Diet is an area that significantly impact your blood cholesterol. A nutritionally balanced diet while keeping minimal intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol is recommended for all. Generally, people eat enough of these and for some, even too much.
Consuming a diet that has too much saturated fat and trans fat increase your risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, high cholesterol and some cancers.
Food labels tell you what is in the food and drinks you are consuming. Every packaged and processed product should have a food label to help you determine its nutrition content. The food labels can help you sieve through misleading claims, shop faster and make better food choices to lower your cholesterol levels. Today, some restaurants even have nutrition information available on their menus.
Ignore the claims on the packaging
Many people base their purchase on the claims manufacturers print on their packaging. Did you know that many of these “low-fat” and ‘lite’ products can be high in fat, sugar, calories and salt, and these in excess can lead to hunger, weight gain and disease? “100% natural” can also contain a lot of sugar, salt and fat – all of which are natural ingredients.
Did you also know that cholesterol is found only in animal products? You may have seen some “cholesterol-free” claims on packaging of potato chips and vegetable-based snacks. I have seen this even on the sticker labels stuck on avocados!
Claims stated by the manufacturers often don’t tell you the whole story. In fact, these health and nutrient can be nutritionally meaningless and misleading.
Never evaluate a product based on the claims on the packaging, and never on a single nutrient or by calories alone.
For example, the calories of a “light” version and the regular version of ice creams may not differ much. The “light” version may still pack 4 to 5 grams of fat per serve, and may contain more sugar than the regular version to make up for the lack in texture.
Therefore, don’t evaluate a product based on the claim on its packaging, and never on a single nutrient or calories alone.
Read the nutrition information panel
1. Choose products low in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol
When shopping for food, use the nutrition information panel to compare and choose products with lower fat, saturated fat and cholesterol content.
Saturated fat is a type of fat that raises your total and LDL cholesterol and risk of heart disease, so intake should be limited. The average adult should consume less than 20 grams of saturated fat per day.
Trans fat is more harmful and damaging to the arteries as it raises LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowers HDL (good) cholesterol. Ideally, best to get 0 grams of this per day.
Keep in mind that manufacturers can list their products as 0 grams if it has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. This means that your food may contain trans-fat even if the food label says 0 gram. Therefore it’s important to check the ingredient list (more on this later).
Cholesterol guidelines currently recommend having not more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day, and if you have heart disease, aim for less than 200 milligrams per day.
2. Look for higher monounsaturated fat and omega-3 fat content
Dietary guidelines from various countries are recommending that monounsaturated fats, when eaten in moderation, and consumed in place of saturated or trans fat, can have a beneficial effect in reducing total and LDL cholesterol levels in the blood.
Omega-3 is an essential fatty acids that offer unique benefits to heart health and can only be obtained from diet. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce blood clotting in arteries and protects against hardening of the arteries. Good sources of this include oily fish, walnut and chia seeds.
Check serving size and number of servings per package
Using the above nutrition information panel as an example. The Per Serving column tells you how much nutrients you will get in per serving in which the amount is determined by the manufacturer. It is not always a standard amount across similar products, nor is it the recommended portion for healthy amounts.
Some suggested serving size can be smaller than what people can have under normal circumstances, so pay attention to the serving size and number of servings in that package, and compare it to how much you’re actually eating. Does the amount of food reflect the quantity you would usually have?
To easily compare information across 2 or more products, use the Per 100g column, which tells you how much nutrients you will get in 100 grams of the product.
Always check the ingredient list
Claims can be sneaky, but ingredient list will list out the true contents of what is actually in the food or drink product.
The ingredient list shows the ingredients used in the largest to the smallest amount by weight. The ingredient list is especially useful to check if the product contains trans fat.
For instance, some manufacturers may claim “trans fat free” on its packaging but if you see “vegetable fat”, “lard”, “margarine”, “shortening”, “hydrogenated”, “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oil in the ingredient list, you’ll be sure that these ingredients will still cause your arteries to clog as trans fat do.
Food containing trans fat is found in many processed and ultra-processed items such as 3-in-1 beverages, ‘creamy’ and ‘cheesy’ foods, fried foods, snack foods, baked goods such as pastries, cakes and cookies, products made with vegetable shortening, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, and margarine. Limit these products.
Choose products with higher dietary fibre and wholegrains
Whether you are trying to lose weight or lower your cholesterol, dietary fibre is your best friend. Eating a diet high in dietary fibre can help to regulate your digestive system, lower your cholesterol, stabilise blood sugar levels, and reduce your calorie intake.
Including wholegrains such as brown rice, wholemeal bread and oats, as well as nuts, seeds, mushrooms, beans in canned or dried forms, and fruits and vegetables in frozen or canned forms in your diet will help to lower blood cholesterol levels.
These foods are good sources of soluble fibre which bind to cholesterol, reduce its absorption and excreted in the stools. These foods are also rich in phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals working together in our body to reduce our risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases.
Many products, such as the one above, claim to be wholegrain or wholemeal but the first ingredient in the list is often wheat flour, which is actually refined flour. Check that WHOLE grains, WHOLE wheat, wholemeal are the first or second ingredient listed for the real wholegrain deal. Unbleached flour, enriched high protein wheat flour are all refined flours.
That said, note that Healthier Choice Symbol with ‘higher in wholegrains’ claim may be awarded to this product as it does contain 20% more wholegrain than the regular version of a similar product. This is why checking the ingredient list is so important – don’t be tricked by product name or claims!
To quickly identify healthier products, look out for the Healthier Choice Symbols below.
Products with the Healthier Choice Symbol has met the nutritional standards set by the Health Promotion Board. These triangular symbols are regulated and awarded to manufacturers whose products meet certain requirements.
Keep in mind that products with Healthier Choice Symbols are shopping guides to healthier products, and should still be eaten moderately.
For instance, products containing less than 0.5 grams of trans-fat per 100 grams of fat are allowed to be labelled as ‘trans-fat free” (NOTE: this is a different claim than the manufacturer’s own claims!). This means that consuming large amounts of these can still significantly contribute to the trans fat intake, so make sure you pay attention to the ingredient list!
Keep in mind that products with these symbols are shopping guides to healthier products, and should still be eaten moderately. Similarly, a product with “lower in saturated fat” symbol contains 25% less saturated fat than regular product.
The bottom line is, the Healthier Choice Symbol helps you to pick healthier products at a glance. There’s a reason why it’s not called the “Healthy Choice Symbol”.
Look for credible source and personalised guidance to help you
It can be quite overwhelming to sieve out credible information and distinguish them among the good-will advice from family and friends. I hope the article has broken down and explain these features so they make sense to you.
If you want further information or need more tailored guidance to lower your cholesterol naturally and improve your health, our friendly dietitians and health coach at MyDoc can help you navigate your way to better health and quality of life. Find us here.