Most adults consider cholesterol a dietary villain. Eat too much cholesterol or fat, and you risk dangerous health problems. After all, most of us have heard doctors tell us the importance of lower cholesterol.
It's not really that simple, of course. That was the message that Blue Mountain Health System had for local residents this week during the talk "Cholesterol: Friend or Foe?" as they broke through the health myths surrounding cholesterol.
Staff members also served a three-course meal featuring cholesterol-healthy foods to prove that eating healthy doesn't have to be boring or bland.
Cholesterol, a soft, waxy substance found in many foods and also produced by the body, plays an important role in your body's health. Without cholesterol, your body would be unable to produce new cells, because cholesterol is present in every cell in your body. It also plays an important role in hormone and vitamin D production.
Cholesterol is important. But too much cholesterol can be a big problem and for the 20 percent of Americans with high blood cholesterol levels, could lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Fortunately, simple lifestyle changes can have a big impact on blood cholesterol levels.
A healthy diet complete with a few cholesterol-lowering foods can reduce your blood cholesterol levels if they are high, or even reduce your chance of developing high cholesterol later in life.
To create a healthier, cholesterol-friendly diet, start by looking at the types of fat you eat, said Nancy Matyas, a registered dietitian at Blue Mountain Health System.
Foods high in omega 3 fatty acids, including albacore tuna, salmon, sardines, and trout, are a good source of "healthy" fats in the diet. When used in moderation, olive oil is also considered a healthy fat.
"These foods are a good source of good fat, because you do need some fat in your diet," she said. "Olive oil is a polyunsaturated fat. You want to pick olive oil over palm oil or vegetable or coconut oils."
It's also important to limit animal fats and man-made trans fats, which are more likely to cause health problems.
Up to two tablespoons per day of olive oil can make a healthy addition to most diets. Olive oil can be used to sauté vegetables, to make homemade salad dressing, or to grill lean meats.
Walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pecans and pistachios are also a healthy source of fat and fiber. Most women should aim to eat 25 grams of fiber each day; men should aim for 35 grams.
"Fiber helps to sweep the bad fats and cholesterol out of your system," said Matyas. "But if you don't eat fiber now, don't go out and eat 25 grams of fiber tomorrow."
Adding fiber too quickly to your diet can lead to digestive problems, including constipation, stomach discomfort, and diverticulitis.
She noted that many adults discover diverticulitis at the end of the summer after eating fresh fruits and vegetables during harvest season but avoiding them the rest of the year.
Find sources of fiber that you enjoy and consume them regularly.
Other healthy sources of fiber include oatmeal, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.
Foods served during the talk included a romaine salad with walnuts and dressing, sautéed chicken with whole grain rolls and roasted vegetables, and an oatmeal peach cobbler.
"If you're eating healthy most of the time, a splurge once in awhile is OK," she said, noting that while it's great to get a few cholesterol-lowering foods in each day, moderation and eating a varied diet are more important.
"They used to tell people not to eat this, or not to eat that. We've tried to get away from that mindset. Moderation is key."
In addition to a healthy diet, it's possible to lower high cholesterol through other lifestyle changes.
Adding 30-60 minutes of regular exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, and drinking alcohol in moderation (up to one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men, preferably red wine) have all been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels.
"Diet and lifestyle are a few of the things you can control, unlike heredity and gender," she added.
"These changes can improve your chances of a higher quality of life so that you don't have to worry about heart disease and complications."