Great news: after 40 years of being told to avoid foods that are high in cholesterol, experts have changed their minds, so you can eat them if you want to without fear.
It is important to realise that this new view on cholesterol in food does not reverse warnings about high levels of “bad” cholesterol in the blood, which contribute to heart disease. It is now estimated that only about 20% of cholesterol levels in our blood come from our diet, the rest being produced by the liver.
Reasons for high cholesterol levels include obesity, lack of exercise, smoking, excess alcohol intake, as well as genetic factors. New Zealanders have some of the highest average cholesterol levels in the world and most of us would benefit from lower cholesterol levels.
The average level of total blood cholesterol in New Zealand adults is around 5.7 mmol/L – recommended level is less than 4.0 mmol/L
A number of common dietary supplements can help reduce cholesterol, the main ones being:
Omega-3 fatty acids
Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids help reduce heart disease and lower cholesterol levels. Omega-3 fatty acids work in several ways including decreasing the rate at which the liver produces triglycerides, having an anti-inflammatory effect in the body, decreasing the growth of plaques in arteries and thinning the blood.
Experts recommend eating at least two servings of fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring or tuna each week, and if this is not possible, around 1g a day of omega-3 capsules is also effective.
Red yeast rice
This supplement is not as well known or popular but has been used as a traditional medicine in Asian countries for centuries and is an extract from rice that has been fermented with the yeast Monascus purpureus. One of the key components is monacolin K, also known as the statin drug lovastatin. It is effective in terms of reducing cholesterol, but has the same side effects as prescription-only statins.
There is widespread belief that garlic is good for the heart, with one possible mechanism being a reduction in cholesterol. Studies found an 8% reduction in total serum cholesterol if it was taken for at least 2 months as a dietary supplement. As well as being effective it also had minimal side effects.
Finally, the soluble fibres found in foods such as oat bran, barley, psyllium seeds and flax seed are particularly effective in lowering cholesterol levels. 2-10 grams per day are needed. Overall most people do not have enough fibre in their diets.
Finally, does this sound like an appetising meal? Fish, fried in olive oil, with red yeast rice and a side of artichokes, cooked in garlic, and sprinkled with nuts. Served with kidney beans and avocado, accompanied by red wine, followed by chocolate and finally a cup of green tea. No, you are not reading a food magazine by mistake, every one of the above ingredients has been shown at some stage and to some degree to help reduce cholesterol levels!
As with all dietary supplements, in an ideal world people would get all the nutrients they need from their food. This is usually not the case though, not only as a result of unhealthy eating habits but also due to the poor nutritional content of some modern foods which are heavily processed. Therefore there is a role for dietary supplements such as those described above.