Health & Fitness

A longtime vegetarian gets a high cholesterol count

Diets and DietingPharmaceutical IndustryBiologyScientific ResearchScienceFood Industry

My blood test results arrived in the mail last year -- and I was shocked. My report, with total cholesterol listed at 248, contained a handwritten note from my doctor in the margin: Come in to see me for medication.

How could I have high cholesterol?

I had been a vegetarian most of my life. I wasn't overweight. I exercised several times a week on the treadmill.

And although high cholesterol can be genetic, I knew that my mother never had high cholesterol, and my father, who died in 1994, was never treated for cholesterol.

Then, weeks later, I discovered some of my father's old medical records: His cholesterol at the time had been 270. Perhaps genetics was a factor after all.

A count of more than 200 for total cholesterol is considered high. Further, my "bad" cholesterol (LDL), which should have been below 130, was 174. The only good news I could salvage from the otherwise depressing report was that my "good" cholesterol (HDL) was 50, and higher than 40 is considered positive.

But medication seemed a drastic step. Before committing to a daily pill, I decided to try to reduce my cholesterol through diet. My meals often consisted of cold cereal, yogurt, a chocolate nutrition bar and several diet sodas -- all processed foods. I couldn't remember the last time that I had fruit or vegetables.

And so I embarked on a diet of raw food. I learned that cholesterol numbers don't change much in less than five weeks, so I gave myself eight weeks to influence my count before trying a cholesterol-lowering medication. I hoped that raw food would keep me from taking cholesterol pills for the rest of my life.

Cholesterol is a major cause of heart disease, building up in the walls of the arteries, hardening them and preventing blood flow to the heart. I scoured the Internet for suggestions on lowering cholesterol through diet. Fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains -- those seemed to be the way to go.

On my new eating plan, breakfast is a bowl of oatmeal (the only non-raw food I eat) with blueberries when they're in season or other fresh fruit, such as blackberries, strawberries, raspberries or apples.

Lunch is a smoothie made from orange juice or milk, plus fruit and ice. Dinner is a salad with a lettuce or broccoli base and condiments. Snacks include apples, grapes, carrots, celery and nuts.

No processed food, no sweets, no sodas, no fun.

After eight weeks I had another cholesterol test. I thought my eating plan would have some effect, but I never expected my total cholesterol to drop to 195, a 21% reduction. My "bad" cholesterol was borderline at 132 but still a 24% reduction and only three points over the optimal mark.

If I maintain my diet, perhaps my LDL will continue to drop and I won't have to take pills to keep my cholesterol down after all.

The added benefit: What initially seemed like a sacrifice has become an enjoyable way of life.

Lewis is a marketing and communication consultant living in Sherman Oaks. barbaralewis@centurion consulting.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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