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!

Burning fat – What’s it all about?

Is anyone else in the UK enjoying the BBC series looking at food and health? “The truth about…”

I like to think I know quite a lot about healthy eating, having a degree in Biology and several years of reading and listening to advice about foods and trying to put into practice the things that make sense to me.  Although a lot of the information in the series has just confirmed what I already knew or intuitively believed (don’t follow fads, don’t give up particular types of food, don’t eat too much of anything, eat lots of veg, keep active) there has still been plenty of interest.

I  really believe in and enjoy the benefits of walking, as anyone who has read my Kindle book will know and the programme “The Truth about Calories” gave evidence that the best way to burn calories is to keep up a good level of gentle activity, rather than exhausting yourself with a too-vigorous work out. Walking fits nicely into that regime! Good news!

However, although I am healthy, exercise frequently and am careful with what I eat, I also really enjoy food, so like many people I carry a little more fat than I would like, and maybe a lot more than is currently recommended for good health. I also have a family wedding coming up in July, so I am trying to shift an extra few pounds of fat in the next three months. The most recent programme, “The truth about fat” has inspired me to try the latest scientific idea for burning fat. It sounded so interesting that I got my aerobic step out today and made a start. And I thought I’d share with you the beginning of the experiment and give you a progress report as I go along the way.

So, here’s the plan. It’s like High Intensity Interval training – short bursts of testing exercise with rest breaks in between. The programme recommended 2 minutes of exercise followed by 1 minute of rest repeated 7 times. This pattern of activity and rest switches your metabolism so you burn fat for a much longer period of time after the exercise has ended. I can’t remember the figures, but it was definitely significant!

I chose stepping, as I know it’s aerobic, but achieveable for me. You have yo chose something that will challenge you, but won’t hurt you. I have stairs in my house, but the step is handy as I can have it near a clock. On Day 1, the level of activity was right I think (hope!). I kept to a good , fast pace and appreciated the minute rest. My heart and breathing rate went up, I felt hot and could feel the work in my muscles and I definitely needed water afterwards.

The total of just over 20 minutes was easy to fit into my day, and I’ll be repeating the activity every day for at least a week (and maybe longer) to see if there are results. I aim to post a short comment each day, so scroll down to see if I’m sticking to the plan!

For the record, and so I can actually tell if there is an impact on fat, I’ll share some stats. My starting waist measurement is just less than 34.5 inches and my weight is 171.25 pounds: it’s just beginning to come down anyway after the excesses of Christmas. For comparison, in July last year I was cruising at around 165 pounds, and wanting to lose a little more fat, so although losing fat isn’t all about weight*, I’ll be pleased to get back to those sorts of levels. Even better will be a reduction in my waist measurement! [*It isn’t all about weight as increased muscle and increased bone density through exercise also increase your weight. A better measure might be accurate body dimensions, but measuring size accurately enough is quite difficult, so weight is a handy indication]

I won’t be changing the amount I eat, or my other normal daily exercises, so I’ll let you know how I get on and whether this makes a difference to me!

walkingfoot

A foot – essential equipment for step exercises, and for walking!

Day 2: Hard to make a start today… But that’s my own fault. We had dinner with friends ast night, and I had a glass of wine too many… No wine for me today!

Day 3: Easy to be good on the wine front today: just water and tea in liquid yesterday, and again today I think. A little Easter fare – hot cross buns and some choclate: and home made pizza for tea, so I haven’t been trying to reduce the calories through food intake. We have done a little gardening, and then I did my 20 minutes for the fat burning regime. I’l be interested to weigh myself in a couple of days and see if there has been any effect. Not that I’m expecting anything much so soon…

Day 4: Such a nice day! I just want to be lazy!! But I have done my repititions, so am entitled to feel virtuous. Two days until my weekly weigh-in. I wonder if this will show results? I feel lighter…

Day 5: The novelty is wearing off, but once you start it’s no so bad. And I was feeling chlly after sitting and typing, but i’m nice and warm again. We have our Wednesday weigh in tomorrow, and maybe I’ll see a difference. You’ll be the first to know!

Day 6: The weigh in. Well, there has been a loss – about 0.25 pound. Not much, but then we did have a very nice meal out with friends, including wine, and some hot cross buns for Easter treats. Alec put on a pound in the same period of time… I am thinking that my stepping needs a little more resistance to it, so I have got my wrist weights ready to use today.

You don’t need daily updates, do you?  I’ll be back with news next Wednesday!

Day 7 – maybe just one interim update! I did the 20 minutes with wrist weights today and found I had to push myself much harder towards the end. I think just step wasn’t quite enough for me…

Day 13 – Weigh in day! First of all – how has the week gone? Well, not too bad. I have done my 20 mintes of stepping – with wrist weights – on 5 of the intervening days. I missed out 2 days when I had my normal exercise classes and was busy with work. The wrist weights definitely make the sessions tougher, and I am very glad to finish, but the advice was that you need to make the exercise tough for it to be effective. So the weigh in.  A loss this week too:1.25 pounds this time.  I feel lighter, so I believe I have lost some internal fat, which is good for health such as reducing diabetes risks.

There may be an additional factor in the weight loss, which is that when you are putting effort into losing weight, it makes it easier to resist snacks and treats. Certainly I have been ‘good’ dietetically this week. We shall see what next week brings – watch this space!

Day 20 – It’s a disaster darling!  No weight loss this week (I’m blaming 0.25 pound increase on the fact that I weighed myself wearing heavier clothes than the gym clothes I normally wear). I’ve had a busy working week too, so missed a couple of fat burning sessions. I enjoyed a glass of wine – and a pint of beer now I come to think about it – over the weekend too. Whoops! Back on the step for me!

Day 27 – And we’re back on track! I’ve lost 2.5 lbs this week, That’s 3.75 pounds lost since I started the regime a month ago.  It’s been a stressful week – I’ve had a computer meltdown and IT related issues. I haven’t done the fat burning 20 minutes every day, but I have done it a couple of times as well as a few early morning walks and my usual exercise classes. Half a bottle of wine, some chocolate and crisps at the weekend, so I haven’t been super good on the calorie front.

I was reflecting today that the pilates class I do on a Wednesady is quite close to the regime: quite aerobic sessions followed by a short rest. The sequence with 3 pressups, a 20 second plank and then rising up onto the balls of your feet, squatting and reapeating 3 times is certianly stenuous, for example. So maybe the step is another weapon to have have in my armoury for the days I can’t get out for other exercise….

We shall see.

Television is good …

— provided you are watching the right things.

woven leaves

This week I have been happy to have a television to be able to watch BBC’s Horizons on whether Fat or Sugar is worst for you, and their documentary on the mysteries of Easter Island.

I won’t go into depth – watch the programmes is my advice – but I will remember these programmes for a long time.

The Fat/Sugar programme was presented by identical twin doctors, Xander and Chris, one working in the US and one in UK.  Being genetically identical, you could put any differences wrought on their bodies by a diet to the diet.  One went on a sugar only diet – processed stuff but also fruit, veg and carbs but no fat or dairy, and the other on fat and protein only.  The end result was that both these diets are bad for you, but that it is really hard to overeat on either.  The combination that is killing us in the West is fat and sugar in a 50:50 mix.  This a combination that you never find in natural foods (apparently – don’t tell me if that’s wrong!) and so humans don’t have on ‘off’ switch for them.  Basically we will gorge on them until we pop.  So stick to natural foods, avoid the processed stuff, and regulating your weight is relatively easy, provided you exercise.

So the mysteries of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it will now be for me.  I watched programs about this as a child and imagined the island to be an uninhabited grassy island in the middle of the Pacific, dotted with the immense statues of their ancestors – the Moai.  The story was that the people on the island had cut down all the trees in the effort of erecting the Moai, and as a result had wreaked an environmental disaster upon themselves.

Not so.

The islanders lived an environmentally balanced life in their isolated home, managing resources and the environment for centuries.  Their downfall was the arrival of Europeans.  As we are realising we are about the last people on Earth to understand how to live in harmony with the environment, so this moment signed disaster for the populace.  First, the visitors brought disease – probably colds and the flu – which the natives had never been exposed to and so were decimated by.  These first visitors were followed 50 years later by more, who captured the Rapa Nui men to go and work in the mines in Chile and people who bought land from them for minimal sums, confining them to the one town on the island, and importing thousands of sheep to graze the land.

As nations rarely dwell on the things they should be ashamed of, all this has been hidden in the distant pass, and the uninhabited land became a genuine mystery. However, a rich English amateur archaeologist wrote a book in Victorian times, when she interviewed at length the Rapa Nui elders who remembered stories of the old days.  Presumably this book has recently been rediscovered, and the truth has been uncovered.

There are people back on the island, beginning to undo the damage as far as they are able.  As one young woman said, in so many words:  just because it will be hard work, that is no reason not to try.  Amazing.

And thank you, BBC, for these great programmes!

(What does the photo have to do with this?  Nothing!)