If you have high cholesterol, take heart. This eating plan can keep your health in check, and its results rival those of medication. Here’s the blueprint for the Portfolio Diet.
Concerned about your cholesterol levels, you cut butter, creamy foods and full-fat milk from your diet. But have you done everything you can? Not quite. We know some foods are bad news for our heart (and our waistlines), but the good news is certain foods can actively lower high cholesterol. And studies show when eaten in combination, they can have an even more positive effect.
One in three Australians has high cholesterol, putting many of us at risk of coronary heart disease which can cause heart attack or stroke. If your GP says your cholesterol levels are high, try not to be alarmed. Far from a death sentence, the diagnosis is simply a wake-up call, and a a very helpful indicator of your future risk of heart-disease.
Fortunately, and importantly, you can take prompt action to remedy a diagnosis, and diet plays a much bigger role than you might expect. The best place to start is to familiarise yourself with the foods that will fight for your heart health.
The Portfolio Diet
This diet involves — you guessed it — a portfolio (or group) of foods that has been clinically proven to lower raised cholesterol, by up to 35 per cent in some cases. This is the same degree of reduction that doctors can achieve with drugs. (Health professionals often prescribe statins, drugs that reduce blood-cholesterol levels, to people who have coronary heart disease or believed to be at high risk of developing the condition.)
The Portfolio Diet is a very healthy way of eating, but it’s not meant to replace medication. For people with high-cholesterol levels and no added complications, this eating plan can be a successful starting point for bringing down cholesterol. Keep in mind, if you’re currently taking any prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs, it’s important you continue to do so.
The good news is this eating plan can work well alongside prescription drugs, so talk to your doctor about whether it’s suitable for you. If so, he or she can then design a balanced treatment program to help you fight high cholesterol on all fronts.
So what can I eat?
The Portfolio Diet is based on the following foods and nutrients, all of which are readily available, and should feature on your day-to-day menu.
In a nutshell, almonds are great for our health. High in heart-friendly fats and vitamin E, they appear to reduce some of the production of LDL cholesterol — the ‘bad’ type of cholesterol. According to studies, other types of nuts including peanuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and Brazil nuts, are likely to have a similar effect. Nuts are also low in unhealthy saturated fat and are great sources of hunger-busting fibre and protein.
Still, portion control is key. Nuts are high in kilojoules, so you risk gaining weight if eaten in large amounts warns Milena Katz, the spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia. “Nuts are energy dense, so you have to rid your diet of other energy-dense foods such as biscuits and cakes.”
Your daily target: About 30g (a small handful)
Make unsalted nuts your go-to morning or afternoon snack
Scatter chopped almonds or walnuts on top of cereal
Toss cashews into a salad for lunch or a stir-fry for dinner
Add whole or ground nuts to home-made loaves and muffins
Soybeans are full of soluble fibre, the type that helps absorb excess cholesterol in the blood. These protein-rich beans are also rich in heart-friendly phytoestrogen, a plant hormone that mimics the effects of the body’s hormone, oestrogen. While researchers are unsure of the exact mechanism behind soy’s beneficial effects on blood cholesterol, studies show populations that rely on soy as a staple, such as Japan, enjoy lower rates of heart disease than those who eat a typical meat-based Western diet.
Your daily target: 50g of soy protein
Add calcium-fortified soy milk or soy yoghurt to breakfast cereal or porridge
Order coffees with soy milk
Add firm tofu to stir-fries and curries
Switch to soy–linseed bread for toast and sandwiches
Use silken tofu to make salad dressings or egg-based dishes, such as quiche
Try soy-based products such as vegetarian soy burgers
Like soy, foods such as oats, barley, lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas and fruit (particularly pears, oranges and grapefruit) are high in soluble fibre.
Fibre works wonders for our bodies. This helpful substance combines with water in the stomach to form a gel, trapping some of the cholesterol in our digestive systems. The good news is, the body then excretes the gel, lowering the amount of cholesterol our body is able to absorb.
Your daily target: 20g of soluble fibre
Eat porridge or an oat-based cereal for brekkie
Fill up on baked beans at lunch
Spread hommous on wraps and sandwiches, or eat with crudités
Toss chickpeas, lentils or barley into salads, soups and casseroles
Snack on fresh fruit such as berries, apples and pears
Studies show if you eat these naturally occurring substances in the right amounts, they can lower cholesterol by as much as 10 to 15 per cent.
Research suggests phytosterols help to lower cholesterol much like soluble fibre does: They hold onto cholesterol in the digestive system, preventing our bodies’ from absorbing it properly into our bloodstream.
Small amounts or plant sterols can be found naturally in foods such as vegetables, fruit, olive oil, seeds, legumes (including beans, chickpeas and lentils) fruit, nuts and soy.
But to get the full benefits for your heart health, you will also need to eat foods that have been enriched with phytosterols.
Your daily target: 2-3g of plant sterols
Enjoy two to three cups of Dairy Farmers HeartActive milk, on cereal or in fruit smoothies
Replace butter with two teaspoons of a plant sterol-enriched table spread such as Flora pro-activ or Logicol
Meet your daily quota of five serves of veg by piling half your plate with colourful produce at lunch and dinner
Can I eat anything else?
