Myth vs. Fact in the Quest to Lower Your Cholesterol
Have you heard these words at a recent doctor’s appointment or health screening? “Your total cholesterol is over 200. Your HDL looks a little low. Your LDL should be below 130. Your triglycerides are much higher than what’s recommended.”
High blood cholesterol is not a direct correlation to future heart disease, but it does increase your risk – especially for sudden death due to heart attack, rather than being able to live through a heart attack and become rehabilitated back to good health.
The Internet is full of tips for lowering cholesterol. Mary Beth Russell, Registered Dietitian at the Avera Heart Hospital, helps us sort out the myth from the fact:
Eating an oat cereal (like Cheerios) will lower my cholesterol.
- Part myth, part fact: There’s no magic bullet for lowering cholesterol, and you’d have to eat several bowls a day to move your cholesterol numbers significantly. “You always want to pick whole grains when it comes to bread and cereals. Cheerios isn’t a bad choice, but there are some cereals that are probably higher in fiber,” Russell said. Always check the food label and make sure the first ingredient is whole grain, not bleached or enriched grain flour.
If a food says “fat free” on the label, it’s OK.
- Myth: If we eat sugar and simple starches in excess, our body quickly stores it as fat. The goal is to reduce your intake of white processed starches that increase your triglycerides, lower HDL (helpful cholesterol) and increase LDL (lousy cholesterol). Just because things like soda, hard candies and fruit juices are fat free does not make them good choices. Watching sugars and processed carbohydrates is equally as important as watching your fat intake.
Fat is the culprit for high cholesterol.
- Part fact, but not as much as you might think: “We used to say that total fat content was the culprit. We as dietitians change our recommendations based on what research tells us. We know more now than we did 10 or 20 years ago, and will learn more in the future,” said Lauren Cornay, RD, LN, Avera Heart Hospital Registered Dietitian. “We know that we need fat for healthy skin and cell processes. We need certain kinds of fat and a variety of different fats.” Some are beneficial and help lower cholesterol. Especially beneficial are omega-3 oils (fish oils, canola oil, flax seeds and walnuts) and monounsaturated oils (olive oil, canola oil, almonds, avocados).
I have to take fish-oil supplements.
- Myth: It’s always better to get your nutrients and beneficial oils from a food source itself. A better solution is to eat fish at least twice a week. Salmon is a top choice, followed by tuna. There’s lots of controversy surrounding fish and mercury content, but it's not worth the worries. "Most people do not eat enough fish to worry about the risk from mercury content," Cornay said. "Eating more fish is a good goal to target."
I can’t eat eggs if I have high cholesterol.
- Myth: Egg whites are fine, it’s just the yolks that are in question. But most people can easily fit five to six whole eggs into the diet each week without affecting their cholesterol. “We don’t recommend five at a time, but rather space them out throughout the week. I would much rather see someone eat protein for breakfast than a toaster pastry,” Russell said. Eggs have B vitamins, folate, antioxidants and protein – a lot of good nutrition in a tiny package.
Red yeast rice supplements will lower my cholesterol.
- Maybe but be cautious: Red yeast rice has a component like statins – drugs that can lower cholesterol. However, these supplements aren’t regulated and you could end up with bad side effects, for example, an increase in liver enzymes similar to taking statins. Always check with your doctor first before trying a new supplement. There are better and safer ways of lowering your cholesterol.
Screening exams can be a great step toward learning and understanding your heart health. Talking with a primary care provider is another way to get on track, too.