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updated 11/3/2005 2:53:03 PM ET 2005-11-03T19:53:03

As studies show the impact blood cholesterol has on rates of heart attack and stroke, experts keep lowering the blood cholesterol levels people should strive for to stay healthy.

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Although some people say they’ve tried everything to lower their cholesterol, they may not realize how many of the foods they eat affect it. With smart food choices, most people can lower their cholesterol significantly and reduce their risk of cancer, too.

The most vital step you can take in lowering your blood cholesterol is to eat less saturated fat. If you think you’ve been doing this and your blood cholesterol still remains high, keep a diary of everything you eat and drink for a few days. Then consult an online diet analysis site or a registered dietitian to check your saturated fat total for those days.

Recommended saturated fat levels vary with a person’s blood cholesterol level and calorie intake. Most people can keep their saturated fat daily tally below 18 to 27 grams, but people with a hard-to-budge cholesterol problem may need to stay under 12 to 19 grams.

You can limit saturated fat by choosing lean cuts of meat and nonfat or lowfat dairy products. However, regardless of the fat content of the red meat you eat, too much red meat increases the risk of colon and possibly other cancers, so you should have no more than one three-ounce serving a day of red meat.

Choose lean poultry, seafood, beans and nuts for protein in other meals. You shouldn’t skip dairy products, unless you consume several servings of other foods fortified with calcium and vitamin D, which seem to work together to inhibit colon cancer.

The second step for lowering cholesterol is to minimize trans fat.

Major sources are deep-fried foods like French fries and donuts and commercial bakery products made with hydrogenated oils. To lower your cancer risk, don’t switch to snacks made of refined flour and sugar. Better alternatives are vegetables, fruits and whole grain products because they contain antioxidant vitamins and phytochemicals that help block different cancer stages. These plant foods also help reduce calories for weight control and even greater protection against cancer.

Instead of butter or stick margarine, rely mainly on oils like olive and canola, and soft-tub margarine if you want a spread, to control your saturated and trans fats intake. If your cholesterol still doesn’t drop, try margarines with plant sterols or stanols that help reduce the absorption of cholesterol.

Soy protection
A variety of polyunsaturated oils like vegetable oil do fit into a cholesterol-lowering diet, but don’t overdo them. Research suggests that too much of these oils, which are high in omega-6 fats, throw off your body’s balance with omega-3 fats. Omega-3 fats appear to help avoid inflammation that can damage blood vessels and promote cancer. Experts encourage eating fatty fish like salmon and tuna twice a week because they’re high in omega-3 fats.

For the best diet to lower cholesterol, include other heart-protective foods, like soy and nuts. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests having 25 grams of soy protein a day. Two to four servings of soymilk or yogurt, soy nuts, tofu or edamame (green soybeans) supply this amount. Some sausage and burger alternatives supply a serving of soy, too. Besides lowering your heart risk, the phytochemicals in soy may lower your risk of cancer, too. Nuts provide sterols, fiber and phytochemicals that can lower cholesterol and cancer risk.

You can also eat 10 to 25 grams of soluble fiber daily to reduce your cholesterol level 10 percent more on top of the steps above.

Soluble fiber decreases the amount of cholesterol we absorb from food, causing more of our body’s cholesterol to be broken down. Concentrated sources are oats, oat bran, dried beans, peas, lentils, barley and ground flaxseeds. Vegetables and fruits also contain soluble fiber. All of these foods also offer protective phytochemicals.

The final, vital step for lowering your risk of heart disease and cancer is regular exercise.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.©

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