If you’ve been told your cholesterol is on the high side, take steps now to bring your number down. That's because research suggests the longer it stays elevated in your 30’s and 40’s, the greater the risk of having heart disease when you’re older.
Having a high LDL cholesterol level is a major risk factor for heart disease and heart attack and it’s present in many young adults. According to Statistics Canada, 30 per cent of adults aged 20 to 39 and 31 per cent of adults aged 40 to 59 have an unhealthy LDL cholesterol level (3.4 mmol/L or higher). Excess LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream can lead to plaque growth and hardening and narrowing of the arteries.
The 2015 study, published in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association, explored the link between having a moderately high cholesterol in young adulthood and subsequent risk of heart disease after age 55.
A total of 1,478 adults, aged 55 and free of cardiovascular disease, were followed for an average of 15 years to see who developed heart disease. All had their cholesterol measured regularly over the previous two decades. The researchers recorded how many years each subject had had moderately high cholesterol.
The more years participants' cholesterol levels were elevated in young adulthood, the greater their risk of heart disease.
People whose cholesterol stayed moderately elevated for 11 to 20 years in their 30’s and 40’s were four times more likely to develop heart disease than people whose cholesterol level remained healthy. Even having an elevated cholesterol for one to 10 years when younger almost doubled the future risk of heart disease.
The findings underscore the importance of taking action now, not later, to lower elevated cholesterol. Cholesterol does its damage to arteries over time; the longer you wait to treat it the more damage occurs.
A heart-healthy diet – along with regular exercise and smoking cessation – are the cornerstone of heart disease prevention
The first approach to lowering elevated blood cholesterol is diet. Even if you do take a statin, what you eat matters. A heart smart diet can enhance the drug’s cholesterol-lowering effect. The right diet also modifies other heart risk factors; it counters inflammation and helps keep blood pressure, blood sugar and body weight in check.
What you eat – and don’t eat – can help bring cholesterol under control. Even if you don’t have elevated cholesterol, the following foods help pave the way for heart health.
What to eat
Eggplant and okra
These low calorie vegetables do double duty when it comes to heart health: they provide blood pressure-regulating potassium and both are good sources of soluble fibre, the type of fibre that lowers LDL cholesterol.
Salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines are packed with DHA and EPA, omega-3 fatty acids that lower elevated triglycerides (blood fats) and reduce inflammation. To help lower your risk of heart disease, include 6 to 12 ounces of fatty fish in your diet each week.
If you don’t like fish, consider taking a daily fish oil capsule providing 500 milligrams of DHA + EPA combined. DHA supplements made from algae are available for vegans.
Drinking two to five cups of green tea per day has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol without touching good, HDL cholesterol. Antioxidants in green tea are thought to block the absorption of dietary cholesterol and hamper the liver’s ability to make cholesterol.
This whole grain cereal is an excellent source of cholesterol-lowering soluble fibre. 1.5 cups of cooked oats serves up three grams of soluble fibre, the amount needed to cut LDL cholesterol.
Other foods to boost soluble fibre at breakfast: cooked oat bran (1 cup = 3 g) and psyllium-enriched breakfast cereals (e.g. 1/2 cup Nature’s Path Smart Bran = 3 g).
High in monounsaturated fat (it outranks all other cooking oils), olive oil helps lower LDL cholesterol when substituted for saturated and trans fats. Extra virgin olive oil also contains phytochemicals thought to help dilate blood vessels, prevent blood clots and decrease inflammation in the body.
Use two tablespoons of olive oil per day as a replacement for butter and other cooking oils.
Tofu and edamame
Eating foods rich in soy protein, like tofu and edamame, help lower LDL cholesterol, especially when they’re part of a diet that includes soluble fibre and nuts. These vegetarian protein foods are also naturally low in cholesterol-raising saturated fat.
While all types of nuts have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol (and blood pressure), walnuts really stand out. They’re rich in antioxidants and, unlike other nuts, they deliver alpha linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid thought to guard against Type 2 diabetes. One serving (14 halves) provides more than a day’s worth of ALA.
What to eat less of
Saturated and trans fats
A steady intake of saturated and trans fats raises LDL cholesterol. That fact is beyond doubt. Worse, trans fats, found in many commercial baked goods, snack foods, deep-fried foods and certain margarines, also decrease HDL cholesterol.
To limit saturated fat intake, choose lean cuts of meat (e.g. sirloin, tenderloin, flank steak), poultry breast and low fat dairy products (1% milk fat or less). Read the Nutrition Facts box on packaged foods; choose foods with no trans fat. Foods with a daily value (DV) of less than 10% for saturated + trans fats are low in these fats.
Earlier this year a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine linked consuming too much sugar to an increased risk of dying from heart disease. Excess sugar lowers good, HDL cholesterol, raises blood triglycerides and can lead to weight gain.
Limit added sugar intake to 5 per cent of daily calories – about 100 calories (25 g sugar) for women and 150 calories (37 g) for men. Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages and limit your intake cakes, cookies, pastries and candy. Read ingredient lists on packaged foods to find products with less added sugars.
All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.