FYI: Keeping Cholesterol Down Without Meds

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There's statins, which are the most popular prescription drug ever that's been marketed as a cholesterol-lowering medication.

As Businessweek reports: "The drugs are thought to be so essential that, according to the official government guidelines from the National Cholesterol Education Program, 40 million Americans should be taking them. Some researchers have even suggested-half-jokingly-that the medications should be put in the water supply, like fluoride for teeth."

This week, CBS News partnered with Businessweek, which reported today that statins don't necessarily help patients in the way they are thought to. Read our partner story from Businessweek here.

While it is possible that it is in your best interest to use cholesterol-lowering medication, medical experts suggest ways to lower your cholesterol without drugs - making simple lifestyle changes.

The American Heart Association's Web gives simple recommendations in a checklist for lowering cholesterol. It suggests taking simple measures: exercising regularly, eating a heart-healthy diet and making certain lifestyle choices, such as avoiding tobacco smoking.

Eating healthy
The American Heart Association offers some information on cholesterol, your body and your diet.

Some of your cholesterol is made by your body. The food you eat is responsible for the rest. Food products from animals contain cholesterol - including meats, poultry, shellfish, eggs, butter, cheese and whole or 2 percent milk. And any type of food can also contain saturated fats and trans fats, which cause your body to make more cholesterol.

The American Heart Association recommends that you keep your intake of total fat to between 25 percent and 35 percent, your saturated fat consumption to less than 7 percent and your intake of trans fat to less than 1 percent of your total daily calories.

At the same time, limit your intake of cholesterol from food to less than 300 mg per day. People with high LDL (bad) blood cholesterol levels or who are taking cholesterol medication should consume less than 200 mg of cholesterol per day.

Eat at least 25 to 30 grams of dietary fiber each day - preferably from whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes. To combat high blood pressure and for overall cardiovascular health, also limit sodium to 2,300 mg or less per day.

But a heart-healthy diet isn't just about what you shouldn't eat. It also means eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, with whole grains, high-fiber foods, lean meats and poultry, fish at least twice a week, and fat-free or 1 percent fat dairy products. Also, the diet should be low in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol.

But can a bowl of cereal help prevent a heart attack? The Mayo Clinic suggests the best foods to lower your cholesterol and protect your heart. A partial list from the Mayo Clinic is below.

Oatmeal
Oatmeal contains soluble fiber, which reduces your "bad" cholesterol. Soluble fiber is also found in such foods as kidney beans, brussels sprouts, apples, pears, psyllium, barley and prunes.

Walnuts and almonds
Studies have shown that walnuts can significantly reduce blood cholesterol. Rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, walnuts also help keep blood vessels healthy and elastic. Almonds appear to have a similar effect, resulting in a marked improvement within just four weeks.

Fish including omega-3 fatty acids
Studies in the 1970s showed that Greenland Eskimos had a lower rate of heart disease than did other individuals living in Greenland at the same time. Analysis of dietary differences between the groups showed that the Eskimos ate less saturated fat and more omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and whale and seal meat. Research since that time has supported the heart-healthy benefits of eating fish. If you can't dine with the Eskimos, other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil and soybean oil.

Soy
Long thought to have cholesterol-lowering effects, a recent meta-analysis by the American Heart Association's Nutrition Committee showed soy protein actually has very little impact on reducing cholesterol levels. In January 2006, the American Heart Association issued a statement saying the cardiovascular health benefits of soy protein are minimal at best. No benefit was seen on HDL, triglycerides, or blood pressure and even with a large intake of soy, only a small impact on LDL was seen.

Stay away from smoke
The American Heart Association advises the following:
Cigarette and tobacco smoke, high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity and diabetes are the six major independent risk factors for coronary heart disease that you can modify or control. Cigarette smoking is so widespread and significant as a risk factor that the Surgeon General has called it "the leading preventable cause of disease and deaths in the United States."

Cigarette smoking increases the risk of coronary heart disease by itself. When it acts with other factors, it greatly increases risk. Smoking increases blood pressure, decreases exercise tolerance and increases the tendency for blood to clot. Smoking also increases the risk of recurrent coronary heart disease after bypass surgery.

Keep up physical activity
Physical inactivity is a major risk factor for heart disease, according to The American Heart Association, which recommends getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity, preferably every day but at least more days than not.

You don't need to get your minutes all at once - it's fine to break up your activity into 10-minute sessions or 15-minute sessions. For some people, regular physical activity affects blood cholesterol level by increasing the level of HDL (good) cholesterol. A higher HDL level is linked with a lower risk of heart disease. Physical activity can also help control other risk factors for heart disease: weight, diabetes and high blood pressure. Aerobic exercise (exercise that uses oxygen to provide energy to large muscles) raises your heart and breathing rates, which help your heart to work more efficiently at rest as well as during physical activity. Vigorous, regular physical activity such as brisk walking, jogging and swimming also condition your lungs.

Even mild activities, if done daily, can help. You can benefit from simple things like walking, gardening, housework or dancing. Talk to your doctor about getting started, especially if you've been inactive.

Additional Resources
  • Check out the 10-year risk calculator from the National Institutes of Health. It uses information from the Framingham Heart Study to predict a person's chance of having a heart attack in the next 10 years.

  • The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute includes the National Cholesterol Education Program, which aims to raise awareness and understanding about high blood cholesterol and the prevention of chronic heart disease.

  • Check out the AHA's Scientific Position on cigarette smoking and cardiovascular disease here.

  • Another cholesterol-lowering checklist is available on MedicineNet.com.

  • Baffled by the tricky terminology you see thrown around on Web sites or even by your doctor? A MedicineNet explainer gives the simple definitions of LDL, HDL, and Triglycerides.

  • Want to learn more about heart-healthy foods? Check out this article by WebMD.

  • Take the Mayo Clinic's online quiz: Is your diet hurting your heart?

  • Download "Empower yourself! Learn your cholesterol number" from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.

    • Christine Lagorio

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