It was the spring semester of my junior year in college. I was engaging in conversations with my classmates as we were being handed back the results of our cholesterol screenings. I glanced down at the sheet that had been deposited on my desk and quickly went to my professor because I clearly had someone else’s results. She replied, “No, those results are yours, Amanda, and you have high cholesterol.” I thought this can’t be! I’m 21 years old, I run, teach group fitness classes, watch what I eat; how could I have high cholesterol???
This was a major scare to me, especially since heart disease runs in both sides of my family. After coming to terms with the news, I had a good hard look into how much fiber I was consuming in my diet.
Fiber has been referred to as many different things: bulk, roughage, even cardboard. Essentially, fiber is the indigestible part of plant products. It is found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. The average American needs at least 20-30 grams of fiber daily, but, unfortunately, most people miss this mark…by a lot. This is due largely to our high consumption of refined carbohydrate sources and processed food items, in addition to a poor intake of fruits and vegetables. But fiber has many benefits.
- Fiber has shown to help keep you fuller longer between meals, aiding in weight management.
- Choosing foods that are higher in fiber has shown to benefit blood glucose control.
- A diet high in fiber can decrease one’s risk for diverticulosis/diverticulitis. Fiber can play a role in treating both constipation and diarrhea.
- Increased fiber can help children’s constipation problems (check out this article for tips), as well as those of adults.
- Another great thing a high fiber intake can do (and the focus of this blog) is help lower one’s cholesterol and, therefore, reduce the risk for heart disease.
Fiber is split into two categories: soluble and insoluble, and most fiber-containing products have both. Insoluble fiber can aid as a laxative by moving intestinal contents more rapidly. Soluble fiber forms a gel-like product when entering the digestive system. Soluble fiber absorbs bile salts in the intestines, which are important for digesting and absorbing fat. In order to keep our pool of bile salts at a proper level, the body utilizes cholesterol, specifically LDL found in the blood stream, to manufacture more bile salts. The National Cholesterol Education Program’s Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes recommends consuming at least 5-10 grams of soluble fiber per day to reduce LDL cholesterol by 5%. Check out the complete list of recommendations.
Good sources of soluble fiber:
- Kidney beans
- Oat bran
- Ground flaxseed
Other sources of fiber:
- All beans/legume varieties
- Brussel sprouts
- Shredded wheat cereal
- Sweet potatoes
- Whole wheat bread/pasta
In addition to consuming more fiber, there are other diet recommendations for reducing one’s cholesterol level. This includes limiting trans and saturated fats from the diet (fatty red meats, fried foods, whole fat dairy products, snack crackers, chips, candy, cookies). It is encouraged to replace saturated fats with omega 3 and unsaturated fats from sources like salmon, walnuts and ground flaxseed. Fat intake should be limited to no more than 35% of total calories. Plant foods are recommended more often. Engaging in physical activity can also be very beneficial, as recommended by one’s physician.
How does my high cholesterol story end, you ask? I first began with choosing foods higher in fiber. I replaced my regular granola bars with high-fiber bars, consumed more vegetables, snacked on nuts more often, added fruit as part of my breakfast routine and chose cereals, English muffins and bread with higher fiber contents. In six months, I dropped my cholesterol level down from 216 mg/dL to 167 mg/dL. Today, I am still going strong with my fiber intake, omega-3 fatty acid intake and consuming low amounts of saturated and trans fats. Physical activity is a priority every day, and I am constantly finding new ways to challenge my body. My most recent cholesterol level taken was 151 mg/dL and I couldn’t be happier.
When increasing fiber in one’s diet, it is recommended to make sure you consume an adequate amount of water. Although it is rare with mixed diets, too much fiber can also be a problem causing poor absorption of calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium. Always consult with your physician or dietitian before making changes to your diet.