Cholesterol – it’s all about balance.

Blueberries and strawberries in a heart shape on a wooden board

With the focus for many people being on heart health this month, it’s a great time to think about the amazing muscle in our chest that beats around 70 times a minute, all day every day. As with all of the body’s precious organs, it needs to be well taken care of and having high cholesterol levels is a known risk factor for heart disease.

Clinical nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares her five top tips for keeping cholesterol levels well balanced.

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Before we begin, there are two types of cholesterol. HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) known as ‘good’ cholesterol, helps remove other forms of cholesterol from the body. Higher levels of HDL offers some protection against heart disease. LDL (low Density Lipoprotein) is otherwise known as ‘bad’ cholesterol and is associated with heart disease and other circulatory disorders as it collects in the walls of blood vessels and can cause blockages.

So what can we do to encourage the good and get rid of bad?

EAT HEALTHY FATS

The essential omegas, in particular the omega-3s, can help reduce cholesterol levels and also have other heart-loving benefits. The body cannot make them so they have to be eaten very regularly in the diet; the best sources are oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) and nuts and seeds (pumpkin seeds and walnuts are best).

Omega-3s can help to reduce levels of LDL cholesterol. Omega’3s are also needed to manage inflammation throughout the body, and have other beneficial effects on blood pressure and heart health generally.

A range of foods high in Omega 3 fats

Try to eat oily fish two to three times a week; vegetarians should try to eat nuts and seeds every day (try flaxseeds which contain the essential Omega-3s). However, if that’s not for you or not doable, do opt for an Omega-3 supplement every day.

AVOID TRANS FATS

Trans fats (mainly found in margarines) are chemically produced and have an adverse effect on the heart (and health generally). The problem with trans fats is that their chemical structure changes when the fats are heated and processed. Food manufacturers frequently use the process of hydrogenation, which produces trans fats, in order to increase shelf life of foods such as margarines, biscuits and cakes. Unfortunately, the body has no way of dealing with them, therefore they tend to elevate blood fat levels, and in turn raise cholesterol levels.

Trans fats have no health or body benefits, therefore it’s best to try to avoid them as much as possible. It is actually better to have a little butter rather than using margarine, but also try using olive oil, coconut oil or rapeseed oil for cooking and keep cakes and biscuits to a minimum. Your waistline, as well as your heart, will certainly thank you!

EAT APPLES

There are always many good reasons for eating plenty of apples, plus they’re in season right now so their nutritional value should be higher, and they might even be a little cheaper. Apples contain a particular fibre called pectin, which helps to reduce cholesterol levels by transporting the bad cholesterol out of the body.

An apple with a heart shape cut out to show that apples are good for a healthy heart

Other fruits high in pectin include pears, all berries and citrus fruits. The best advice is to include a wide range of fruits (alongside vegetables of course) every day. Cholesterol has no way of being expelled from the body except through the stool. Therefore keeping the bowels regular is key and, as pectin is a fibre, it really helps this process along.

UP YOUR WHOLEGRAINS

Having a high fibre diet generally is one of the best ways of keeping cholesterol levels balanced. Wholegrain foods such as whole wheat bread and pasta, rice, quinoa, oats, beans and lentils are naturally high in fibre. In contrast, refined (or white) foods have had the fibrous part stripped out, so play no role in a high fibre diet.

A range of wholegrains in heart shaped dishes to show they are good for the heart

It’s actually quite easy to increase the amount of fibre in the diet without too much effort. For example, porridge sprinkled with a few flaxseeds makes a great breakfast, especially now the colder weather has arrived. Try a brown bread sandwich for lunch, alongside an apple (or berries) plus some nuts and seeds for snacks during the day. Salmon, quinoa and plenty of veg for dinner ticks both the fibre and Omega-3 boxes.

TRY A MILK SWAP

A diet generally high in saturated fats, found mainly in dairy produce and red meat, is certainly going to encourage the production of cholesterol. Switch to skimmed milk as a starter. However, there’s some research to suggest that soya produce, including milk, may help reduce the ‘bad’ cholesterol. Plus, nut milks such as hazelnut, almond and oat, may also have a beneficial effect. At the very least, they’re all low in saturated fats.

A range of milks made from nuts

Even if you’re a die-hard cow’s milk fan, try to include some other milks in the diet as much as possible: each type of milk has its own health benefits so change them up as much as possible.

So adopt a few simple dietary changes and you can improve your cholesterol levels and support a healthier heart longer term.

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Autumn wellness: is your body fit for winter?

