Cholesterol is vital for healthy blood cells. However if the body accumulates too much, cholesterol will deposit in the walls of arteries which become damaged and may become blocked. If this happens, a heart attack could result.
The development of heart disease is influenced by a number of risk factors, including increased age, a strong family history of heart disease and being of South Asian origin. The presence of more than one factor increases the risk even further.
The above risk factors cannot be changed. But others, such as elevated blood cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking, and physical inactivity can be modified by leading a healthy lifestyle. Diet is an important element in the treatment and management these risks, and it doesn't mean having to give up traditional foods – just small changes can make a big difference.
Many traditional South Asian foods are healthy. Dhal, meat and vegetable curries served with rice or chapati, as well as low fat yoghurt and salad are all great sources of rich nutrients, including protein. However, these foods are often prepared in an unhealthy way, with added ghee, butter, oils and premixed spices containing a lot of salt. The unhealthy preparations can in turn contribute to rising cholesterol, weight gain and increased blood pressure.
So how can the risk of a cardiac event be reduced?
Eat less saturated fats and trans fat – these fats are either inherently solid at room temperature (saturated) or chemically altered to be solid at room temperature (trans fat); when consumed, these fats can raise your levels of LDL (bad) blood cholesterol and cause hardening of the arteries, making it difficult for the blood to flow. Outcome: potential for heart attack.
Eating less saturated fat
- Avoid using ghee or creamed coconut in cooking. Did you know that there are 10 grams of saturated fat in just one tablespoon of ghee? Vegetable ghee may sound healthier but it's often rich in trans fat, so choose oils made from rapeseed (canola), olive, corn or sunflower instead.
- Avoid or use limited amounts of ghee or butter to your chapati dough and also avoid spreading ghee or butter on cooked chapatis. Check out these oil-free recipes: Chapati recipe from Pakistan and Chapati recipe from Bangladesh.
- Invest in a good quality non-stick frying pan. Use this pan to start off your turka or vagar. Try to measure the oil with a spoon or use cooking oil spray, which allows for more even spraying, thus less usage, instead of pouring it straight from the container.
- Buy lean meats that do not have marbling (fats in between the grains), and trim off all visible fat before cooking. Brown off the meat in a non-stick pan, drain off excess fat and then add the turka. Meat, such as mutton and lamb can be high in saturated fat, so it is best to use lean cuts. Also skim off the layer of oil that settles on top of the curry.
- Choose lower fat dairy products such as skimmed (fat-free), 1% or semi-skimmed milk on cereals, in hot drinks and in making yoghurt and milky puddings. If you find the taste a bit light, add a tablespoon of dried skimmed milk powder to every pint of milk to make it creamier without adding fat. Avoid adding boondhi to yoghurt. Try pomegranate or grated cucumber and spices to taste.
- Mithai, like burfi, halva and gulab jamuns may be tasty, but are usually made with ingredients like butter, ghee, condensed milk and full cream milk powder. Save mithai for special occasions, and when you do have them, enjoy them in limited quantity to satisfy your taste, not your cholesterol.
- Processed foods, like cakes, biscuits, pies, burgers, pizzas, fast foods and pastries can be high in unhealthy fats so only eat them occasionally.
Replace saturated fats with healthier unsaturated fats (liquid at room temperature), but continue to monitor the intake of overall fats in your diet. Healthier fats include rapeseed (canola) oil, olive oil, and omega 3 rich oils (to name a few). Remember, fats in general provide 9 calories per gram, which is more than twice of that provided by 1 gram of carbohydrate or protein (4 calories per gram); increase in overall fats can result in increased caloric intake, which in turn can cause faster weight gain and overall poor health.
Cutting down on fat generally
- Eat fewer fried foods like samosas, pakoras, chevda (Bombay mix), sev and ganthia. If you crave samosas or kachoris, try brushing them with oil and baking in the oven till crisp. An alternative to pakoras can be made by dropping spoonfuls of the pakoras mixture into a lightly greased non-stick frying pan. Cook on each side until browned. They will form small, thinner, pakoras than usual, but they taste just as good.
- To make chevda instead of using fried ingredients try using roasted shelled peanuts, lower fat crisps, puffed rice, puffed wheat, cornflakes, roasted chick peas and spices.
- Grill or microwave poppadums instead of frying.
- Be aware that some vegetables for example methi (fenugreek), aubergines (eggplant) and karela tend to absorb more oil than other vegetables. Partially replace some of the oil that you would have used with small amounts of water when cooking these types of vegetables, or use minimal amount of oil in combination with spray cooking oil to evenly coat the vegetables.
- Choose fish instead of fatty meat. Don't fry it though! A delicious masala fish can be made by marinating your favourite fish with spices and tomatoes and baking it in the oven. Adding lemon juice and garlic will help in reducing the “fishy “odour in the house!
It makes sense to follow a heart-healthy lifestyle whether you have raised cholesterol or not. Keeping your heart healthy is also about eating more soluble fibre and whole grains, cutting down on sugar and being physically active.
Baldeesh Rai is a Dietetic Advisor to Heart UK. Learn more about National Cholesterol Week at the Heart UK website.