The absolute mandate for improving cholesterol levels is to first make changes in lifestyle (both diet and exercise). Even when drugs are used, healthy diet and physical activity are critical companions.
There are many major dietary approaches for protecting health, such as the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and healthy types of fats. Doctors generally agree on the following recommendations for heart protection:
- Choose fiber-rich food (whole grains, legumes, and nuts) as the main source of carbohydrates, along with a high intake of fruits and vegetables. Walnuts in particular have cholesterol-lowering properties and are a good source of antioxidants and alpha-linolenic acid.
- Avoid saturated fats (found mostly in animal products) and trans fatty acids (found in hydrogenated fats and many commercial products and fast foods). Choose unsaturated fats (particularly omega-3 fatty acids found in vegetable and fish oils). For dairy products, choose low fat over high fat.
- For proteins, choose soy protein, poultry, and fish over meat. Studies have found that soy does not help improve cholesterol. However, it is still a heart healthy food choice.
- Fish is particularly heart protective. People who don’t or won’t eat fish can take a daily fish oil supplement. Omega-3 fatty acid fish oil supplements contain docasahexaenoic (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic (EPA) acids, which have significant benefits for the heart, particularly for lowering triglyceride levels. Fish oil supplements are also available in prescription form (Lovaza).
- Controlling weight, quitting smoking, and exercising are essential companions of any diet program.
After embarking on any heart healthy diet, it generally takes an average of 3 – 6 months before any noticeable reduction in cholesterol occurs. However, some people see improved levels in as few as 4 weeks. An intensive program may be necessary to achieve significant improvements in cholesterol levels and to reduce heart risk factors. Continue reading