Watching our blood cholesterol levels has become something of an American pastime—and for good reason. After all, heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States. Except for a genetically lucky few, most of us need to watch our blood cholesterol levels to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, which can result in heart attacks or strokes. Making heart-healthy choices is especially important for those who currently live with, or have a family history of, cardiovascular disease. To complicate the issue, advice from the scientific community has swung wildly over the years. For example, before the chemical makeup of trans fats was examined and understood to be much worse for the human cardiovascular system than natural animal fats, margarine was suggested in place of butter.
Reduce cholesterol naturally with these recipes:
• Chipotle Dry Rub with Sage
• Fall Salsa
• Carrots and Parsnips with Fresh Herbs
• Herb-Flavored Sole in Parchment
• Cumin-Bay Black Beans with Pasilla Chile Pepper
• Herb Apple, Pear and Winter Squash Bake
• Herbie Scrambled Eggs or Scrambled Tofu Recipe
• Herb Quinoa Pilaf
• Clove & Ginger Black Tea with Blood Orange Peel
The good news is, lifestyle choices can make a dramatic impact on heart disease. Consistently eating a healthy diet, exercising and avoiding tobacco products can pave the way toward improved health. Our recipes and cholesterol tips—heart-friendly, budget-friendly and, best of all, easy, with a delectable emphasis on herbs—can help you on this journey.
Be Heart Smart
Cholesterol is essential for bodily functions, but too much LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood is associated with atherosclerosis, a condition of artery blocking. A heart attack or stroke can be caused when a clot blocks a narrowed artery.
Due to the importance of cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that every five years everyone older than 20 have a fasting lipid profile which measures total blood cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and triglycerides. A total cholesterol level of less than 200 mg/dL is desirable; 200 to 239 is borderline high. If you have a high level of 240 and above, you may be at a much higher risk of coronary disease than someone whose cholesterol is below 200. This is particularly critical because most of the time, there are no symptoms of high cholesterol. In addition, heredity can play a factor in high LDL levels.
Eat to Beat High Cholesterol
The AHA recommends that you limit your daily cholesterol intake to 300 mg, saturated fat to 7 percent of total daily calories and trans fat to less than 1 percent. However, if you have coronary heart disease, or high LDL or genetic factors, you may need to consume less than the general guidelines. No matter what your situation, consult with your qualified health-care practitioner about what’s best for you, including if medication is required.
Reduce Cholesterol Naturally: 9 Easy Tips
You can enjoy delicious, herb-enhanced meals that fit the newest research to help lower your blood cholesterol levels and keep them low.
REDUCE FAT: Limit your total fat intake to 20 to 35 percent of your total daily calorie intake, says the AHA. Fortunately, it’s easy to add fantastic herb flavor to holiday turkey, meats, tempeh and eggplant with little or no fat. In the United States, low-fat and no-fat diets have not been shown to reduce heart disease or obesity in spite of 50 years of such advice, so it may be more important to eat fiber and avoid trans fats. (See Chipotle Dry Rub with Sage.)
EAT FIBER: “Fiber comes in two types: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber can bind to, or absorb, cholesterol and help to get it out of the body through your digestive tract,” says Jaclyn Chasse, N.D., medical director of the Northeast Center for Holistic Medicine. Happily, fiber can be found in delicious recipes such as our Herb Quinoa Pilaf.
SAVOR PRODUCE: Plant food doesn’t contain cholesterol, making it one of the best foods to reduce cholesterol, although it may have saturated fat. The federal government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that we fill half our plates with fruits and vegetables. You can combine herbs with your five or more (herbal expert James Duke recommends nine) recommended daily servings. (See Herb Apple, Pear and Winter Squash Bake)
USE LOW-FAT COOKING TECHNIQUES: Broil, bake, steam or cook in a pouch instead of frying. Herb-flavored fish cooked in parchment requires little oil—and is an elegant company dinner or a quick-and-easy weekday supper. You and your guests will be delighted with the herb-scented clouds you encounter upon opening the parchment. (See Herb-Flavored Sole in Parchment.)
CONSUME HEALTHY FATS: The new dietary guidelines recommend that we cut back on foods high in solid fats, added sugars and salt. Solid fats are found in meat; butter, cream and milk; coconut, palm and palm kernel oils; hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils; shortening; and stick margarine. However, not all fats are equal. Trans fats, found in processed foods like hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils (shortening, margarine), are the worst culprits in terms of heart health. Butter and coconut oil should always be used before any processed fats. Alternately, try relying on olive oil.
“Remember that not all fat is bad,” Chasse says. “Using healthier fats in cooking can help you maintain the good ‘mouth-feel’ of foods without getting the bad-for-you fats.” (See Carrots & Parsnips with Fresh Herbs.)
WAKE UP WITH REAL FOOD: Breakfast is important, so begin your day with stimulating Clove & Ginger Black Tea. Try it with toast sprayed with olive oil or lightly buttered to deliver a delicious, satisfying start to the day.
SWITCH TO PASTURED EGGS: Herbs and spices can up the flavor ante in your morning meal with little to no added calories, helping you enjoy your food more and feel more satisfied. If your doctor has specifically forbidden egg yolks, use turmeric (by itself or in curry powder) to give these healthy breakfast ingredients an appealing, pretty yellow color without egg yolks. (See Herbie Scrambled Eggs or Scrambled Tofu recipe.)
