I can’t believe it’s now been over a year since I started my cholesterol-lowering journey and started writing this blog. The last 12 months have flown by so quickly. I had a health check up last Thursday, and I’m pleased to say that my cholesterol hasn’t increased since my last check up – in fact it’s gone down. My total cholesterol is currently 4.3 mmol/L, and my HDL (‘good’) cholesterol is 2.04 mmol/L.
I always get a bit worried in the days leading up to my check ups, in case my cholesterol has crept back up. But now that I’ve managed to keep my cholesterol down for 12 months, I feel more confident that I can maintain this in the long term and hopefully reduce the risk of heart disease.
So, as it seems to be working, I thought I’d share the most useful things I’ve learnt over the last 12 months:-
1. Oats and beans are two of the best cholesterol-reducing foods.
I still find it crazy that these simple food staples are so powerful, but it turns out they really can do wonders for your heart health if eaten daily. And the best thing is, they’re inexpensive and you can buy them pretty much anywhere.
There are loads of ways to fit oats and beans into your daily diet, some very surprising ones. Here are some of my favourites:-
- Apple & cinnamon porridge
- Pancakes with yoghurt & berries
- Apple & mango smoothie
- Sausage & bean casserole
- Spiced salmon filo pie
- Chicken & vegetable curry
- Chocolate & raisin oaties
- Black bean chocolate brownies
The other top cholesterol-reducing foods are apples, almonds, walnuts, ground flaxseeds, sesame seeds, soya products and garlic. Click here for recipe ideas.
2. Eating foods that are low in saturated fat can help to keep your cholesterol low.
It’s recommended that those with a history of high cholesterol should try to mainly eat foods that have less than 1.5g saturated fat per 100g. I’ve found this a really useful guideline, and as a lot of food packaging shows the sat fat amount now, it’s been pretty easy to pick the right things.
Here are some of the easiest ways to reduce the amount of saturated fat in your meals:-
- Cook with olive oil instead of butter.
- Grill foods instead of frying them.
- Remove visible fat and skin from meat.
- Choose semi-skimmed instead of whole milk.
- Boil or poach eggs instead of frying.
- Eat fat free natural yoghurt instead of full fat.
- Use olive oil based salad dressings instead of mayonnaise.
3. Eating healthy fats increases good cholesterol.
Replacing unhealthy saturated fats with healthy unsaturated fats can help to keep your bad cholesterol down and your good cholesterol up. An easy way to distinguish between the two is that saturated fats are solid at room temperature, while unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature.
Some of the best sources of healthy unsaturated fats are olive oil, avocado, oily fish, nuts and seeds, so I try to eat some of these every day.
4. Chocolate is ok in moderation, as long as it’s at least 70% cocoa.
Research has shown that eating small amounts of dark chocolate (i.e. at least 70% cocoa) can help to reduce bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol. I eat chocolate every day, but generally try to stick to the ‘moderation’ recommendation by only having one or two squares of dark chocolate either on their own or in one of these cholesterol-friendly recipes:-
- Chocolate nutty cake
- Salted chocolate chia truffles
- Chocolate nutty oatcakes
- Chocolate & raisin oaties
5. Cholesterol found in food, like eggs, has much less of an effect on blood cholesterol than saturated fats.
Eggs are high in cholesterol, but are also rich in nutrients and a great source of protein, so shouldn’t be avoided. There doesn’t seem to be a unanimous agreement about what the weekly limit should be, however experts do seem to agree that those with a history of high cholesterol should eat them in moderation (i.e. 2-6 a week). I also try to make sure I balance them with low cholesterol foods to keep within the recommended daily cholesterol intake limit of 300 mg a day as much as possible.
If I have boiled eggs with soldiers, I always have 2 eggs, as 1 is never enough! But if I’m having scrambled egg, I always use just one yolk with 2 or 3 egg whites. I also make these pancakes with just 1 yolk and 2 whites, and this French Toast recipe with just 1 egg.
6. Don’t stick too rigidly to low cholesterol eating recommendations.
This is one of the key pieces of advice that has kept me on track over the last 12 months. I know that if I’d said to myself at the start that I had to stick to the low cholesterol eating recommendations 100% of the time, then I’d probably have given up after month one. Actually, I probably wouldn’t even have lasted a week.
So I decided instead that I would aim to stick to the recommendations for 80% of the time, and then eat anything I wanted in the other 20%, while aiming to stay within the daily saturated fat recommended limits. Ensuring I have this ‘20% time’ means I never feel deprived, and makes it a lot easier for me to stick to low cholesterol eating the rest of the time.
My ‘20% time’ includes things like bacon butties, cheeseburgers, pork belly, spaghetti carbonara, pizza, steak, chips and chocolate cake. I spread the ‘20% meals’ (i.e. one breakfast, one lunch, one dinner and one dessert) across the week so that I have something to look forward to every couple of days. I always try to accompany my ‘20% meals’ with healthy cholesterol-lowering foods because it keeps me feeling fuller for longer and more satisfied. For example:-
- If I have a bacon butty for breakfast, I’ll have a fruit salad or chopped apple with it.
- If I have a cheeseburger or a steak, I have a big salad on the side and tend to go for sweet potato fries rather than normal ones.
- If I have spaghetti carbonara, I’ll bulk it out with vegetables like courgettes and mushrooms.
I’ve also recently been looking for ways to make my ‘20% meals’ a bit healthier, without sacrificing the taste. For example, using less cheese on my pizza, and using lean beef mince for my burgers.
This 80:20 rule may not work for everyone, especially if you’ve been advised that you should avoid high fat foods altogether (see note below), but it helped me to lower my cholesterol last year by keeping me on track. I’ve stuck to this rule ever since and have managed to keep my LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) levels low and my HDL (‘good’ cholesterol) levels high.
Another thing worth mentioning is that there are lots of recipes for cholesterol-friendly meals that taste great, so I don’t actually feel that deprived in my 80% time anymore and don’t crave the ‘20% foods’ as much as I used to. If you don’t believe me, try these:-
- French Toast with Maple Syrup
- Pancake with Yoghurt & Berries
- Salted Chocolate Nutty Oatcakes
- Chinese Sweet & Sour Chicken
- Italian Beef Meatballs
- Super-Quick Fish Curry
- Salted Chocolate Chia Truffles
- Flourless Chocolate Muffins
Note: There are a few conditions that cause people to have more difficulty in clearing triglycerides (a form of dietary fat found in meat, dairy produce and cooking oils) from their blood after eating a fatty meal. High triglyceride levels can result in low HDL (‘good’ cholesterol) levels, so if you have one of these conditions, your doctor may advise against eating fatty foods altogether. For more information on triglycerides and the associated conditions, click here.