Sunday 19 November 2017

Fight high cholesterol with food

Make 2014 a heart-healthy year for you and your family by adding fruit, veggies and fish to your diet

Tomatoey three-bean soup
Tomatoey three-bean soup
Moroccan vegetable tagine
Photo by Thinkstock

Rozanne Stevens

MY RECENT trip home to South Africa was anything but a happy occasion. My mom had two heart attacks in one week and had to go in for emergency heart surgery. It was very traumatic for her, and for the whole family. So if you suffer from high blood cholesterol, blood pressure or heart disease, remember that it doesn't just affect you, it affects everyone around you.

Heart disease is the biggest killer in Ireland, but it doesn't have to be that way. While there are genetic factors at play, there are many practical and effective things that we can do to protect our cardiovascular health. Keeping a healthy weight, exercising, reducing salt intake, managing stress levels and reducing LDL cholesterol are all key.

Reducing your cholesterol by 1pc can lower your risk of heart disease by 2pc. This may not sound gigantic, but it's possible for many people to reduce their cholesterol by 10pc-15pc just by eating healthily. Making small but significant changes to the diet is really worth the effort.

Most people think of cholesterol as a fat, but it's actually a sterol, a waxy, fat-like substance. Cholesterol has a reputation as a health hazard when, in fact, some is essential for good health and is vital in producing hormones like testosterone and oestrogen.

There are two types of cholesterol: low density lipoprotein (LDL) is the baddie and high density lipoprotein (HDL) is the goodie. So the goal is to eat foods that lower LDL cholesterol and to limit foods that raise LDL cholesterol.

Problems develop when LDL cholesterol undergoes a chemical process called oxidation and it starts to build up on the artery walls, causing them to narrow. Conversely, HDL cholesterol (the goodie) removes cholesterol from the circulation, and protects against heart disease. Your goal is to have a low level of LDL and a high level of HDL. So when you get your cholesterol checked, make sure that your GP explains the figures to you properly.

Different foods lower cholesterol in various ways. Some deliver soluble fibre, which binds cholesterol and its precursors in the digestive system and drags them out of the body before they get into circulation.

Some give you polyunsaturated fats, which directly lower LDL. And some contain plant sterols and stanols, which block the body from absorbing cholesterol, such as certain spreads and yoghurts now on the market.

Fibre-Rich oats and wholegrains

Oats are rich in soluble fibre, which binds to cholesterol and its precursors and drags it out of the digestive system before they get into circulation.

An easy first step to improving your cholesterol is having a bowl of oat porridge or oat-based muesli.

I make muesli bars and add oats to meatballs and veggie burgers to sneak it in. Oats give you a solid 1 to 2 grams of soluble fibre.

Add a banana or some strawberries for another half-gram. Nutrition guidelines recommend getting 20 to 35 grams of fibre a day, with at least 5 to 10 grams coming from soluble fibre.

One of my other favourite grains is barley -- delicious in soups but also great as a substantial base to wholesome salads that also make a great packed lunch. Stock up on brown rice, quinoa and wholewheat pasta for a heart-healthy pantry.

Fibre-rich beans, lentils and chickpeas

Beans are especially rich in soluble fibre. They also take a while for the body to digest, meaning you feel full for longer after a meal. That's one reason beans are a useful food for people trying to lose weight, essential for heart health.

Beans, lentils and chickpeas are an excellent source of protein so you can swap them for some high-fat red meat meals.

You can make delicious, heart-healthy lentil moussaka and soups, chickpea curries and hummus and bean dips, tagines and salads.

There is no need to soak lentils, you can cook them from dried.

Tinned beans and chickpeas are totally fine, but soaking and cooking them yourself is surprisingly easy.

According to the 'Harvard Medical Journal', a plant-based diet with smaller quantities of meat and dairy is the most effective for reducing LDL cholesterol.

Fish and fish oils

Eating oily fish (such as salmon, trout, fresh tuna, sardines, herring and mackerel) twice a week can help to reduce the risk of heart disease and also improve the chances of survival after a heart attack.

We don't know exactly how, but it's thought that the protective omega 3 fats in oily fish keep the heartbeat regular, reduce the level of triglycerides (another group of bad fats in the blood), and prevent blood clots from forming in the arteries by making the cells less sticky.

So even though it doesn't directly lower your cholesterol levels, it is one of the most important changes we can make to our diet in order to lower our risk of heart disease.

Pectin and antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies

Eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day can help to reduce your risk of heart disease, because they're rich in potassium, which helps to regulate your blood pressure, and also full of antioxidant vitamins, which help prevent plaque from building up on the inside walls of the arteries. Green, leafy vegetables are important for B vitamins.

Apples, grapes, strawberries and citrus fruit are rich in pectin, a type of soluble fibre that lowers LDL.

Be sure to eat the whole fruit, not juice, to get all the benefits.

Nuts, seeds and oils

A rake of studies shows that eating almonds, walnuts, peanuts and other nuts is good for the heart. Eating 50g of nuts a day can slightly lower LDL by about 5pc. Nuts have additional nutrients that protect the heart in other ways.

A good example of this is walnuts, which are an excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids and also Vitamin E, which is a powerful protective antioxidant.

