Hi, cholesterol!

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So I went to my doctor’s surgery for a routine check up and it turns out I have high cholesterol. Not scarily high, as my ratio of good cholesterol to bad cholesterol is in my favour. In addition I know that neither of my parents have suffered from heart disease. However, I do need to do something about it.

To back track a little; I was rather surprised to hear that I have a potential problem, as I’m more than averagely active (I’ve written a Kindle book about the pleasures and benefits of walking) and eat healthy food (loads of veg and nearly all our meals are home cooked from fresh ingredients), so I was quite complacent about my diet. To be honest though I am aware that I am slightly overweight and I have been trying to shed a few stubborn pounds over the last few years. Chatting with the nurse, helped me to identify a few improvements I can make. Here are my thoughts. If you are in a similar position to me with your cholesterol, or are trying to find ways to help someone else, maybe my ideas will help you too.

The first thing I’ll do is to reduce the few foods I do eat quite a lot of that are high in cholesterol. Hard cheese, really. I am partial to a nice cheddar, especially when added to sauces and as a way to add a splash of flavour to other dishes. I don’t eat much cream or ice-cream, but I will try to reduce those even further, taking just a splash when I do indulge. I’ll also reduce the amount of prawns I eat, as these are higher in cholesterol that you might imagine. And I’ll avoid snacking between meals.

Will I eat products that reduce (or claim to reduce) cholesterol? Only if they are natural foods. So I’ll have porridge for breakfast more often – the oats apparently help to reduce cholesterol – but my personal choice will be not to switch to a margarine spread. I will continue to use butter, but I’ll make sure it’s in small quantities.

Otherwise I think the key to success lies in:

  • Not buying or making cakes/cookies/biscuits/desserts unless for very special occasions. If we are out and about and fancy a treat, then we can sometimes buy a slice of something not too rich and wicked to eat with our coffee. If we are invited to dinner, or have a special celebration, then dessert will be eaten, but it will not be a general daily habit. I know from bitter experience that if I have treats in the house, I am quite likely to give in and eat them, so it’s best to only have healthy options available.
  • Being aware of the content of the food I am eating. This means avoiding take-aways with heavy sauces, and dishes swimming in oil. While most oils are better than solid fats, all oils are on my list of things to eat/use in moderation.
  • Eating less red and fatty meat. I enjoy a varied diet, so I only eat red meat once or twice a week, most weeks. I can make sure I eat less meat by taking a smaller slice when we have a roast, and by including more vegeables in dishes such as stir-fries and stews. If I use no more than 0.5 kg of beef to 1.5 kg of vegetables, and take care with the flavourings and spices to ensure the dish has a good flavour, I won’t notice or care about the reduction in quantity of meat. Lentils are a good addition to dishes with beef or lamb mince. Reducing the meat by a half and substituting red lentils not only reduces the fat content of the meal but, if anything, improves the flavour.
  • Eating more vegetables. Fortunately I enjoy vegetables and so this won’t be a trial. Relying on seasonal veg, including frozen veg, shouldn’t make this too expensive an option. I am also learning to cook with pulses – lentils and such like – and these really are good value for money. I’ll be seeking out more vegetarian recipes, so that I have two or more meat free days each week.
  • Eating fewer potatoes. Not that I think they are too bad in themselves – it’s that I enjoy them most when they have cream, butter or cheese added, or are turned into chips or roasties.
  • Use lower fat cheeses where possible: cottage cheese, ricotta and mozzarella instead of hard and full fat cheeses.
  • Cook with wholegrain versions of rice, flour and pasta. This makes it more filling and better for you. I’ll also pay more attention to the recommended portion size, so I keep to the right amount.

As an example of my new approach, this very evening I am going to have spaghetti bolognese. To make it healthier, I’ll use some lentils along with the mince, mix in plenty of courgette spaghetti (made by cutting the courgettes into thin strips and then into strings) along with a small amount of pasta, and I’ll just have a little parmesan cheese on top. I’ll add some extra greens sliced up into the sauce as I have some delicious looking chard that needs to be used… Water to drink with the meal and maybe some green tea afterwards to complete the healthier approach.

Why does all this matter? There are plenty of websites with medical advice, such as this Heart Foundation of Australia page if you’d like more of the facts and figures. A side benefit for me is that through reducing the fat in my diet, I’ll also reduce the processed sugar I eat (no processed food with hidden sugar, and very few cakes, biscuits or desserts). Looking after my diet will help reduce my weight, generally improve my health and reduce the risks of diabetes and cancer, as well as heart disease.

A second side benefit is financial. Reducing the amount I eat means I can reduce the amount of food I buy. Although fresh vegetables aren’t cheap, they are cheaper than meat. Good cheeses are expensive too, so eating less meat and cheese and more seasonal vegetables and pulses will save a little money too.

During the coming months I’ll be making sure I eat wisely and keep active too, with plenty of walking, pilates and other classes. It’ll be slow progress towards where I want to be. Next summer I’ll have my blood cholesterol retested, and if I have adjusted my diet enough I’ll be able to continue my healthier life style without resorting to statins.

We shall see, and I will keep you posted!

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