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Dr. Tim, I feel so guilty. How bad is ice cream for me? Give me some good foods that I would like that will lower my cholesterol, and please don't mention oatmeal.
I have folks write me all the time with these questions and have similar discussions with my patients every day. There is no doubt that it can be a bit challenging to sort out all of the information that's being published and what to feel you can really trust. As I discussed in last week's column, even reputable organizations get this wrong – sometimes as a result of bias and others from just not keeping up with the research well.
First off, ice cream is OK. Is ice cream OK every day? Probably not. Should you choose ice creams that are less calorie dense? Absolutely. We have reviewed a number of these as part of our Friday Reviews Newsletter. Consistently the best choice is Stonyfield Farms frozen yogurts. These guys are great with fantastic flavors at only about 100 calories per 1/2 cup serving.
That brings us to oatmeal. I am the first to agree that oatmeal has been a bit oversold (so have a lot of other cereals like Special K and Cheerios). Not that oatmeal won't improve your cholesterol – like all whole grains it does work. But that's just the point. There are a lot of great alternatives that can have a powerful effect on your cholesterol.
I don't see this question as being so much about ice cream or oatmeal as it is an issue of perception. There are so many great foods that you already love that can help improve your cholesterol profile (and be healthier in general). Eating well is not about the extremes of oatmeal and ice cream. It is about finding a great balance between the two. If you don't like oatmeal, that's OK.
There's great quality fiber in fruit and having 2 or 3 servings per day can get you well over half of the recommended amount of daily fiber. A large apple actually has more fiber than a serving of oatmeal. Fruit can not only help control cholesterol but also blood pressure and weight.
This one's a no-brainer. There's fiber in veggies – often more than a bowl of oatmeal. An 8 ounce serving of broccoli contains almost 6 grams of fiber while a 1/2 cup serving of oatmeal only about 4 grams of fiber. Don't like broccoli? Pick those you do like and have at least 4 servings a day.
Beans, peas, lentils, peanuts – these have all been clearly shown to prevent disease. A half cup serving of black beans has 5 grams of fiber (again, more than oatmeal) and this is true for almost any legume that you choose.
There's clear evidence that snacking on nuts (especially instead of highly processed carbohydrate rich stupid junk food) will improve your cholesterol profile.
While oatmeal is a whole grain, it's only one of many that will help lower cholesterol. Whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, wild rice, fresh corn, quinoa and whole grain cornmeal are all great choices. Hey, oatmeal is good but it is NOT the ONLY whole grain that has been shown to lower cholesterol, help with weight control and reduce the risk of (or help control) diabetes.
It's clear that choosing oils that are high in monounsaturated fat instead of saturated or trans fats can help you control your cholesterol profile. It's simple: put down the margarine and step away from the dairy case.
Choose a good balance of less meat (and select leaner cuts), more fish and meatless meals.
While I realize that the email above is short on detail, I do think that it speaks to the perception that to be healthy one can't eat ice cream and can only eat oatmeal. As noted above there are so many things that are great tasting and so healthy. The key is simply making the better choice. It's been shown that when people fill their cupboards and refrigerators with healthy foods, they are happy to eat them and are healthier.
So go out and buy some great Stonyfield frozen yogurt or Haagen Dazs sorbets. Keep them on hand and have them occasionally but also have apples, oranges, grapes, dried apricots, salads, broccoli, carrots, lentils, black eyed peas, peanuts, peas, walnuts, whole wheat bread, brown rice, polenta, olive oil, pork tenderloin, salmon, tuna and chicken.
These are the ingredients that will help you lower your cholesterol.
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.