By Dan Brook
Heart disease is the number one killer, for both men and women, in the U.S. (followed by cancer and stroke). It doesn't have to be that way.
Numerous scientific studies show that reducing your cholesterol, among other activities, is the best way to beat heart disease, cancer, stroke, and other deadly diseases. A major study by Kaiser Permanente and the University of Kuopio (Finland) also concluded in August 2009 that high cholesterol is associated with Alzheimer's Disease. Being such a grave concern, lowering cholesterol and improving heart health has been declared a "national health priority." It also needs to be a personal priority for all of us.
In general, your liver produces all the cholesterol you need, a necessary function for building cell membranes. Consuming cholesterol, however, can create an excess, which often leads to the clogging of arteries, causing heart disease (a blockage in the heart) and stroke (a blockage in the brain). In the U.S. and other western countries, there is, shockingly, widespread evidence of arterial clogging even in teenagers.
Many reputable health and science organizations -- including the American Cancer Society, American Dietetic Association, American Heart Association, American Institute for Cancer Research, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, National Cancer Institute, National Heart Foundation, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Union of Concerned Scientists, World Health Organization, and others -- all agree that a diet centered around fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as beans, nuts, and seeds, can significantly reduce your incidence of heart disease and heart attacks as well as cancer, stroke, obesity, hypertension, osteoporosis, diabetes, arthritis, endometriosis, Alzheimer's, gout, and other major maladies.
Further, what's best for your heart turns out to be good for your brain -- and also good for the environment! "People tend to think of the brain and the heart as totally separate, but they are not," Rachel A. Whitmer, Ph.D. of Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, Calif., told WebMD. "We are learning that what is good for the heart is also good for the brain -- and that midlife is not too soon to be thinking about risk factors for dementia." It's vital that both our heartspans and our brainspans are as long, healthy, and happy as our maximum lifespans.
High-protein, low-carbohydrate fad diets (i.e., Atkins-style diets) may lead to temporary weight loss, but they are often a health disaster. A Northwestern University study reports that increases in the consumption of animal protein is correlated with, over time, increases in a person's weight and a greater risk to a person's health. The evidence is in; these fad diets should be out.
Eating the right foods, and avoiding the wrong ones, is the key to achieving both your appropriate weight and great health. Doing so will help lower your cholesterol and can prevent or reverse heart disease and other major maladies. Take control of your life!
There are many foods that are healthy and could be beneficial for lowering your cholesterol. Indeed, any food high in anti-oxidants, vitamins, or fiber would be an excellent choice, as is consuming the Indian spice turmeric (which may also prevent or even reverse Alzheimer's Disease), giving curry its beautiful yellow color, fenugreek seeds (which can also aid in fighting diabetes), cinnamon, and lecithin, as well as drinking moderate amounts of red wine, tea, and coffee (though excessive alcohol or caffeine consumption can be dangerous).
That said, some foods are, to paraphrase George Orwell, more equal than others. Various plant food sterols can very effectively block cholesterol and also help reduce LDL (low-density lousy cholesterol), while increasing the body's HDL (high-density healthy cholesterol).
Here are the top ten most effective foods known for lowering cholesterol and beating heart disease. Whenever possible, you should eat them in their unprocessed form and in combination with each other, consuming them regularly, even daily, for your optimum health:
- 1. soy products (including miso, soybeans, soy flour, soy milk, soy nuts, tempeh, tofu, and TVP)
- colorful fruits & vegetables (ones that are red, orange, yellow green, blue, purple -- eat the rainbow!)
- whole grains (including barley, brown rice, corn, oats and oat bran, whole wheat, and the less common amaranth, kamut, millet, quinoa, red rice, rye, spelt, teff, triticale, and others)
- beans (including black, chickpea, kidney, lentils, navy, peas, pinto, and, of course, soy)
- berries (including blackberries, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, currants, strawberries, and raspberries)
- garlic (preferably raw, and others in the allium family, including chives, leeks, onions, scallions, and shallots)
- nuts (including almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts)
- seeds (including hemp, flax, pumpkin, psyllium, sesame, and sunflower)
- olive oil (preferably extra virgin)
- tea (especially green, but also black, oolong, and white)
As a special bonus, cocoa could be #11, which is likewise rich in natural phytonutrients, as it is also good for lowering cholesterol. Needless to say, chocolate is also delicious! The higher the cocoa level -- meaning dark chocolate -- and the lower the amount of dairy and sugar, the better for your health.
