Cholesterol is a waxy, fatlike substance that occurs naturally in all parts of your body.
You need some cholesterol for things to work properly, but too much sticks to the walls of your arteries. That's called plaque, and too much plaque can kill you.
Cholesterol levels tend to rise as we get older. There are usually no signs or symptoms. It takes a blood test to detect high cholesterol.
Most physicians prescribe statins or tell patients to give up foods they love, but Dr. Joseph Keenan, a researcher in preventive cardiology at the University of Minnesota, says there's a better way.
"I've been a family practice physician with an interest in cardiology for more than 40 years," Keenan says. "Cholesterol is in all the plants we eat. Even eating a pure vegetarian diet doesn't take all the unnecessary cholesterol out of your body.
"But now, due to some nice work in food science, we are able to block the cholesterol we eat and, at the same time, reduce the amount of cholesterol already existing in our bile."
Question: You are talking about eating specific brands of foods?
Answer: Actually, scientists have been able to extract plant sterols. They exist in all the food we eat, but there's not enough to block cholesterol. Now sterols, which block cholesterol when we eat and reduce cholesterol in the bile, are available in supplement form and in some foods. Your best source of information on foods with sterols is Corowise.com.
Q: The Web site shows a nice listing of foods and shows you as the expert medical adviser. I assume you have a good reason to promote these foods.
A: They work. They work to lower cholesterol with sterols that block cholesterol.
Q: The American Heart Association says studies do not yet give definitive proof that sterols reduce cholesterol.
A: There are many, many completed studies. The sterols do work.
Q: But we all don't eat at home, so we can't eat these special food products and control our diet at every meal.
A: For those of us who eat out a lot, I advise you take along a portable vitamin or supplement. The goal is to have three to four servings of supplements or sterol-enhanced food daily, or about 1,200 milligrams. Even if you eat a vegetarian diet, you only ingest some 400 milligrams of sterols naturally. Another good source of sterols is barley fiber. Sterols are natural and present in food. When you can concentrate them, they do a nice job with no side effects, except maybe a loose bowel movement. They are not dangerous to you.
Q: What if you already take statins to cut cholesterol?
A: Your cholesterol medicine becomes more effective. That's good for you.
Q: Let's talk about the foods already marketed as low in fats and cholesterol.
A: Ah, that's often a scam. There are labels of "no cholesterol" on foods that never had them in the first place — like apples. And fats! Watch the trans fats. The store-bought baked goods are cheaper and last longer if they use trans fats.
Q: Alcohol: Is that good or bad for your heart?
A: Alcohol is a wonderful agent for raising HDL, and that's good. Two servings a day is recommended. Of course, red wine is preferred because it is high in resveratrol, which is a very good antioxidant.
Q: Do you practice what you preach?
A: I take supplements with practically every meal.
Q: Where can consumers get unbiased information?
A: The American Heart Association has a wonderful Web site for consumers, Hearthub.org. There is excellent information on healthy eating. Also, it is a good way for you to assess your personal risk for heart problems, such as family history, obesity and so on.