The Cheap Girl’s Guide to Lowering Cholesterol Without Suffering
Two months ago, I had a nasty little note in my mailbox at work. It was not a good way to start a Monday.
A laboratory near my hospital department needed volunteers to have their blood drawn so that their new employees could practice. I have easy-to-find veins, and their manager asked me to help, so I signed up. In return, I was told that I would receive a free printout of my cholesterol levels. So I submitted to a lab tech, let her practice on me, and promptly forgot all about it. When I arrived at work a couple of days later, I noticed a note in my mail basket, and opened it to find the cholesterol test results. Shocker! For the first time in my life, some of my cholesterol levels were “borderline.” (See also: 25 Healthy Changes You Can Make Today)
I am sure that those of you who read my posts about hot dogs or sauces are now thinking, “Well, duh, stupid!” Whoops, almost forgot about those corn flake cookies (which are truly exceptional). Anyway, I’m just shamelessly plugging my posts, and I digress.
I spent a little time bothering my co-workers with my results (oddly, they didn’t seem shocked or surprised). I also whined to my husband, who suggested I check to see what Paula Deen recommended. He’s a laugh a minute.
Finally, I sat down with our friend, the Internet, and did some reading. Sure enough, my diet needed some work. Yes, readers, I admit it — I have been in total denial. In retrospect, I think I was just wondering how long I could get away with my life of dietary debauchery.
The answer — 49 years. There you go.
I was not interested in using drugs to lower my cholesterol, nor was there an indication from my physician to do so. As you know from my previous posts, I always prefer the do-it-yourself approach.
What You Should Know About Cholesterol
If you are age 20 or older, you should get checked at least once every five years. This is especially true if you are overweight, have a family history of heart problems, are not physically active, are diabetic, or eat a high-fat diet.
Finding the lab results page a little confusing, I did some research about what the terms mean. From the Mayo Clinic:
Total cholesterol. This is a sum of your blood's cholesterol content.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. This is sometimes called the "good" cholesterol because it helps carry away LDL cholesterol, thus keeping arteries open and your blood flowing more freely.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. This is sometimes called the "bad" cholesterol. Too much of it in your blood causes the buildup of fatty deposits (plaques) in your arteries (atherosclerosis), which reduces blood flow. These plaques sometimes rupture and can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Triglycerides. Triglycerides are a type of fat in the blood. When you eat, your body converts any calories it doesn't need into triglycerides, which are stored in fat cells. High triglyceride levels usually mean you regularly eat more calories than you burn. High levels are also seen in overweight people, in those who eat too many sweets or drink too much alcohol, and in people with diabetes who have elevated blood sugar levels.
So, just how much cholesterol should a normal, healthy person be eating? The magic number is about 300 mg a day.
What I Have Been Doing to Improve
I need to point out to you that I refused to suffer. I love to cook, and eat, and if I couldn’t make things that tasted good, it wasn’t going to work.
My husband, always supportive, purchased several cookbooks for me. One of them has become a sort of bible — the American Heart Association’s Low-Fat, Low-Cholesterol Cookbook. I also purchased Mark Bittman’s Food Matters. Besides a lot of information about healthy eating, it contains great recipes. The internet also contains hundreds of low-cholesterol recipes. It's just a matter of educating yourself and picking up some new techniques. I have become a huge user of herbs. We eat a lot more fish and vegetables. I even snack differently — now I will have a handful of nuts instead of some slices of sharp cheddar. I have really re-vamped the way I shop and cook.
What foods should you look for? I started by following the Mayo Clinic's "Top Five" recommendations:
- Oatmeal, oat bran, and high-fiber foods
- Walnuts, almonds, and other nuts
- Olive oil
- Foods with added plant sterols or stanols (these help to block your absorption of cholesterol)
For breakfast, I love eggs. I made the switch to egg whites, and now I scramble them with leftover brown rice and whatever vegetables I have handy. Not only is it fast and easy, but I find it equally satisfying. Lunches are usually either a half of a sandwich on wheat bread, or leftovers. Dinners are my favorite meal to cook, and I am enjoying the challenge of using the "Top Fives." For example, fresh pesto made with walnuts, olive oil, just a little Parmesan, and fresh basil is great over oven-baked fish and whole-wheat pasta.
My big nemesis is portion control. It isn't enough to change what you eat; you have to stop OVER-eating. The American Heart Association recommends, for the general public, these guidelines:
- Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
- Eat at least six servings of grain products daily.
- Eat no more than 6 ounces (cooked weight) of lean meat, fish, or skinless poultry per day. Have at least two servings of fish per week.
- Limit yourself to less than 300 mg of cholesterol and less than 2,400 mg of sodium daily.
- Include low-fat and fat-free dairy products, legumes, and poultry in your plan.
- If you drink, limit yourself to one drink per day if you are a woman and two drinks per day if you are a man.
Why exercise? It helps you to lose weight, and if you are overweight, you tend to have more LDL ("bad") cholesterol. A good basic start is to get at least 30 minutes a day. You do not have to join a gym — check out Andrea's great post about Fitness for People Who Hate Exercise, Janey's Exercising in a Winder Wonderland, or Camilla's Where to Find Free or Cheap Yoga Classes.
I am still not where I want to be with exercise, but I have found several types that I like (wait — make that “tolerate”). I walk, use a mini-trampoline, do a little morning yoga, and am occasionally dragged by friends to Zumba. When the weather improves, I’ll swim. I know it is a matter of commitment and increasing duration.
What Are My Results?
In roughly two months:
- My total cholesterol dropped 27 points, from 209 to 182, and my HDL (“good cholesterol”) increased from 73 to 75. Unfortunately, my volunteer test did not provide my LDL (“bad cholesterol”), so I have no benchmark to compare, but my second test shows it at an acceptable 73.
- My triglycerides, which should ideally be under 150, actually went up from 158 to 169. There are several factors which may be influencing it, and I hope those are my underactive thyroid, since I have issues with that, or another medication I take.
- I have saved money. Over two months, I have saved $160 from my grocery budget. All you vegans and vegetarians can scream, "I TOLD YOU SO!" As it turns out, vegetables and grains are pretty cheap. Who knew?
- I have lost 3 pounds.
It’s a start. I am going to keep working on it, because I love a challenge and I know it’s high time I took better care of myself. My new goals include:
- Monthly "try a new grain" recipes.
- Increasing my exercise time from 30 minutes a day to 45.
- Building my low-fat/low-cholesterol cookbook collection (the used bookstore has been a treasure trove).
And finally, here's a link to one of my new favorite recipes, from The American Heart Association's Low-Fat, Low-Cholesterol Cookbook — a turkey and vegetable calzone.
If any of you smarty-pants vegetarians or vegans have recipes that are really, truly, good, please share. I now have an open mind.
Before embarking on any diet or exercise programs, consult with your physician.
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