We all want to have a healthy heart and ensuring healthy levels of cholesterol – a fat or lipid that carries through the bloodstream – is the first step.
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Low-density lipoprotein or LDL (bad) cholesterol along with triglycerides, another type of lipid, contribute to plaque buildup. Dental plaque can threaten the blood supply to the heart, brain, legs or kidneys, leading to heart attack, stroke or even death.
High-density lipoprotein, or HDL (good) cholesterol, discourages plaque buildup.
To reduce your risk for heart-related emergencies, registered dietitian Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CCSD, LD, and exercise physiologist Michael Crawford, MS, share tips for lowering cholesterol through diet and getting the most out of exercise.
1. Reduce animal fats
Avoid fatty, processed meats such as bologna, salami, pepperoni and hot dogs, as well as fatty red meats such as ribs and prime cuts of beef, pork, veal or lamb. Also, skip chicken or turkey with skin. Avoid full-fat dairy products such as whole milk, cheese, cream, sour cream, cream cheese and butter. These foods contain both saturated fat and cholesterol, both of which are associated with higher blood cholesterol and plaque buildup.
2. Make fiber friends
Be especially kind to foods high in soluble fiber. In the gut, soluble fiber can bind to bile (which is made up of cholesterol) and remove it. Look for soluble fiber in oats, oat bran, ground flaxseed, psyllium, barley, dried beans and legumes, fruits and whole grains.
3. Go vegetarian
Choose at least one meatless meal per week. Replace animal proteins (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese) with vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils, tofu or quinoa. Try these plant-based proteins in salad, soup, stir-fries or a burrito to reduce your saturated fat intake and increase your fiber intake. If you like meatless meals, try to eat meatless one day a week!
4. Be mindful of carbs
Research shows that following a low-carb eating plan can help you lose weight and reduce cardiovascular risk factors. Choose fiber-rich carbohydrates such as oatmeal, whole wheat starch, beans, lentils and whole fruit, which provide the energy you need but also keep you feeling full. The key is to watch your portions — aim for no more than about 1 cup of starch and/or fruit with meals. Also, fill up on vegetables that are low in calories and high in fiber.
5. Lose Weight (If Needed)
If you are overweight or obese, shed the extra pounds. Weight loss helps lower LDL cholesterol. Even a small to moderate weight loss — just 10 to 20 pounds — can have an impact. Start by reducing your portion sizes. Aim to fill half of your plate with non-starchy veggies, one-fourth of it with whole-grain starches, and the other one-fourth with lean protein. Also, avoid drinking your calories. Instead, choose low-calorie drinks as your primary fluid source. Be mindful of your hunger level to limit extra calories from mindless snacking.
6. Move more
Work in up to 90 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per day for optimal heart health and weight loss. Cardiovascular exercise means any activity that repeatedly uses large muscles and raises the heart rate — think walking, cycling, rowing, using the elliptical and swimming. If you find 90 minutes daunting, start with 30 minutes and work your way up little by little. For some people, 45 to 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise is sufficient.
7. Choose the right pace
Aim for a moderate level of exercise. You know you’ve achieved it when you can hold a conversation when you exercise but can’t sing. Once you’ve safely mastered moderate-intensity exercise, consider high-intensity interval training (HIIT) one to two times a week. Emerging research suggests that this type of exercise may enhance the benefits of moderate-intensity exercise, especially for raising HDL cholesterol.
8. Make it a habit
Consistency is key. Exercise regularly and you will see your triglyceride levels drop. Triglycerides are the only lipids in the cholesterol profile that are used for energy. They decrease by an average of 24 percent with regular cardiovascular exercise.
9. Change it
Variety is the spice of life, so try different exercises to stay motivated, challenge other muscle groups, reduce the risk of overuse injuries and enjoy your physical activities.
10. Get technical
Many great technology tools can give you feedback on your training. Smartphone apps often have exercise tracking, motivational techniques, calorie trackers, and tips. In addition, biofeedback devices such as heart rate monitors (chest strap models have better accuracy) and pedometers can help you with your exercise plan or help you with motivation.
Remark: If you have a heart condition, consult your doctor before starting any exercise program. A cardiac rehab program is a great way to learn the right exercises for you and jump-start your diet and exercise program. If you experience pain, pressure, tightness, excessive shortness of breath, dizziness or palpitations, stop exercising and consult a doctor.