If you like eggs and don’t want to give up egg yolks completely, you’ll be happy to know that several recent studies show that pastured, freely ranging chickens produce eggs with half
as much cholesterol and markedly more good nutrients (beta-carotene, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E) than “factory” eggs. (See “Grass-fed vs. Factory” near the end of this article)
GO FOR LEAN PROTEIN: Select lean (and small) cuts of meats or poultry. Choose low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese. Beans are superb fat-free superfoods packed with nutrients and fiber. (See Cumin-Bay Black Beans with Pasilla Chile Pepper.)
PURSUE TASTE: Think high flavor, fresh produce. Garden-fresh salsas aren’t just for summer. In autumn, combine fall’s finest locally grown, in-season herbs, veggies and fruits and use liberally on soups, baked potatoes and just about any dish your imagination encourages you to taste-test. (See Fall Salsa.)
Is heart-healthy French cooking an oxymoron? For herb lovers, French cuisine has a particular enticement: Herbs have a special place in almost every dish. Classic French herb blends include herbes de Provence and fines herbes. But even vegetable recipes can be heavily laden with saturated fats and cholesterol.
If you love French herbs and foods, don’t despair. Eat what you like in moderation and be mindful of the big picture.
Aioli/Mayonnaise: Traditional recipes call for egg yolks. Use pastured eggs instead of factory-farm eggs to cut down on cholesterol, add vitamins and get a better omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, which is important for heart health. Or try combining 1/2 cup Greek yogurt with 1 teaspoon granulated garlic, 1/2 teaspoon dried mustard and 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice. Refrigerate.
Herb Butter: Use butter, not margarine. Although much conventional wisdom advises using processed foods such as margarine or “buttery spread,” the compounds in butter are better for you in the long run. Cut back on how much butter you ingest, if necessary, but do avoid all processed fats, like margarine, because of their trans fats—even those labeled “no trans fats.” (All processed fats have trans fats; labeling rules allow products with trans fats under a certain level to be branded “trans fat free.”) In a mortar, grind your favorite fresh or dry herbs with a pestle to release flavor and aroma. Add softened butter and blend well. Refrigerate.
Bacon/Pancetta: It’s okay to braise vegetables in a little bacon or pancetta as part of a balanced diet if you are generally healthy. But if you need to cut back, try sautéing chopped Brussels sprouts, carrots, turnips and other root vegetables with a little high-quality olive oil. Add a low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth to the pan and simmer until tender. Add fresh herbs, such as thyme, rosemary, sage and basil, toward the end of the cooking process.
Grass-Fed vs. Factory
If you check a “factory-farmed” supermarket carton of eggs, you’ll find that one egg accounts for 60 to 73 percent of daily values established for cholesterol (all in the egg yolk). However, pastured egg nutrient tests conducted by Mother Earth News (sister publication of The Herb Companion) indicate that free-range eggs have one-third less cholesterol and one-fourth less saturated fat compared with the official USDA data for factory-farm eggs. The tests also showed that free-range hens laid eggs with two-thirds more vitamin A, two times more omega-3 fatty acids, three times more vitamin E, three to six times more vitamin D, and seven times more beta-carotene.
Grass-fed beef was found to be lower in total fat (and hence lower in calories), lower in saturated fat and higher in omega-s (the essential fats that are heart-healthy) than grain-fed beef in numerous scientific studies.
The bottom line: Eggs and meats aren’t “bad foods,” but can be nutritious choices, as recent studies indicate. Just enjoy them following the established dietary guidelines for heart health.
What are the best foods to reduce cholesterol?
• Your body needs saturated and unsaturated fats.
• Saturated fats from grass-fed animals are good for you; those from industrially raised animals, less so. Just don’t eat too much saturated fat.
• Avoid trans fats (hydrogenated oil) in processed foods.
• Top food choices for healthy fats include walnuts; flaxseed; salmon, shrimp and tuna; grass-fed meat, eggs and dairy products; olive oil; and dark green vegetables.
4 Healing Plants to Reduce Cholesterol Naturally
The four most important herbs to consider for cholesterol concerns are garlic, ginger, cayenne pepper and reishi.
GARLIC is useful in controlling and preventing atherosclerosis and lowering blood cholesterol. It not only lowers total serum cholesterol (6 to 12 percent in three months), it lowers the LDL (bad) cholesterol 12 to 15 percent while increasing the HDL (good) cholesterol.
GINGER may lower both serum and hepatic cholesterol while inhibiting platelet aggregation. I often use ginger tea for this.
CAYENNE is a strong, local circulatory stimulant. In studies, cayenne has significantly lowered both plasma cholesterol and triglycerides, but even more important, it has improved patients’ LDL to HDL ratio. Capsaicin, cayenne’s active constituent, has been shown to decrease platelet aggregation while thinning the blood using a different mechanism than aspirin, the common analgesic.
REISHI may protect from the effects of accumulated fatty acid and cholesterol. This herb also showed significant results in lowering blood lipids and fatty deposits in the liver, with significant drops in cholesterol and triglyceride levels noted after two months. —Terry Willard is president of the Alberta Association of Herbal Practitioners.
Letitia L. Star specializes in writing about healthy eating, gardening and green living topics. She is a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion.
For more information on grass-fed meats, eggs and dairy products, read this: