Twelve years ago I was in my mid-20s. I exercised regularly and was not overweight. I didn't eat red meat but, other than that, I had a pretty typical diet. That year I had a routine medical check-up and learned that my cholesterol level was 205 (anything over 200 is of concern). Because high cholesterol runs in my family, that number sent me into a panic. I began researching ways to lower my cholesterol with dietary changes.
Today, I am twelve years older and weigh the same that I did back in 1998. My cholesterol level, though, was 145 at my last check-up. So what has changed? I stopped eating meat (including chicken and fish). Through my research, I learned how to get enough protein and the right nutrients from a plant-based diet. I learned that eating dairy products and eggs was also not a healthy choice for me and I have cut out those things from my daily diet as well.
Does eating healthy mean that I have a very limited number of foods to choose from? Absolutely not! I didn't just remove things from my diet. I also added an abundance of new choices- fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and more. A word of advice before I go on: If you are considering becoming a vegetarian or vegan, I recommend that you make the transition gradually. Do some reading to learn about your nutritional needs and experiment with new recipes and ways of preparing food. You are in charge of what you eat so don't feel pressure to adhere to anyone else's guidelines.
While I do believe that a vegetarian diet is the healthiest way to fuel your body, I also know that it is not appealing to many people. An American Heart Association survey found that 40% of American adults would not accept payment to forgo their favorite foods and 50% would accept no less than $100,000 to do so! I get it, people, I love cupcakes too!
Assuming that no one is really going to pay you to turn your diet upside down, here are 10 changes that you can make to help reduce your cholesterol:
- Reduce your intake of foods that contain dietary cholesterol or saturated fat (e.g. meat, eggs, dairy products) and eliminate all trans fats or hydrogenated oils from your diet (e.g. fried or processed foods, fast food). If you do eat meat and/or dairy, choose lower fat foods such as chicken and fish (no skin) and low fat dairy products.
- Ensure that your meal portion sizes are in check. If you do eat meat, the portion should fit in the palm of your hand.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables- aim for 6-9 servings every day (1 serving = 1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked veggies or 1/2 cup fruit).
- Make sure that you get your omega-3s. Good sources include flax, chia, and hemp seeds (or wild salmon for meat-eaters). Both vegan and non-veg supplements are also available.
- Increase your intake of whole grains such as oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, barley, oat bran, whole grain bread and pasta, etc.
- Get good fats from nuts and seeds (preferably raw), olive oil, and avocados.
- Move your body! Get at least 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week. Even going for a walk is much better than not moving at all.
- Keep your stress levels in check. Take time to relax and unwind daily.
- If you are overweight, work with your doctor to create a plan to lose the excess pounds.
- Eat at least 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day. This is easy to do if you are eating enough fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Lentils and beans are also excellent sources of fiber.
Have you had success with lowering your cholesterol without medication? What changes did you make?