Saturday, 18 July 2015

'You Are What You Eat' - Cholesterol!

This post is somewhat different to what I usually share here on Only Crumbs Remain, yet it is still vey much food related.  It relates to my mum's experience in trying to reduce her cholesterol level by addressing her diet.

I think it's important that I say from the outset that this is simply about my mum's experience. Mr E & I are not doctors or nurses.  Far from it.  And therefore if you are reading this because you yourself (or someone dear to you) have a cholesterol problem, do please discuss the issue with your GP.  And PLEASE DONOT stop taking any medication without the agreement from your GP.   

So, what is Cholesterol?
Basically, cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found in the blood. Not only is it manufactured in the body, but is also added to through the foods we eat. Our bodies need a certain amount of cholesterol for every cell's function and also to make hormones, Vitamin D and to help us digest food, as explained here.  However, too much cholesterol in our blood, over time, results in plaque building up on the inside of our blood vessels. As you can imagine, the build up of this plaque results in narrower blood vessels and so putting strain on our internal organs, potentially causing angina, heart attacks and strokes.   

Image courtesy of Pixabay

How is Elevated Cholesterol Levels Treated
The NHS, here in the UK, provides guidance on how to treat cholesterol through lifestyle choices which you can read about here.   It also explains that medication, called Statins, is used if the  cholesterol level does not reduce sufficiently through diet and lifestyle changes, such as exercise and stopping smoking.

Tackling Cholesterol
Images courtesy of Pixabay

About My Mum
This post is about my mum's efforts to reduce her cholesterol level naturally, without medication. My mum is in her mid 60s, is active, hasn't smoked since the mid 1970s and is almost teetotal .  Although she's not massively over weight, she would openly agree that she carried a few too many pounds and enjoyed a few too many 'naughty' things (i.e./ my cakes and buns!)

Apple Crumble & Custard Cupcakes
A few short years ago my mum was diagnosed with angina and a routine blood test identified her cholesterol level was higher than what her GP was happy with. Her GP was keen to prescribe her with medication to reduce the risks this elevated level posed to her; but my mum, after thinking about the situation, decided to try to reduce her cholesterol level through weight loss and an improved diet.  She discussed this with her GP who agreed, but wanted to monitor her through appointments with the nurse.

Image courtesy of Pixabay
The First 6 Months
Her cholesterol level at this point was recorded somewhere around 5.7mmol/L.
Mum was advised by her GP that the NHS here in the UK prefers the level to be under 4mmol/L for those with a cardiology disease and under 3mmol/L for those who have suffered a heart attack or stroke! (and under 5mmol/L for the rest of the general population). 
So it was elevated.  My mum, tackled her weight and hopefully her cholesterol level through diet.  It wasn't a fancy diet like the Atkins or the Cabbage Soup Diet.  Nor did she visit anywhere like slimming world.  She dieted by herself, cutting out chocolate and reducing the amount of spread / margarine on her bread and toast.  She did really well, loosing almost a stone in weight over that 6 month period.

After those 6 months, my mum went back to the GP for another cholesterol test, and found the score had actually increased!  It was now 6.1mmol/L. My poor mum, she was devastated.  She'd put a lot of effort into 'being good' and loosing a few pounds yet the cholesterol level had increased.  Don't get me wrong, it hadn't gone up that far that it was off the scale, but it had gone up putting her at an increased risk of suffering a heart attack and / or stroke.  Needless to say, the GP was keen for my mum to start taking some medication.

We were all concerned when my mum decided to decline the prescription (tut-tut mother!) (she doesn't like the idea of taking medication).  We all educated ourselves, with my mum,  about cholesterol, fats and specifically 'good' (unsaturated, poly-unsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats) and 'bad' (saturated) fats. My parents used to slather their bread and toast in spreads, and I remember spending an afternoon with her looking at the 'nutrition' on the back of the different spreads she was using.  Although they were marketed as being 'healthier' than the others, they still contained a large proportion of saturated fats.  Yes, they were better than using butter and ghee, but if we're being honest they were still bad.

