Cholesterol isn’t the sort of thing people think about until a lab test shows it has reached alarming proportions. I mean it doesn’t look ugly, like ripples of cottage cheese on your thighs or loose skin flapping under the arms when you wave. After 40, you have to wear long sleeves or give up dramatic gestures.
Actually, you don’t have to be an overweight, out-of-shape couch potato to have levels of the bad stuff floating in your bloodstream that could clog an artery.
My older sister was skinny as a snake her whole life but wound up having to have her carotid artery reamed out. Of course, she had lived on bacon, fried shrimp and ice cream for years. I figured it couldn’t happen to me. My younger sister’s level is around 150, but then, she’s almost a vegetarian. We’re all from the same gene pool, so go figure.
It’s been 30 years since I ate a hamburger, and I don’t eat pig meat, in any form, but about once a year. Okay, so I ate ham in France last summer-and pastry, every day. Big deal.
Still, when I got the message from Kaiser that my cholesterol level was 250, I was shocked. Last time they mentioned it, it was 200 with a significantly high HDL ratio, and I was told it was no problem.
What could I have been doing wrong? It must have been the time of year I was tested. I usually go for my annual poking and scoping in summer, which I missed last year because I was abroad (Watch how you say that!).
So I went in January. Dumb. The six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, my normal diet goes out the window. I cook and bake and eat. Big time. Pumpkin pie, pecan cake, cheesecake, turkey and ham, and all the clever things I do with the leftovers. Like adding a ton of cheese and bread.
Heart disease doesn’t run in my family, but I just read about a study that found lowering cholesterol can also ward off Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of senile dementia. That got my attention.
So now that I know it’s reversible, I’m on a mission. How fast can I cleanse my blood vessels of this pyuck? I dig out all my old health letters. I used to skip the parts about cholesterol. It wasn’t my problem. Right.
But where do you cut when you already don’t do meat and French fries?
Low-fat dairy is out. Non-fat is in. Cookies are out. Pastry is out. Cheese is all the way out. Egg yolks are out. Whole wheat is in.
What I gleaned from the health letters is that what you eat and when you eat it is more important than what you don’t eat. Oatmeal with a tablespoon of ground flax seed and a cup of soymilk is breakfast. Every day. Chai tea latte with a whole-wheat bagel (and some kind of faux butter called Benecol) for elevenses. Nonfat cottage cheese and fruit, salad or soup for lunch. Fruit smoothies mid-afternoon. Pasta or rice with vegetables, maybe a little salmon, for dinner. Apple and pear juice with a tablespoon of cider vinegar at nine and a small handful of nuts.
My favorite health study, reported in the November American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that a 1/2 ounce of dark chocolate and about four tablespoons of cocoa powder daily actually lowered oxidation of LDL (the bad guys, extra bad when oxidized) and raised HDL (the good guys) in a group of volunteers who ate an otherwise similar diet. Now there’s a study after my own heart. Who needs cookies when you can have Godiva?
The other study that fit right in with my routine was one that found snacking all day was better than eating two or three meals. Grazing is good for you. Feasting is not. I love this approach, but my dentist finds it appalling, being more concerned about dental plaque than the arterial kind. Of course, it’s okay to snack as long as you brush, floss, pick or at least rinse afterward.
The good news is that blood cholesterol levels go up and down very quickly according to what you eat and how much you exercise. The bad news is it will probably take me a month or more to get an appointment for another blood test. Oh well, I must be doing something right because I’ve lost 10 pounds. Even with my daily ration of Godiva.