Cholesterol control through food and activity
Unhealthy blood cholesterol levels can increase your risk for stroke and heart disease, as well as conditions such as atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries). If you have been diagnosed with high cholesterol, you can get your numbers back on track by making healthy dietary changes, being active 30 to 60 minutes most days, achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight, and becoming smoke-free.
Eat a healthy, balanced diet of whole, minimally processed food. This includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains and protein from a variety of sources (eg. beans and lentils, nuts, lower-fat dairy and alternatives, lean meats, and fish). Minimally processed foods are foods with only small changes to their original form and have no nutrients removed (e.g. brown rice, bagged carrots, frozen fruits and vegetables).
Limit your intake of highly processed foods. These foods are a major source of saturated fat in the Canadian diet. Saturated fat is one risk factor for bad (LDL) blood cholesterol levels. Highly processed foods have many ingredients, are usually in a package and need little preparation. These foods include:
If you have heart disease or diabetes, check with your healthcare provider to find out your specific recommendations for the amounts of dietary cholesterol and fat you can have.
Here are some eating and meal planning tips to help you reduce your blood cholesterol levels:
This chart will help you find the cholesterol content of some common foods.
Fibre is a vital part of a healthy diet, but most of us are getting less than half the recommended amount. A healthy adult needs 38 grams a day, but surveys show that the average daily Canadian intake is about 14 grams. A heart-healthy diet includes foods that are higher in fibre. Good sources of fibre can be found in two of Canada’s Food Guide Food Groups containing complex carbohydrates: whole-grain products such as wild and brown rice and oatmeal; and vegetables and fruit.
There are two kinds of fibre: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre may help lower cholesterol and control blood sugar. The best sources are oatmeal and oat bran, legumes such as dried beans, peas and lentils, and pectin-rich foods such as apples, strawberries and citrus fruit. You will also see cereals and over-the-counter products that contain psyllium, a soluble fibre.
When shopping, check food product labels carefully. Look for 100% whole grain or 100% whole wheat with the germ at the beginning of the ingredient list, and check the fibre content in the Nutrition Facts table. Products with 2 grams of fibre or more are a healthy choice.
What are plant sterols?
Health Canada has approved the addition of plant sterols to certain foods. Research has shown that plant sterols (also known as phytosterols and plant stanols) can help lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. In order to achieve a sustained drop in unhealthy cholesterol, you need to eat 2 to 2.5 g of plant sterols a day and must continue to use them to maintain the benefit.
Plant sterols occur naturally in small amounts in vegetable oils, nuts, whole grains, vegetables and fruit. For example, to get 2 g of naturally occurring plant sterols per day, you would need to eat approximately 210 carrots, 83 oranges or 20 tbsp of sesame seeds. Foods in Canada are now allowed to have up to 1 g of added plant sterols per serving. You may see plant sterols being added to such foods as mayonnaise, margarine, salad dressing, yogurt and yogurt drinks, vegetable and fruit juices.
Plant sterols can reduce LDL cholesterol levels up to approximately 10%, but have no impact on HDL (“good”) cholesterol or triglycerides. So it is important to follow a healthy diet and physical activity routine to attain a healthy overall cholesterol profile. .
Consult your healthcare provider before including daily consumption of foods with added plant sterols, especially if you are currently taking any medications to manage your cholesterol. Health Canada has assessed plant sterols to be safe up to 3 g per day for adults. Plant sterol enriched foods are not recommended for children, breast-feeding or pregnant women as these individuals have specific nutritional and dietary needs and lowering blood cholesterol is not normally a priority for them. These products are intended for persons diagnosed with high cholesterol.
For more information on plant sterols, go to Health Canada’s website.
Last reviewed: August 2013
Last modified: June 2014