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It’s no secret that firefighters are at high risk for cardiovascular disease, and high cholesterol is often flagged at department physicals. A recent study on male firefighters working in California found a concerningly high prevalence of high cholesterol (33%), triglycerides (36%), and low HDL cholesterol (43.4%). Fortunately, your diet and lifestyle can make an impact on your numbers!1
Yes, we are talking about fiber again! A diet high in fiber is a potent way to sweep out excess LDL cholesterol through poop. Fiber also helps keep you full on shiftwork. Check out the “Focus on Fiber” article for a deep dive on fiber.
Unsaturated fats like polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats can improve cardiovascular disease risk, especially when replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats2. Polyunsaturated fats, specifically omega-3s, can prevent blood clotting and lower triglycerides (ex., flaxseed, chia seed, salmon, herring, and tuna). Monounsaturated fats can lower total cholesterol and LDL levels (ex. olives, olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado)
Try these tricks to boost your intake of unsaturated fats
A high saturated fat intake can raise LDL cholesterol, aka the “bad” cholesterol. This includes all things delicious, like fatter cuts of beef/pork, coconut oil, baked goods, bacon, sausage, and cheese. Replacing these food items with unsaturated fats can reduce total cholesterol by 12% and LDL cholesterol by 15%2.
Trans fats do a double whammy on your cholesterol, increasing LDL and decreasing HDL. Do your best to cut trans fats as much as possible by reducing margarine, fried foods, and some packed baked goods (yes, looking at you Oreos).
Years ago, dietary cholesterol was thought to raise blood cholesterol. However, many guidelines have now removed dietary cholesterol as a nutrient of concern3. This means you do not have to avoid foods high in cholesterol and low in saturated fats. Bring on the omelets because this includes whole eggs, chicken, and seafood!
While these diet and lifestyle changes can impact cholesterol, they may not make enough of an impact for some people. Consider working with a dietitian one-on-one for personalized recommendations. Health insurance often covers meeting with a dietitian, and you can find one that takes your insurance through a quick search in ZocDoc. Note that it takes at least three months of consistent lifestyle changes to see an impact on your numbers. Work with your doctor and dietitian to determine the best plan to reduce your risk of a cardiac event.
Megan is a Registered Dietitian and coach who specializes in firefighter nutrition. Megan’s mission is to help firefighters perform better, recover faster, and enjoy long, healthy retirements. Megan is the owner of RescueRD LLC, which provides nutrition seminars and coaching for tactical athletes across the country. Check out @Rescue.RD on Facebook and Instagram.