Besides eating the right foods, it is similarly important for you to avoid certain things. The seven most deadly sins are:
- 1. cholesterol (exclusively found in animal products)
- saturated fats (disproportionately found in animals products and other rich foods)
- hydrogenated oils or trans fats (often found in prepared, processed, fast, and other junk foods, these are unhealthy and unnecessary)
- smoking (especially yours, but also of those around you)
- stress (which makes everything worse!)
- processed foods and refined flour (these foods tend to be empty calories)
- unscientific and faddish "miracle" cures (especially when it comes to health, stick with the science!)
In addition to eating healthy foods, and avoiding the "deadly sins," scientific studies indicate that it is beneficial to:
- exercise (especially aerobic exercise to strengthen our hearts and bodies)
- eat lots of small meals instead of a small number of large ones (for better metabolism)
- lose weight (to reduce the pressure on our hearts and bodies)
- meditate (to reduce and control stress).
It is important to recognize that the human body produces all the cholesterol it needs. If you consume cholesterol, your body will then likely have an excess amount of it, too often leading to clogged arteries and heart disease. Regardless of genetics and other factors, your diet is usually the biggest factor determining your cholesterol level and health risk -- despite the fact that the pharmaceutical industry spends billions of dollars claiming otherwise. Indeed, according to the research conducted by Dean Ornish, M.D., 82% of those who switched to a low-fat plant-based diet, along with increasing exercise and engaging in stress management, were able to arrest and even reverse their heart disease.
While cholesterol-lowering statin drugs may reduce cholesterol levels, there is little evidence that they help prevent heart disease, probably because they do not address underlying issues, but rather only the symptoms. Further, as with many other drugs, cholesterol-lowering drugs may, at some later time, be determined to have serious side effects.
In very stark contrast, there is overwhelming long-term, cross-cultural, multi-national evidence that a plant-based diet is not only safe and healthy, but indeed capable of preventing or reversing heart disease as well as preventing other diseases (e.g., cancer, diabetes, gout, and others) and being beneficial for all-around good health and nutrition.
Generally, foods rich in vitamins and fiber are good for reducing your cholesterol; in contrast, foods without significant amounts of vitamins and fiber are unhealthy. Animal products often contain saturated fat and cholesterol, but never fiber or anti-oxidants. Plant foods often contain fiber and anti-oxidants, and never cholesterol and typically little or no saturated fat.
Organic fruits, vegetables, and grains tend to have higher nutritional levels than those produced through chemical agriculture, as the chemical pesticides may suppress the plants' innate abilities to properly protect themselves, therefore making organic produce a better choice for you as well as the environment.
Numerous scientific studies show that, overall, vegetarians have much lower cholesterol levels than meat-eaters -- and vegans, who eat no animal products at all, even more so -- and a much lower incidence of heart disease and heart attacks, as well as lower rates of various forms of cancer, stroke, hypertension/high blood pressure, diabetes, gout, and other very serious and deadly diseases. It's not too late to take back control of your life and reverse the ill effects of high cholesterol.
We should note that some foods and herbs may interact, either positively or negatively, with some medicines (e.g., antibiotics, antidepressants, anti-clotting/blood thinning medications, birth control pills, cholesterol-lowering drugs, etc.). If you are taking any medicine, herb, or drug, for any reason, be sure to learn about that medicine and with what it may interact. Likewise if you have any disease, medical condition, or are pregnant. In addition to doing your own research, check in with your doctor, pharmacist, and other trained medical professionals.
In a nutshell, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the ten basic facts to know about cholesterol reduction are:
- "Cholesterol is found only in animal products."
- "Cholesterol in foods raises the cholesterol level in one's blood."
- "There is no 'good cholesterol' in any food."
- "There is no fiber in any animal products."
- "A diet including fish is not as beneficial as a pure vegetarian diet."
- "Making only modest changes yields only modest results."
- "The best thing to do is to keep one's fat intake very low and to avoid any animal products."
- "Basing one's diet on plant foods -- grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits -- is the best way to keep saturated fat intake low and to avoid cholesterol."
- "A low-fat, vegetarian diet coupled with exercise, smoking cessation, and stress reduction program[s] is the best way to lower one's cholesterol levels and can even reverse heart disease."
- The choice is yours.
If you're ready to take control of your life, by controlling cholesterol and beating the top three killers, including heart disease, now's the time. Dr. Susan Bennett, director of the Women's Heart Program at George Washington University Medical Center, reminds us that "It's never too late to take action to prevent and control the risk factors for heart disease."
Now's the time. Live long, healthy, and happy!