Of course! Just incorporate the essential Portfolio Diet foods in a healthy eating plan, along with plenty of high-fibre fruit and veg and minimal amounts of sat fat and salt. You’ll also want to put salmon, tuna or sardines on the menu two to three times a week.
Oily fish has valuable omega-3 fats which promotes normal heart function, regulates blood pressure and helps to maintain healthy levels of triglycerides.
Your meals should also feature fibre-rich whole grains such as grainy bread, brown rice, quinoa and wholemeal pasta.
Katz says, “We know that if you eat these foods more frequently, your cholesterol is going to drop — but it takes commitment.” As soon as you fall back into old, unhealthy habits, whether that means eating hearty serves of fatty meat or large portions of creamy desserts, your saturated fat will increase and cholesterol levels rise. “In practice, you need to be willing to make permanent changes to your diet.”
Are there any foods I should avoid?
Most of us know the real culprit in raised cholesterol is saturated fat. Why? Because it encourages the liver to produce extra ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol.
To give the Portfolio Diet a chance to work, you’ll need to limit foods with this unhealthy fat. That means saying no (mostly) to fatty cuts of meat, pies, pasties, sausage rolls, cakes, biscuits and pastries, and eating fewer full-fat dairy foods such as butter, cream, cheese and whole milk. (You can still eat reduced-fat dairy products in moderation.)
Can I eat lean red meat?
Avoiding red meat does seem to help people maintain healthy cholesterol levels. However, meat does provide some key nutrients such as iron, vitamin B12 and zinc. You can keep lean steak and pork on the menu if you stick to three palm-size portions a week, ensuring the total is no more than 500g.
What can I drink?
Make sure you’re having plenty of fluids, especially if you are eating more fibre, as you may experience constipation. You can boost your intake of soy protein with fruit-based smoothies and coffee made from unsweetened, calcium-fortified soy milk.
Avoid high-kilojoule soft drinks and avoid adding sugar to hot drinks. An occasional glass of red wine won’t cause you any harm once your cholesterol levels are under control, but don’t let drinking in excess become a habit.
Don’t some foods contain cholesterol?
Yes, dietary cholesterol is found naturally in certain foods such as eggs, offal (which includes liver, páte and kidneys) and prawns. Doctors once advised us to limit these foods, but we now know they have very little effect on most people’s cholesterol levels. So unless a doctor or dietitian advises you otherwise, there’s no need to limit them. It’s far more important to eat more fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes and fibre, and cut back on foods that are high in saturated fat.
Can I start on the Portfolio Diet today?
Before you makeover your meals, discuss your intention to follow the Portfolio Diet with your GP. Remember, it’s important to continue taking any prescribed medication, such as statins, until advised otherwise.
Once you have been given the go-ahead and the reassurance that your doctor will monitor your progress, you can start this eating plan safely and confidently.
A typical day’s menu on the Portfolio Diet
Porridge with calcium-fortified soy milk or plant-sterol enriched milk, topped with blueberries and almondsORUntoasted muesli made of oats and calcium-fortified soy milk or plant-sterol enriched milk, topped with prunes
A small handful of unsalted, mixed nuts and a latte made from unsweetened soy milkORA fruit-based soy-milk smoothie
Soy–linseed bread spread with hommosu, plus a saladORA bowl of lentil and vegetable soup with soy–linseed toastPLUSA pear or an orange
A small can of reduced-salt baked beans and an apple
A stir-fry made of firm tofu, almonds and leafy green vegetables, served with brown rice or quinoaORA curry made from chickpeas, cashews and plenty of vegies, served with brown ricePLUSA bowl of berries and a small tub of soy yoghurt
What is cholesterol?
“Cholesterol is a type of fat (or lipid) that’s vital to normal body function,” says GP Dawn Harper. The liver makes most of the body’s cholesterol, which is then carried around in the blood by lipoproteins. There are two types of cholesterol — one is harmful to our health, the other is protective.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL)
This is the destructive ‘bad’ type that carries cholesterol from the liver to cells and tissues. When there’s too much LDL cholesterol in the blood, it can build up in artery walls, making them narrow and potentially causing blockages. People with cardiac risk factors, such as high blood pressure, should aim to keep their LDL cholesterol below 2mmol/L.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL)
The protective ‘good’ type that carries cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver to be broken down. High levels of HDL cholesterol appear to protect us against heart disease.
Check your levels
The only way to learn your cholesterol score is to have a blood test. “Without being tested, you won’t know whether you have high blood cholesterol as it doesn’t cause any symptoms,” says Harper. “But it’s important to know your levels because high cholesterol increases your risk of serious conditions such as stroke, atherosclerosis and heart attack.” A blood test will check for both LDL and HDL cholesterol, as well as triglycerides. Cholesterol levels are measured in millimoles per litre (mmol/L), and a reading of 5.5mmol/L or more is considered high cholesterol.