The last 6 months
So once we had educated ourselves about cholesterol lowering foods, my mum adjusted her diet.  They weren't massive changes, but significant enough. She removed certain foods from her diet almost entirely and introduced new ones which she eats everyday.
Cholesterol lowering foods

Why These Foods?
Everything we read advised reducing the saturated fat, so things like butter, ghee, hard cheese, pastries, cakes and fats surrounding meat.  And to replace them, in part with the good fats: unsaturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, so things like nuts, seeds, oily fish and fats which are liquid at room temperature.

Porridge is high in soluble fibre.  This binds the fats in the intestines so the fat isn't absorbed into the blood stream.  Beckerman says it "acts like a sponge to absorb cholesterol" in the digestive tract. Oats, and barley are great for this.  This is explained in point 5 by WebMD.

Porridge & Linseeds - Cholesterol lowering foods

Such a simple bowl of porridge with a few seeds on top has such amazing benefits.
Mum has made a habit of eating a large bowl of porridge everyday (50g porridge oats with 100ml of cows milk & 250ml water).  She made her quantity for me one lunchtime so I could photograph it, and by-jove, I was still full 6 hours later!  She enjoys it with honey & a generous amount of linseed sprinkled onto the porridge.  And of course, she could even throw a few blueberries on there for good measure too!

Healthelicious explains, in detail the many health benefits of linseeds. They're full of Omega 3 oils, and the extract below outlines the results these little seeds  have had on a group of patients with high cholesterol levels.
'In a study involving 40 patients with high cholesterol (greater than 240 mg/dL), daily consumption of 20 grams of ground flaxseed was compared to taking a statin drug. After 60 days, significant reductions were seen in total cholesterol..... Those receiving flaxseed did just as well as those given statin drugs!'
It's amazing how powerful these little seeds seem to be!
Mum has been eating a generous amount of brown linseeds on her porridge each morning (more than in the image above).  I believe the brown linseeds carry the same nutritional value as the golden linseeds and are far cheaper. You could also add them to salads and yoghurts.

Walnuts are high in Omega 3 fatty acids, unlike other nuts.
WebMD explains 'Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in fatty fish like tuna and salmon. We know that omega-3 fatty acids lower levels of triglycerides, a type of fat in the bloodstream. Experts are not exactly sure how. Omega-3 fatty acids may also slow down the growth of plaques in the arteries and prevent blood clots.'
It also goes onto say that: 'There are a number of small studies that show that walnuts help lower cholesterol.'
Mum isn't a huge fan of walnuts, but is still consuming 2 or 3 a day.  We recognise that that isn't much, but she's aiming to have moderate portions of these fatty food because although they are good fats, they are still fats and too many will increase her weight and possibly counteract the good she has done. 

WebMD explained that 'One researcher, David Jenkins MD, has done many studies of the effects of almonds. In a study, he tested 27 men and women with high cholesterol over three months. People who ate about a handful of almonds a day lowered their bad LDL cholesterol by 4.4%. Those who ate two handfuls lowered it by 9.4%. The results were published in the journal Circulation.'
Mum is enjoying a modest amount of almonds every day,  8 everyday or 1 small handful.

Pumpkin Seeds
The Webpage, Dr explains 'Regularly consuming pumpkin seeds can have a powerful positive impact on your cholesterol levels. They contain a compound called phytosterol, which is very effective in lowering ldl-cholesterol levels. Phytosterols reduce your cholesterol levels by blocking the absorption of harmful cholesterol from your diet.'
Mum has been enjoying a handful of these gorgeous green seeds everyday, and thoroughly enjoyed them when she scattered them onto some Ryveitas with a little jam.  Though you could easily add them to salads and scatter them on soup.

Cholesterol lowering foods

Sunflower Seeds
Whfoods explains 'Phytosterols are compounds found in plants that have a chemical structure very similar to cholesterol, and when present in the diet in sufficient amounts, are believed to reduce blood levels of cholesterol, enhance the immune response and decrease risk of certain cancers.'
Again, mum enjoys these lovely seeds in the same way as the pumpkin seeds.

Oily Fish
Mum and Dad have enjoyed a diet containing oily fish for many years; such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and trout.  WebMD Boots says  "It is well established that a dietary intake of omega-3 is good for heart health. Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel or sardines, is a nutritious source of omega-3."  Though it's worth remembering that the Foods Standards Agency suggests limiting your portions due to the pollutants in oily fish.