There is the misconception about plant fats being 'fattening'. They are indeed calorie-dense, so you can't go overboard, but plant oils such as olive oil, avocado, coconut oil and nuts and seeds have many heart-health benefits.

Flaxseeds and chia seeds are oil-rich seeds that can be added to porridge, yoghurt and baking. Rich in Omega 3s, fibre and antioxidants, they tick all the boxes for heart-healthy foods.

Cholesterol is one of the real "treatable" factors that can help decrease coronary disease. Strict diet alone can be very successful in lowering your levels of cholesterol, and the key issue is to minimise your intake of animal fats such as butter, eat moderate amounts of red meat and reduce salt and alcohol. Trans fats are lethal for heart health so just avoid.

Make 2014 a heart-healthy year for you and your family.

All recipes taken from Delish and Relish cookbooks by Rozanne Stevens. For books and healthy cooking classes log on to

Twitter: @RozanneStevens


Moroccan vegetable tagine



Moroccan Vegetable Tagine

Serves 4


* 1tbls olive oil

* 2 cloves garlic, crushed

* 1 thumb ginger, grated

* 1tsp ground cumin

* 1tsp ground coriander

* 1tsp caraway seeds

* 1tsp turmeric

* 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

* 1 tin chickpeas, rinsed and drained

* 1 tin butterbeans, rinsed and drained

* 1 sweet potato, cubed

* 1/2 small head cauliflower, broken into florets

* 1 courgette, cubed

* 1 tin chopped tomatoes

* 500ml vegetable stock

* Juice of 1 lemon

* 2tbls chopped coriander


* Saute the onion, ginger and garlic together until softened.

* Add the dried spices and stir until fragrant.

* Pour in the tomatoes, stock, chickpeas, beans and vegetables.

* Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes.

* Season with lemon and garnish with coriander.

Delicious butternut dish

Barley, Butternut, Leek and Hazelnut Salad

Serves 4

Barley and leeks are an integral part of traditional Irish cuisine. I love sweet and savoury leeks and I've rediscovered barley as a staple pantry pal. I've given them the wow factor with a really tasty dressing, toasty hazelnuts and roasted butternut squash.

This is a very robust salad or side dish that will travel well as a packed lunch for work and will keep fresh in the fridge for three days. Barley is an excellent source of slow release energy and colon cleansing fibre. Pot barley is the unrefined, healthier option whereas pearl barley has been polished, but is still highly nutritious.


* 250g pot or pearl barley

* 750ml water or stock

* 1/2 butternut squash or piece of pumpkin, peeled and diced

* 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

* 3 large leeks, trimmed, sliced and washed

* 2tbls chopped parsley

* Olive oil


* 1 thumb of ginger, grated

* 3 garlic cloves, crushed

* 100ml olive oil

* 2tbls apple cider vinegar

* 2tbls soy sauce

* 1tsp wholegrain mustard

* 1tsp honey

* Salt and pepper


* Rinse the barley well and simmer in the water or stock for an hour and a half until just tender. Add more water if needed if the barley is still not cooked through. Be sure to cook out the water completely so that the wet barley doesn't make for a soggy salad.

* Lightly coat the butternut squash with olive oil, season with salt, pepper and a sprinkling of cayenne pepper. Spread out on a baking tray and roast for 20 minutes at 200°C until just tender and starting to caramelise.

* Mix the dressing and pour over the warm cooked barley. Season to taste.

* Gently cook the leeks in a little olive oil and mix through the barley.

* Fold in the roasted butternut squash, be careful not to mush it.

* Garnish with chopped toasted hazelnuts and parsley.


Tomatoey three-bean soup


Tomatoey Three-Bean Soup

Serves 6 as a main course

I picked up the original version of this recipe many years ago in a little book called Cheap Eats. It has turned out to be one of my most popular and practical recipes. Most of the ingredients can be kept in the cupboard and you can whip this soup up in minutes.

Finely chopped onion, celery, carrots, garlic and herbs are regularly used in Italian cooking as a flavour base. This is called a 'soffrito' and is a tasty and nutritious way to flavour soups and casseroles. I always have these veggies in the kitchen for this reason.


* 2tbls olive oil

* 1 onion, diced

* 2 carrots, diced

* 2 sticks celery, diced

* 2 cloves garlic, crushed

* 1tsp dried oregano or mixed Italian herbs

* 1 tin chopped tomatoes

* 3tbls tomato paste

* 750ml vegetable stock

* 1 tin chickpeas, rinsed and drained

* 1 tin kidney beans, rinsed and drained

* 1 tin cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

* 4tbls fresh parsley, chopped

* 6tbls basil pesto, to serve


* Heat the oil in a large pot over a low heat. Add the onion, celery, carrot and garlic. Cook over a low heat until soft but not browned. It can help to place a piece of parchment paper directly down on top of the soffrito to trap the steam.

* Add in the tomatoes, tomato paste and stock. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes.

* Add the beans and chickpeas and simmer for a further 10 minutes.

* Season and stir through the parsley.

* Dish up a bowl for each person and swirl through a tablespoon of basil pesto.



Irish Independent

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