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Healthy cholesterol choices

Food and dietary fads come and go, but one thing they all have in common is that they focus on a quick fix or a single nutrient or specific food that we’re suddenly all deficient in that’s essential for our health. This presents an enormous challenge for a message that has been circulating for decades and that rarely changes – that a healthy, balanced diet that incorporates all food groups is the best thing we can do for ourselves.

by Christopher Allen, Head of Healthcare, HEART UK – The Cholesterol Charity

While this message is backed up by an enormous body of nutritional research, it often doesn’t go far enough in being ‘new’ and ‘exciting’ like the most recent diet plans that filter through social media. This means the medical and nutritional community have a difficult job then trying to cut through all of the potentially dangerous, unscientific advice that’s being given and encourage people to think more about the big picture when it comes to their health and what they are eating.

The first message I like to give people is that food is not the enemy. It’s something that’s there not only to sustain us but also for us to enjoy. In my experience, the advice that ‘you need to change your diet’ fills people with dread about spending the rest of their lives eating plain salads with no dressing, avoiding bread altogether and never again skipping through the door of the local cake shop. Nonsense. We can enjoy a huge variety of foods and still live a healthy lifestyle, we just all need to be better at balancing things out.
This idea of balance often confuses people, which in turn means they either yo-yo between extremes with their diet and either stop eating everything they like, or they give up altogether and eat whatever they want to excess. Over time, we’ve got better in the UK at things like traffic light labelling to help people understand what they’re eating, but we still have a way to go. And when it comes to saturated fat, we have a very long way to go indeed.

The mixed messages about saturated fat have blighted the lives of patients and healthcare professionals alike for decades. Over time, the sources of these messages have become more diverse, but still just as confusing for people who just want to live a healthier life. Yet, consistently the best nutritional research tells us the same things:

  • Don’t eat too much saturated fat – most women should limit this to 20g a day, and most men to 30g a day. Two teaspoons of butter on toast is 10g so some people will be having at least half their intake at the start of the day. Always remember, it’s a limit not a goal!
  • Replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats where you can – oily fish, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils such as sunflower, rapeseed and olive oils but NOT coconut or palm oil
  • There is no need to completely cut out saturated fat or fats in general from your diet – it can actually be harmful
  • A high intake of saturated fat can raise your levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, which increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. Many so-called ‘healthy’ diets encourage people to cut out carbs – bread, pasta, cereal – or dramatically reduce how much they eat.
Carbs have been demonised as ‘bad’ for us when in fact they are important for our health, including maintaining a healthy weight. But we have to remember that not all carbs are the same. The type, quality and quantity of carbs in our diet is important. And, in fact, people who follow these ‘low-carb’ diets potentially miss out on healthy wholegrains that are a much-needed part of a healthy diet.
Research from hundreds of studies has found eating more wholegrain foods is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. One reason for this is that wholegrains have been shown to lower blood cholesterol. So again, it is all about the balance, but cutting out carbs completely or dramatically lowering intake is not recommended.
The messages sound confusing – but they really don’t need to be. At HEART UK, we’re committed to helping people understand how best to follow these guidelines, but also enjoy their life and the foods they eat.

The first thing you can try is to take a type of food you love that can typically be packed with saturated fat – how about a curry from your local takeaway? It could easily contain your entire day’s allowance of saturated fat in just one meal. But, with a few tweaks, you can make your own delicious version at home.
We’re incredibly proud of our tasty chicken keema curry – and it only contains 1.1g of saturated fat per serving! If you’re not keen on spice, you can always leave the chillies out. Feel free to add any of your own favourite veggies too, and swap your white rice to brown to boost your wholegrain intake.
The next thing is to think about how you can pack more heart-healthy vegetables into your diet and try to reduce the saturated fat you get from red meat. You’d be surprised at how quickly you can get your 5-a-day. Why not give our Mediterranean vegetable lasagne a try (see recipe on page 5)? We’ve swapped the red meat for extra vegetables and used low-fat versions of some ingredients to keep the saturated fat content down to just 3.6g per portion. Or why not go meat-free for one or more days a week? You’d be surprised at how easy it is to make meat-free versions of your favourite foods. Enjoy!
And, finally – exercise. As a nation we don’t move enough. Our jobs and lives in general are more sedentary, and this only contributes to rising levels of bad cholesterol. While it’s a great start to get your 10,000 steps a day, what’s more important is to do activities that make you feel warmer, breathe faster and increase your heart rate, whatever that activity may be. If your 10,000 steps are very brisk they will count, but as a general guide we all need this moderate level of activity for at least 150 minutes a week.
Being active helps to keep your weight down and reduce levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol in your blood. It’s also a great mood-booster and a way to socialise if you like to exercise in classes or groups in your local area.
Whichever way you choose to make changes to your lifestyle, I’d always say to people that if something sounds faddy then it probably is. Always try to get information from reputable sources like the NHS and health charities, and if you’re not sure then reach out for support.

At HEART UK we’re proud to offer information and support through our helpline, where a specialist nurse or dietitian can listen and answer any questions you have. You can call us 10am – 3pm Monday to Friday on 0345 450 5988, or email us at You can also visit our website to access all our information and free recipes at

Vegetable Lasagne

Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour 15 minutes

2 aubergines, cut into chunks
2 red onions, cut into wedges
2 red peppers, cut into strips
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
450g courgettes, sliced
225g lasagne sheets
30g parmesan cheese
For the sauce:
900ml skimmed milk
60g olive spread
70g plain flour
125g reduced fat hard cheese (we used Edam)
Preheat the oven to 220°C/fan200°C/gas 7. Mix the aubergine, onion, pepper, garlic and half the oil in a bowl. Transfer to a large roasting tin and cook for 30 minutes or until soft.
Meanwhile, heat the rest of the oil in a frying pan. Fry the courgettes for 4 minutes until browned.
Remove the roasted veg from the oven and stir in the courgettes. Lower the oven to 200°C/fan180°C/gas 6.
For the sauce, bring the milk to the boil in a pan and set aside. Melt the olive spread in a pan, add the flour and cook for 1 minute then remove from the heat. Gradually stir in the milk then bring to the boil whilst stirring and then simmer gently for 10 minutes stirring occasionally.
Cook the lasagne according to the packet instructions.
Add the cheese to the sauce and season with pepper. Spoon a thin layer over the base of a lightly-oiled ovenproof dish, cover with 4 lasagne sheets, overlapping them slightly. Top with half the vegetables, then one-third of the remaining sauce and another 4 sheets of lasagne. Repeat this process once more and then spread over the remaining sauce and sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake for 40 minutes, until golden.

Energy 282 Kcal
Fat 13g
Saturates 3.6g
Sugars 11g



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