Above is a typical example of 4 days of mum's diet.  As you can see she's eating all of the cholesterol lowering foods, but still allowing herself a treat now and again.  She will be the first to admit that she does still enjoy a bit of 'naughty foods' such as a slice of cake or piece of chocolate when they are on a day out.  After all, "a little of what you fancy does you good" as my mum would say.  Though the emphasis is on the word 'little'.  So certainly not every day, but perhaps once a week, and that way she probably enjoys those treats even more.


The Results
Ok, so after all that, I'm sure you realise her cholesterol has reduced; after all, why would I be writing this?  So yes, it has reduced.  From 6.01mmol/L 6 months ago, to 4.01mmol/L now!!

Mum's Cholesterol Score

We're so proud of her!  Well done Doris (Mum's 'pet' name!).
Weight wise, she has now lost almost 2 stones and is feeling much better for it, weighing in at 10.0 stones!


And the Future
Well, her GP would like to see her cholesterol score beneath 4.0mmol/L, and it will be re-tested in 6 months time. 
Obviously mum is carrying on with the diet because it's clearly doing something beneficial.  She's looking at including some Soya based products in her diet; perhaps soya milk to have in her porridge.
There seems to be lots of natural foods out there which have positive effects on the cholesterol.

As for Mr E & I, well we try to eat a 'healthy' diet and although our cholesterol levels were tested a number a years ago, they were both under 4mmol/L, it may be wise for us to have ours re-tested and to include a few of these measures into our diet.  I've already started eating porridge again most mornings (if nothing else, it stops me from snacking!).   In addition, Only Crumbs Remain may feature some recipes starring these wonderful foods!

Mr E, my hubby, informed me that soldiers who were killed in the Vietnam War underwent post-mortems and all of those young, fit, soldiers were found to have some plaque build up due to cholesterol;   so it's no doubt wise to eat a largely healthy diet rather than waiting until we're diagnosed with heart disease.

Remember, if you do have a high Cholesterol Score, discuss it with your Doctor and don't just stop taking any medication you may have been prescribed!!

Post Script: Since posting this, the BBC has televised a short series entitled 'Trust Me, I'm a Doctor' with Michael Mosley.  In his second episode, televised last night on BBC 2, Wednesday 22nd July 2015, he discussed cholesterol and if it can be reduced without medication.   This link takes you to a detailed resume of the findings in the programme, which saw Michael Mosley's cholesterol reduce overall by 30% and by 42% of his LDL (bad) cholesterol through adjustments to his diet.

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  1. Really interesting post with lots of good info!
    I'm a bit like your mum as in I hate taking any kind of medication, and avoid it as much as I can. I think trying to do it naturally through diet is the best way to go, but obviously if things were really bad I wouldn't refuse medical help, I've had chemo, and weighed up all the pro's and cons and knew it was the best option for me. I didn't take any of the other drugs, most for anti sickness, etc (some of the side affects I read about were really bad) and just tried to get healthier. I really should do a food journal and really see what I'm eating, mine is more the quantity I eat than anything, I'm well greedy! We eat practically no processed food and I would take a small amount of butter over artificial spreads any day, but it's getting the balance right.

    I'd be interested in knowing my own cholesterol level, I've never checked. Glad to hear your mum is doing so well with all her changes, good on her, it is really hard to change your diet so much.

    1. Thank you Mands.
      It's interesting when we do take the time to write down, honestly, what we eat. I did a nutrition course at college many years ago, and for part of that we diarised what we actually ate. Mine didn't look brilliant as I have such a sweet tooth!
      It's interesting how including a few seeds and nuts (in moderation) can influence the cholesterol level.
      Yes, there are times when medication is needed sadly. I'm sorry to hear you needed to have chemo. My dada did also, it's not an easy time, but they also started cleaning up their diet then.
      Yeah, we're so proud of her - we just need to help her get below 4 now, and stay there.
      Angela x

  2. What a great post! Full of info. I too suffer from high cholesterol and a long gene pool of it. I hate taking meds before at least trying a natural way. Thanks for linking with #momsterslink.

    1. Thank you :-) I totally agree about trying other things before taking medication (although meds definitely do have their place), as they often have side effects and then you can end up with taking meds to ease the side effects caused by the original medication! I hope you found it helpful with your own elevated cholesterol.
      Thanks for popping over and commenting,
      Angela x


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