Often when we hear the word ‘cholesterol,’ we instantly think of it as a bad thing. However, cholesterol is necessary for normal, healthy processes in the body. In other words, it’s not all bad.
So exactly what is it?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found in every cell in our bodies. It is a key component in the production of certain hormones, vitamin D and some digestive substances. Most of us have all of the cholesterol we need – our liver creates this substance for us. New research shows that dietary cholesterol does not have a huge impact on our blood cholesterol levels but the foods we eat are still a vital component in controlling blood cholesterol levels.
When there is an excess of cholesterol in our blood, it can cause plaque build-up on your arteries. This makes it harder for blood to get to your heart, causing chest pain or even a heart attack.
If you have high cholesterol, getting it back to a healthy level can be achieved through diet and exercise (although in some cases, medication may be prescribed). The key components are to limit sodium, saturated and trans-fats and increase fiber intake. I know we have heard this advice before, but I’ve seen many patients make great strides in controlling their cholesterol levels by making some simple changes.
Making vegetables the main event on your plate, having fruit for a snack, and swapping white bread for a whole-grain version are great ways to tweak your diet. Lean protein choices such as chicken/turkey breast, pork loin, beef tenderloin make great accents to a meal. Look for meats that are 90 percent lean or greater.
Fresh is always great, but remember that frozen or canned vegetables and fruits are great for you, too! Just be sure when choosing canned vegetables to opt for the ‘low sodium’ or ‘no salt added’ version, and choose fruits packed in juice or water. In addition, try to avoid processed foods as they are often higher in saturated fats and sodium.
With our busy lives, it’s often easier to grab something that’s pre-prepared. Do your best to try to schedule two hours per week to prep your own snacks and healthy meals ahead of time. Then you can grab and go! Your VA dietitian can help you plan out meals and offer suggestions to help you reach your dietary goals.
The American Heart Association has this to say about exercise – “Thirty minutes a day, five times a week is an easy goal to remember. You will also experience benefits even if you divide your time into two or three segments of 10 to 15 minutes per day.” The MOVE program here at the VA is a great way to get started on an activity regimen.
With all of the information available these days, thinking about starting a diet and/or exercise routine can seem daunting! Your primary care team is a great resource for getting started with making changes.
Sarah L. Conley is a registered dietetic technician at the Clement J Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin who specializes in serving palliative, geriatric and long-term care patients.