Happy woman in autumn playing with autumn leaves

As our beautiful UK summer comes to an end, just as night follows day, winter will be upon us before we know it! Sad as it is to feel the cooler days (and nights), it’s also the perfect time to ensure your body is well equipped to prevent any nasty bugs or infections from getting a hold this season.

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares her five top tips for winter immunity.

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OVERHAUL YOUR DIET

Whilst it’s often hard to eat the ‘perfect’ diet every day, the more foods you can eat that help boost your immune system on a daily basis, the better. In fact, your diet is the first port of call when it comes to ‘prepping’ your body for winter.

Eating some protein such as fish, chicken, eggs, dairy produce, beans, lentils and wholegrains at every meal is key. The immune system needs these types of foods to produce immunoglobulins – blood proteins that act as disease-fighting antibodies. Plus, many other nutrients such as vitamin C (found in most fruits and vegetables), vitamin E (in wholegrains, nuts, seeds and avocadoes), vitamin A (high in liver, cheese, eggs and sweet potatoes) and zinc (especially rich in pumpkin seeds and lean red meat) are all key immune boosters. So try to keep your diet as varied and colourful as possible to ensure your body gets the spread of nutrients it needs.

Range of foods to show a balanced diet

It is also important to keep sugar to a minimum; try to reduce the amount of refined carbs, alcohol, and fizzy and caffeinated drinks on a daily basis. Sugar in all its forms has an adverse effect on the immune system.

INCREASE YOUR HERBS AND SPICES

There are a wealth of herbs and spices that have strong immune-boosting powers and even anti-viral and antibacterial properties. Plus, they all enhance the flavour of many popular dishes.

For example, garlic is probably one of the best known infection-fighters and works well with so many different foods; meat, fish, and vegetables – the list is endless. Additionally, ginger is equally beneficial to the immune system. Both herbs can be used in easy stir-fries, for example.

A range of fresh herbs in pots to add to cooking

The herb thyme is delicious added to casseroles or pasta dishes and is great made into an infusion with boiling water and gargled if you’re unlucky enough to get struck down. Thyme tea is recommended for all types of infections, including earache and sinusitis. All herbs and spices will have far-reaching health benefits, so add as many as possible to your dishes!

BOOST YOUR MOOD

A healthy mind is equally important for a strong immune system and can reduce your likelihood of getting struck down with a cold or flu. If you’re suffering from low mood, then you’re more likely to suffer from infections. Sharing problems with friends or family can often help. However, it may also be helpful to seek out some complementary therapies such as massage, aromatherapy and acupuncture to help lift a low mood.

Woman with legs crossed sitting on bed meditating

Equally, self-help strategies can be very powerful. Daily meditation, for example, is very effective for many reasons and may really help alleviate stress. It takes some practice (and obviously a little time, initially), but it is well worth persevering.

However, if low mood persists or there are emotional issues in your life, then it may be helpful to seek the services of a qualified counsellor. Often talking to someone who is properly trained to deal with problems can be very beneficial.

ACTIVITY AND EXERCISE

There are so many positive reasons to get moving! Not only will it support the immune system by boosting infection-fighting white blood cells, it will help relieve stress, release mood-enhancing endorphins and better nourish your body generally by enhancing oxygen to every part of your body.

Close up of two women enjoying a run outdoors together to show benefits of exercise

You may not want to spend hours in the gym, which is fine. However, any form of exercise carried out four or five times a week, for around 30 minutes, is going to be hugely beneficial to the immune system. And don’t forget that a brisk walk every day certainly counts as great exercise. If you haven’t got a dog to walk, maybe ‘borrow’ one from a friend to help with motivation!

SUPPORTIVE SUPPLEMENTATION

If your diet isn’t always as nutrient-dense as you’d like or you’re under a lot of stress, this is going to put a strain on the immune system. It makes sense, therefore, to take a good quality daily multivitamin to help plug any nutrient gaps and to ensure you’re definitely getting the sufficient vitamins and minerals associated with a strong immune system.

Echinacea flower and tea

There are certain herbs, licensed as herbal remedies, which are great to take as a preventative measure. Echinacea is a popular herb, which has been used for many years to help prevent and treat colds and flu. It’s worth starting it now for a few weeks, since it increases white blood cell production. Equally, the herb pelargonium is anti-viral and antibacterial and can be taken at the very first sign of a cold, if you’re unlucky enough to get caught! Both herbs should be a medicine cupboard staple for the winter months.

So with a few simple tweaks to your diet and lifestyle, you can have a bug-free autumn and winter!

