benefits in terms of blood pressure and blood vessel health. Some research has shown a possible reduction in heart disease and stroke risk with three cups of black tea a day. Black tea is merely green tea leaves left longer to dry in the sun, which changes the leaf colour from green to dark brown/black, and also alters some of the antioxidants found in the tea. However, both forms of tea provide us with tea catechins, which we know contribute to overall health. So put the kettle on and enjoy a cuppa.
Nuts are high in monounsaturated fat, dietary fibre and plant substances, which studies show play a role in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. The British Nutrition Foundation cites research that shows people who eat about 30g (about an ounce) of nuts a day have a lower risk of heart disease. Sprinkle almonds, walnuts, or pistachios on your salad, or grab a small handful for a healthy, lower sugar, heart-healthy snack.
Home in on wholegrains
Wholegrains are heart-healthy foods that also have health benefits in reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease, and are an essential component of the Mediterranean diet. The Nordic style diet, rich in oily fish and berries, has also shown heart-healthy benefits with wholegrains as part of dietary recommendations. Oat fibre in particular has a protective effect on cholesterol and blood sugar levels to help protect against heart disease. Wholegrain pasta is an easy swap to make, and try wholegrain or wholemeal breads as a regular alternative to white. Brown rice does take longer to cook but the ready-to-heat precooked brown rice sachets are a great alternative. Include wholegrain cereals as part of your breakfast routine too.
The NHS says there’s strong evidence that omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in oily fish, can help maintain a healthy heart and reduce the risk of heart disease. The Eatwell Guide suggests eating fish twice a week of which one should be oily – like salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel that have been shown to reduce fatty triglycerides in the blood.
Not sure which fish are oily? Non-oily fish like cod, haddock and plaice have a white flesh – whereas oily fish are always coloured, usually with brown or pink coloured flesh.
Oodles of olive oil
A diet rich in unsaturated fats, like those found in olive, rapeseed, sunflower and corn oils helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Saturated fats, like those found in butter, palm oil and trans fats are linked with increasing levels of LDL cholesterol that take longer to clear from the circulation. Most ready-made salad dressings are now made from healthier fats, but for an easy homemade healthy salad dressing, try olive oil mixed with red wine vinegar, add garlic, pepper, spices and herbs to suit your preferences.
The joy of soya
25-30g of soya protein daily can help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Edamame (another name for soya beans), soya milk, and soya products like tofu are high in protein, so try snacking on edamame, having cereal with soya milk, or substitute tofu for meat in pasta dishes, salads or stir fries. The best effect of soy is when soy products are used to replace meat in a dish – so why not try a veggie option each week? Whether soy, beans, or pulses, your heart will thank you for it.
Beans, lentils and peas are all rich in soluble fibre. Soluble fibre helps to lower cholesterol – especially LDL cholesterol. An average portion of 130g daily can reduce cholesterol levels by up to 5%. Add lentils to stews and casseroles, have a serving of bean salad or hummus to accompany your lunch, and try a meat-free meal at least once a week. Quorn (mycoprotein) has also been shown to have a beneficial cholesterol-lowering effect.
An apple a day...
The flesh of apples and pears contains a soluble fibre known as pectin, which can help control cholesterol levels. Whole and dried apples, and cloudy apple juice are rich in pectins, but clear apple juice has a cholesterol raising rather than a cholesterol lowering effect.
Go for veg
5-a-day of fruit and vegetables is good for your health. However, the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) suggests that most adults eat just over three portions of fruit and veg a day, with fewer than 1 in 3 of us managing 5-a-day. As well as natural fibres that help to manage cholesterol, the antioxidants present as vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals help to stabilise blood cholesterol, and help it travel more safely around our circulation without damaging our arteries.
Plant sterols and stanols are substances that are found naturally in small amounts in grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, and can help control cholesterol when incorporated into a healthy diet. The optimum dose to reduce cholesterol levels is hard to achieve through diet alone, but supplement drinks and spreads containing stanol or sterol esters are available. Take just before or just after your main meal for maximum effect, which can be a cholesterol reduction of around 10%, a value associated with reduced heart disease risk.