High cholesterol is a big problem. Nearly 71 million Americans are struggling to control their levels, but too many of them are using prescription medications alone. Although statins and other medications are useful, a healthy diet is one of the best ways to lower cholesterol. In fact, some individuals can see up to a 30 percent reduction in cholesterol levels with simple diet changes.

Unfortunately, eating a healthy diet can be an uphill battle. On the surface, it seems easy. A simple summary might go like this: “Eat the good stuff and avoid the bad stuff.” But, how can you tell the difference between good and bad food? A surprising amount of the food found at the grocery store is garbage—packed with fat and devoid of nutrients.

The key is to study the food label and its packaging. Don’t just toss food into your cart—study it first. Your cholesterol-lowering diet will be much more likely to succeed if you educate yourself. Here are three tips to becoming a cholesterol-fighting, label-reading guru.

1. Know Your Fats

In many cases, fat intake is even more important than cholesterol intake. But, not all fats are created equal and you need to know the difference between saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats.

– Saturated fats raise cholesterol levels. For individuals with high cholesterol, saturated fats should make up less than seven percent of their daily calories. This means people with a daily intake of 2,000 calories should consume less than 16 grams of saturated fat per day.

– Trans fats (a.k.a. partially hydrogenated oils) cause a variety of health issues, including high cholesterol. These fats should be avoided entirely.

– Unsaturated fats help lower bad cholesterol. These types of fats can be enjoyed in moderation. Experts recommend that your total fat intake should make up 25 to 35 percent of total calories. If you eat the maximum recommendation of 16 grams saturated fats, that leaves room for approximately 40 to 60 grams of unsaturated fats per day.

The FDA requires food labels to specify the amount of saturated and trans fats in food. However, the unsaturated fats are not required to be listed. If they’re not listed, simply subtract the trans fats and saturated fats from the total fat. The remaining amount will equal the unsaturated fat content.

2. Know the Lingo

Certain catch phrases and marketing gimmicks are frequently printed on food packaging. Much like the actual food labels, the FDA regulates these health claims also. Here’s a quick look at some terms that are important to cholesterol patients.

– Fat free: Less than .5 grams of fat per serving

– Low fat: 3 grams or less of fat per serving

– Cholesterol free: Less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving

– Reduced cholesterol: At least 25 percent less cholesterol than the original product and 2 grams or less of saturated fat

3. Question Foods without Labels

Some items at the grocery store don’t come with food labels. Fresh meats and produce are just two examples. Of course, individuals with high cholesterol don’t have to worry about fresh produce—all of it is good for you! As for meat, you have to do your research before going to the store. Here are a few notes to get you started.

– Lean ground beef contains 4 grams of saturated fat and 1 gram of trans fat per serving.

– Bacon contains 1 gram of saturated fat per slice.

– One cup of diced chicken breast contains 1 gram of saturated fat.

– One fillet of rainbow trout has 1 gram of saturated fat.

Learning to recognize healthy food is the first step to improving your diet and lowering your cholesterol. If you ever have questions about a food’s nutrition facts, simply enter the name of the food into an internet search. You can easily find specific nutrition information and commentary about thousands of cholesterol-friendly foods.

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