Cardiothoracic Surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Morgan Explains How a Low Cholesterol Diet Can Help Prevent Heart Disease
Contrary to popular belief, cholesterol itself is not the enemy. In fact, Dr. Jeffrey Morgan suggests that cholesterol plays an essential role in many bodily functions, such as building and maintaining cell membranes and structures, insulating cells, making hormones such as cortisol (a.k.a. the stress hormone), promoting efficient metabolism, helping absorb nutrients and digest fat, and producing vitamin D.
However, the problem arises when there is too much cholesterol in the blood — typically through an excess intake of animal-based foods (normally, the liver should be able to manufacture all the cholesterol that the body needs). This leads to a process called atherosclerosis, which is a build-up of plaque inside artery walls that gradually blocks arteries and restricts blood flow. Atherosclerosis can cause heart attacks, strokes, angina, peripheral vascular disease, aneurysms, chronic kidney disease and other serious and potentially life-threatening diseases, as Dr. Jeffrey Morgan, a cardiothoracic surgeon who received his M.D. from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1999, and now specializes in heart transplants and left ventricular assist devices, points out.
The risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease is even greater for smokers — along with family members who are exposed to second-hand smoke — because smoking accelerates the development of plaque. As noted in the 2010 Surgeon General’s Report entitled How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: The Biology and Behavioral Basis for Smoking-Attributable Disease: “Exposure to tobacco smoke is associated with accelerated atherosclerosis and an increased risk of acute MI [myocardial infarction], stroke, PAD [peripheral arterial disease], aortic aneurysm, and sudden death. Smoking appears to have both causal relationships and multiplicative interactions with other major risk factors for CHD [coronary heart disease], including hyperlipidemia, hypertension, and diabetes mellitus.”
Along with regularly exercising and maintaining a healthy weight, treating high cholesterol typically involves switching to a diet that includes:
· Foods that are high in soluble fiber, like oatmeal, oat bran, apples, bananas, pears, oranges, prunes, kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, and chickpeas. Dr. Jeffrey Morgan explains that high soluble fiber foods require the liver to pull cholesterol from the bloodstream, which lowers cholesterol levels naturally when consuming them.
· Fruits and vegetables such as apples, bananas, oranges, pears, and prunes. Dr. Jeffrey Morgan points out that these fruits and vegetables contain plant stanols, which functions like soluble fiber and helps clear out cholesterol.
· Fish that is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Dr. Jeffrey Morgan states that contrary to what some people believe, omega-3 fatty acids don’t reduce LDL cholesterol levels. However, they can help increase HDL cholesterol levels. HDL cholesterol is actually good for heart health, because it can remove LDL cholesterol from the blood and move it to the liver, where it can be excreted out of the body.
Other dietary best practices for people who want to lower their cholesterol level — or better yet, want to be proactive and reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease and other serious health problems down the road — include limiting salt intake, limiting alcohol consumption, and reducing animal-based foods such as liver, shrimp, egg yolks, and whole dairy milk products.
It is also a smart move to integrate several cholesterol-lowering foods into an eating regimen instead of just one or two. Dr. Jeffrey Morgan reiterates that any kind of healthier eating is worthwhile. For some people, simply adding a banana to breakfast, dialing back on salty foods, or swapping out their ritualistic mid-afternoon candy bar for a small bag of trail mix, is a big step in the right direction and can have very noticeable impacts on a person’s long-term health.