To eat healthy you must learn what to look out for. Here are the essential parts of a cholesterol-lowering diet.
Calories. Calories matter because if you eat too much -- of any kind of food -- you gain weight. And being overweight is associated with increased LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and decreased HDL (high-density lipoprotein). Don't focus on counting calories. Rather, eat more fruits and vegetables (which are naturally low in calories) and cut back on many of the high-fat, high-calorie, nutritionally empty foods you've probably been eating -- so it's likely that you'll lose weight in the process.
If your body mass index is 26 or higher, you'll need to make a special effort to lose weight, particularly if you have metabolic syndrome, diabetes, or a high triglyceride level. One study found that losing 10 percent of your overall weight resulted in a 7.6 percent drop in LDL. The way to lose weight is simply by consuming fewer calories, burning more calories through exercise, or both.
Fat. All it takes is a stroll down any supermarket aisle to notice that we're a nation obsessed with fat. It's amazing that toothpaste isn't labeled low fat -- just about everything else seems to be. But as you'll learn later, while the amount of fat you eat does matter, the kind of fat you consume is far more important. You should get about 25 percent of your calories from fat, primarily unsaturated fat. You want to keep saturated fats to less than 7 percent of your total calories, and trans fatty acids to, ideally, nothing. By contrast, average Americans get about 34 percent of their calories from fat (13 percent of that fat is saturated and another 2 to 3 percent comes from trans fatty acids).
What amount of fat is 25 percent of your calorie intake? If you're getting about 2,000 calories a day, 25 percent from fat translates to about 56 grams of fat. To figure your target, take the number of calories you want to consume each day, multiply it by .25, and then divide by 9 (there are 9 calories in 1 gram of fat).
Protein. The Atkins, the Zone, or other high-protein diets are not the way to eat for lifelong health. A successful long-term, heart healthy diet does include a fairly generous amount of protein -- up to 20 percent of calories. But the source of this protein is every bit as important as the quantity. The bulk of it comes from plant foods and fish, with a bit of lean meat thrown in for variety. We'd like you to eat fish as often as three to four times a week and chicken one to two times a week. We'll tell you how to sneak more beans into your meals (they're a great source of fiber as well as protein). Aim to get three to four servings of beans and legumes, including soy, a week. And don't forget about eggs. Egg white is a perfect source of protein, and the cholesterol in egg yolk is probably less damaging to heart health than experts previously thought. If you substitute eggs for some of the high-fat meat in your diet, you're almost certainly lowering your cardiac risk. Enjoy them scrambled, fried, poached, or boiled (just not under hollandaise sauce) two or three times a week.
Carbohydrates. They really should come up with two names for carbohydrates. One would be for simple sugars and starches, like white bread, chips, packaged cakes and cookies, doughnuts, and french fries, which contribute to insulin resistance, pack on the pounds, and leave you hungry a couple of hours after eating. And the other would be for complex carbohydrates, which are full of fiber, vitamins, and minerals and are absorbed slowly by your body, minimizing blood sugar and insulin peaks and valleys while filling you up on less. We're talking about whole grain breads and cereals, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, barley, and oatmeal, as well as fruits and vegetables. You'll get about 55 percent of your daily calories from these foods.
Fiber. When it comes to lowering your cholesterol, fiber is king. Most Americans get only about 15 grams of fiber a day. However, you should aim for at least 25 grams a day from foods like vegetables, beans, and whole grains. To help all that fiber pass through your system, you'll need to drink at least eight glasses of water or other noncarbonated, nonsweetened fluid a day (herbal tea works).