February is American Heart Month, a great time to commit to a healthy lifestyle and make small changes that can lead to a lifetime of heart health, and general health.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States, and rates are continuing to rise.
There are a lot of risk factors for heart disease which are unchangeable, such as family history. That being said, there are many dietary changes you can make to reduce your risk. One risk factor for heart disease which can be affected by diet is blood cholesterol. While we know how that cholesterol in food does not increase blood cholesterol, there are still substances in the diet which will increase cholesterol, such as trans fats and saturated fats. Replacing these fats with healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats is the first step in making your diet more heart healthy. Sources of these heart-healthy fats include olive oil, canola oil, nuts, avocados and oily fish such as salmon. Increasing dietary fiber by increasing the amounts of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes consumed will also help to lower cholesterol.
One type of food which can be useful to add to the diet are foods with added plant stanols or sterols. These substances, collectively known as ‘phytosterols’ are found naturally in fruits, vegetables, cereals and nuts. They reduce the risk of heart disease by reducing the absorption of cholesterol in the intestine. The National Cholesterol Education/Adult Treatment III program guidelines recommend eating 2 grams of phytosterols per day to help lower bad cholesterol. Eating above this point does not appear to be any more beneficial.
A healthy diet will contain many phytosterols naturally; however it is not possible to get enough from unfortified foods alone to reduce your cholesterol. For this reason, many companies have fortified their products with phytosterols to make achieving the target amounts more realistic.
What foods contain phytosterols?
Many companies now make products such as yoghurts, margarine spreads and orange juice which are fortified with phytosterols. It is important to read label to seehow much of the food must be eaten to achieve the benefits. Fortified foods should also be taken at meal times, not between meals.
Are they safe?
As with any supplement or medication, it is best to ask your doctor before starting to eat foods fortified with plant stanols or sterols. These products should only be taken by those whose cholesterol is already high, and should be taken along with any prescription medication, not instead of.
Foods fortified with phytosterols can be a useful addition to the diet if your aim is to lower your cholesterol; however, it is not essential to take these products to help manage your cholesterol. There may be other simpler changes that you can make, such as eating more fiber and heart healthy fats. Check out our high fiber recipes for ideas on increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables in your in your diet. Our fact sheet on fats will also give you the full scoop on dietary changes you can make to lower your risk of heart disease and cancer.