Loving Your Heart – Most of Us Only Get One

June 7, 2011 in Health, Mediterranean, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

My last post recounted the research, and explained the confusion about how little of the cholesterol in our blood comes from cholesterol found naturally in our foods, and how much (75%), is created within our bodies, stimulated negatively by saturated and trans fats and other factors. The problem with high total and LDL (bad/Mr. Hyde) cholesterol is a primary source of trouble; however, an unhealthy amount of triglycerides, is also a serious problem in heart health, and it is aggravated by eating too much refined flours and sugars – simple carbs.

The suggestions in the rest of this post may give you some ideas on how to deal with these two sources of difficulty in the diet. Mary Ireland’s recent post, and a number of previous ones, give the necessary complement to an excellent diet:  the right amount of exercise.

What to include in a Heart-Healthy Diet

Eating whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes (beans) can help reduce the bad cholesterol and heart disease. In addition, these same foods are related to a reduced risk of stroke. Some think it is the potassium in the foods that mediates the reduced risk, but this has not been proven yet. So instead of running off to the pharmacy for potassium supplements, which may not be the answer, work on increasing your intake of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Whole grains, and most especially, oats and barley, are the highest in beta-glucan; a type of soluble fiber that is associated with lowering both total and bad cholesterol.


Plant sterols and stanols have been shown to be effective at reducing total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol, but researchers are still waiting to show direct evidence for the ability of phytosterols to lower cardiovascular incidence. Food processors are adding sterols to margarines, salad dressings and other products with hopes for a decrease in cardiovascular disease. One possible concern about using the stanols/sterol esters is that they seem to decrease the alpha and beta carotene, and the lycopene and possibly other fat-soluble vitamins in blood; so if you’re using those products you should probably periodically have your blood levels checked. While it is a much smaller dose, we can strive to increase our intake of vegetables, which have already been linked to decreased LDL cholesterol.

Maybe one technique that could become valuable, if we’re trying to reduce our risk of heart disease is adjusting how we think about specific foods.  For example, if I see a piece of cake with frosting, it helps me to look at it as an artery-clogging sponge. That sounds a little crazy, however, even though you don’t see the fats or the simple carbohydrates (flour and sugar) in the cake, you just need to make the recipe once to see how much fat goes into the cake – it’s not just the sugar. Also, frosting is almost always made with saturated fat, because it needs to be firm at room temperature. You may want to decide not to eat frosted cake very often.  I’ve made my Dr. Grandma’s Muffins Your Way recipe (using 100% whole organic wheat, extra virgin olive oil, and zero calorie sweetener) many different ways. I can feel good about serving/eating them, but still have the taste or presentation of a dessert. It may be a little extra work, but really it’s pretty easy – add a little applesauce to the mix and bake – Voilà! Healthy strawberry shortcake! Or blueberries, blackberries, raspberries or slicked peaches. The point is, fresh fruit and whole grains, minus all the sugar, white flour, saturated fat and other junky ingredients that the bakery or food processor throws in.

What can you do to raise HDL (good cholesterol)?

Eating olive oil, avocado, and peanut oil are foods to include.  Certainly they are high in fat, but eaten in moderation they are an excellent choice.

Just losing as little as 6 pounds, tends to drive your HDL (good) cholesterol up one point; in addition, it can help you reduce your levels of triglycerides and LDL (bad) cholesterol.

It seems that smoking is bad for just about everything; cholesterol is not the exception. Your good cholesterol (HDL) will usually go up, after smoking cessation. Get help in licking this difficult addiction – it’s so worth it!

Regular exercise can lower bad cholesterol and, in addition, can increase your good cholesterol. Strive for 150 minutes a week, at minimum; and gradually move toward 30 to 45 minutes on most days. Of course, if you’re starting an exercise program, and you haven’t exercised for years, you should check with your doctor for how slowly you should start.

Supplements? Not the answer.

As always, I advice you to be very careful with supplements; they can be harmful, so proceed with caution. (This link has a fairly extensive evaluation of supplements).


If you just happen to be in your local vitamin store or a friend tells you how great calcium supplements are, think twice before starting; or if you’ve already started, consider this new research. A meta-analysis of 29,000 people suggests that the risks of heart problems from the calcium supplements outweigh the potential benefits and it doesn’t matter if you take it with vitamin D, or not. It may increase your risk of a heart attack by 25 percent and your risk of a stroke by 15 percent. The author of the study said, “When we do the calculations from these 29,000 people, we find that for every thousand people we give calcium to for five years, we cause six heart attacks and we prevent three fractures.” Ooops! Interestingly, they did not find an increased risk with eating high calcium containing foods (leafy greens, dairy products), but only with the supplements. Nutritionism can be harmful – be careful when you try to solve nutrition problems with supplements. One of the researchers, even remarked that if the food processing industry “ignores or refuses to engage this issue, it may be opening itself up to liability in the future.” Don’t wait for the food processors to regulate themselves, try to avoid calcium supplements added into your processed foods and don’t take them as supplement pills or liquids either, unless your physician advises it and assures you that it is necessary despite the risk it brings.

Fast Foods

It appears that an acute heart attack is not enough to stop many people from eating fast food. Not many seem to be moved to action by the stories of others whose lives have been dramatically changed by heart attacks. It seems that most people have to have their own heart attack to understand how important it is to take action early. Shari Roan published Heart attacks, if survived, bring drastic change in the L.A. Times. It’s the story of a man who faced pain, weakness and frustration after his heart attack. Outside of our slowness to learn, there are small signs of progress. French fry consumption has been down a little (about 1.3%), but not enough for us to become smugly satisfied that our heart health will be dramatically improving.

There are even little hints coming our way that lowering cholesterol levels could help our bodies’ immune system fight infections. One day we may consider lowering our cholesterol for the additional benefits of giving us protection from a flu or cold.

Lastly, just losing weight can be one of the steps to reducing cholesterol. Sometimes it goes up during the weight loss process, but then goes way down later.


It’s challenging to wrap up a full program of changes in diet and exercise that will lead each individual to greater heart health.  I hope that the combination of the previous blog post, on Jekyll and Hyde Cholesterol, and this one, along with Mary Ireland's post, Exercise Protects Against Disease, will provide some current information of value to you.  However, I strongly believe that adopting a healthy diet is like losing weight and keeping it off – it’s a process. Those who succeed have probably started several attempts and have failed, having to start yet again, having learned from the partial successes and failures in each attempt. Finally, those who have succeeded in losing it and keeping it off for years have adapted to what has worked best for them.  They adapt the exercise to their own life-style and schedule, and find healthy foods that they enjoy and can obtain and cook in a way that works for them. We, at Dr. Grandma’s, provide many recipes in the recipes section of this website, in the hope that they will give you ideas of ways to prepare foods that will help you achieve the eating-style that can lead to reduced disease risk and improved health.  Along with the documentation of advice and recipes, we hope to help you in your quest for heart-health, weight management, and diabetes control. We realize that cutting back on simple carbohydrates, especially sugar and corn sweeteners can be a significant challenge; so you may want to try a zero calorie sweetener and discover, if it can help you enjoy a little sweetness without raising your cholesterol and triglycerides. We can enjoy a little sweetness while loving and caring for our heart at the same time, because most of us only get one.