Medical herbalist Nicola Parker explains if you make the right choices, you don’t have to have a fat-free diet

Last week in this column I talked about how delicious and addicting salt can be, as well as the negative impact this can have on blood pressure and the cardiovascular system. I thought I’d follow on from that by discussing the other flavour enhancers that can contribute to poor heart health when we get carried away with their over-use.

Low fat diets have been popular for many years, both for weight loss and for reducing cholesterol. Fats are calorie dense, so meals with a high fat content will have a much greater calorie load than a meal that is the same size but lower in fat.

This has led to a significant amount of “low fat” marketing for certain foods that may not be quite as healthy as they first seem.

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Lower cholesterol with the right diet
Lower cholesterol with the right diet

Fat, salt and sugar all provide huge amounts of flavour, turning a bland dish into something delicious. An egg that has been fried, sprinkled with salt and covered in sugary tomato sauce is much more appealing than a plain boiled egg.

So, when creating low fat dishes, especially pre made or pre-packaged foods, a company can add lots of sugar and salt for flavour, yet still label the food as low fat, creating the illusion that you are making a healthier choice.

When it comes to cholesterol and weight gain, sugar can play a huge role in exacerbating these conditions. Diets that are high in sugar can lead to raised cholesterol and poor blood sugar control, increasing the risk of diabetes, which is heavily associated with cardiac problems. So it is perfectly possible to have a low fat diet that still contributes to poor health.

To better manage your cholesterol and weight, reduce your intake of refined sugars and carbohydrates, as well as lowering saturated fats. Sweet foods, including fruit, fruit juices and fruit flavoured snacks like jam, yoghurt and cereal bars, often have a high sugar content which can be fine in moderation, but will be detrimental when consumed to excess.

Instead of focusing on a fat free diet, choose healthy, plant-based fats that come from nuts, seeds and those that are naturally occurring in foods such as fish and avocados.

Cook with plant oils over animal fats, choose lean meats and bulk out your plate with lots of high fibre vegetables, rather than loading up on starchy potatoes, rice and pasta.

The fibre in vegetables helps to mop up cholesterol in the gut, stopping it from being reabsorbed into the bloodstream, where it can cause problems. Oats do this incredibly well and make a strong contender for a healthy breakfast vs the high carb toast and jam or sweetened cereals.

For some people, high cholesterol is a genetic issue and changes made to the diet may not be enough to bring it down to a level considered acceptable by your GP. If this is the case, you may be offered statins. Statins get a bad press as many people complain of negative side effects after starting them.

I had this conversation with a gentleman a few months ago. He was reporting that he had stopped this medication because since using it he was aching all over and feeling constantly exhausted.

With the cold weather already aggravating his arthritis, he said that he could barely summon the energy to get out for his morning walks with the dog, something he would normally look forward to. After stopping the medication he felt much better, but was naturally concerned that his cholesterol wasn’t being managed.

Your GP may be able to offer you an alternative medication if you’re struggling on the meds you are currently prescribed, but in my clinic, I use Red Yeast Rice, a type of natural statin that can have the same cholesterol lowering properties as statins without all the unpleasant side effects.

The nice thing about managing cholesterol is that a blood test will tell you quite quickly whether a remedy, medication or dietary adjustment is working. I like Red Yeast Rice because it works consistently, so I am confident putting my faith in it.

When something works time and time again, why fix a method that isn’t broken?

For more information or to book a herbal or dietary consultation with Nicola, call her clinic on 01524 413733.

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