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The five best breakfasts to kick-start your day

Woman eating a healthy breakfast with berries, yoghurt and orange juice

For so many reasons, breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. Every main meal is an opportunity for taking on board nutrients and giving the body the fuel it needs in order to keep it functioning optimally. And as the body has been fasting for quite a number of hours while you sleep, first thing in the morning your blood sugar levels are low, energy is not at its best and the body is crying for refuelling.

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares five of her favourite breakfasts to start your day right!

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AMARANTH PORRIDGE WITH PEAR

There’s no down side to starting your day with some porridge; it’s packed with slow-releasing carbohydrates which will keep you feeling fuller for longer and won’t send blood sugar levels soaring; imbalanced blood sugar will adversely affect energy and mood for the rest of the day. Porridge is also packed with energy-giving B-vitamins, as well as other key nutrients.

Why not try a slightly different take on traditional oat-based porridge? Try using the grain amaranth which has a wonderful nutrient profile; high in minerals calcium, iron, manganese and phosphorus as well as protein.

Porridge with pears showing a healthy breakfast

One of the best ways is to simmer amaranth flakes (readily available in supermarkets and health food stores) is with some coconut milk, vanilla extract and cinnamon for about five minutes. Then add the sliced pears and continue to simmer for another five to 10 minutes. It’s delicious sprinkled with a few seeds and a little natural yoghurt if desired.

POACHED EGGS WITH ASPARAGUS

This delicious breakfast option is a meeting of two highly nutritious foods which actually work really well together. Depending on how much time you have in the morning, this might need to be a healthy weekend breakfast as it requires a few more minutes of preparation. However, it’s well worth it; asparagus is high in those energy-giving B-vitamins and eggs are one of the best sources of protein on the planet. Breakfast never tasted so good!

A poached egg on top of steamed asparagus to show a healthy breakfast

Ideally, steam or boil some asparagus spears for a few minutes until slightly tender. Meanwhile, poach a couple of eggs; clearly everyone has their favourite way of doing this but a proper poaching pan is definitely the easiest way! The asparagus can be served sprinkled with some grated parmesan cheese and black pepper with a slice of rye toast on the side. A great energy-booster to see you through till lunch.

SPECIAL MUESLI

Shop-bought muesli can often be rather sugar-laden, partly because of the high amount of added dried fruit which contains far more sugar than fresh or frozen fruit. It is a much better idea to mix up your own batch of muesli, store it in the cupboard and then add some fresh fruit when you come to eat it.

Oats, nuts and seeds to show homemade museli and healthy breakfast

Wholegrains are unrefined, which means they have had none of their nutrients removed, particularly the B-vitamins and other minerals such as magnesium (which is essential for your bones and energy, as one example). Mix some oat flakes, barley flakes, wheatgerm, sunflower and pumpkin seeds plus a few raisins. You can actually get more adventurous by adding other grains such as quinoa flakes.

It’s a great ‘go-to’ breakfast, always in the cupboard, and only needs some milk (why not try almond or coconut milk), plus some natural yoghurt and fruit of your choice if so desired.

AVOCADO ON TOAST

No breakfast suggestions would be complete without avocado! It’s an amazing superfood with so many wonderful nutrients. Most importantly, avocado will keep you feeling full all morning, plus their high vitamin E content will leave you with glowing skin.

Avocado on rye toast showing healthy breakfast

What could be simpler? A slice of rye toast is one of the best choices because it has a great nutrient profile. Additionally, it’s a denser bread so will keep you going for longer and has less gluten, which means you’ll be less likely to suffer from bloating.

Slice or mash the avocado, add to the toast and try adding a crunchy topping with some munchy seeds. For an added ‘twist’ swirl a little balsamic glaze over the top.

THE ULTIMATE BREAKFAST ‘ON THE RUN’

For those who literally ‘wake up and go’ then breakfast doesn’t have to be a double espresso and croissant! A small pot of natural yoghurt is packed with protein to keep energy levels balanced through the morning, topped with a few berries of your choice. All berries are low on the glycaemic index, keeping blood sugar levels in check and also adding some great nutrients.

Woman eating yohurt with berries showing healthy breakfast

This breakfast can be packed in your bag, eaten on the bus or when you reach the office!

So start every morning the right way with a nutritious breakfast, refuelling the body and providing you with the energy you need to get on with your day.

FOR MORE GREAT NUTRITIONAL AND LIFESTYLE ADVICE:

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Visit us at www.feelaliveuk.com for the latest offers and exclusive Alive! content.

Follow and Chat with Suzie on Twitter @nutritionsuzie

For everything you need to know about vitamins, minerals and herbs visit our sister website Herbfacts