This month is both Food Safety and Cholesterol Education Month and so with all the new routines, habits and choices for families during the back-to-school rush, I thought I’d save time and hit both topics at once. First, I will review some basic food safety guidelines and move onto cholesterol education.

The following guidelines are intended to help you avoid food poisoning. Harmful bacteria grow best between 40 and 140 degrees, so it’s important to keep cold foods cold, and heat other foods to proper temperatures. When you are packing those school/work lunches, feeding the team at your house, hosting a party, or just making dinner, remember to follow the below tips to keep you and your family safe and healthy!

Washing

• Wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds before handling and eating food

• Wash fresh fruits and vegetables under running water

• Use hot, soapy water on countertop surfaces, cutting boards and utensils after preparing each food item

Cooking

• Cook food thoroughly, especially meats and leftovers

• Poultry should reach at least 165°F

• Ground beef or burgers at least 160°F

• Microwave leftovers to 165°F

Maintaining

• Keep hot foods hot, and cold foods cold

• Hot foods should be held above 140°F

• Cold foods under 40°F

• Discard perishable foods after two hours of being out in room temperature

In addition to keeping our food safe, let’s also keep our heart safe. It’s a great time to educate ourselves, and perhaps change some habits to form a healthier lifestyle and strong heart.

Conventional wisdom on cholesterol has changed. The amount of cholesterol we consume may not have as much of an effect on our cholesterol levels as once thought. Recent research suggests it’s actually more important to increase “good” cholesterol to our diets and exercise daily than it is to cut out all cholesterol from the diet.

Cholesterol levels are associated with heart health. High cholesterol can mean greater risk for heart disease. Below are the different types of cholesterol:

• HDL – high-density lipoprotein, “good,” heart-protective

• LDL – low-density lipoprotein, “bad”

• Total cholesterol – HDL and LDL total level in the bloodstream

• Triglycerides – a fat that circulates in the bloodstream and is stored as fat on the body

The types of fats that we consume can change our blood cholesterol levels to an extent. Unsaturated fats (mono- or poly-unsaturated) are the good, healthy oils we want to increase. They are liquid at room temperature and are found in plant/vegetable oils, nuts, and fish. A good ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 oils is optimum. Americans typically get enough omega-6 so it’s wise to focus on consuming more omega-3s (which is a type of polyunsaturated fat). Saturated fats, on the other hand, are natural fats that are solid at room temperature, such as butter, lard, and animal fat and are associated with higher cholesterol levels. When eating animals and animal products, be sensible – trim the fat, drain the grease, limit fried foods, and limit high-fat dairy products such as heavy cream and sour cream.

Trans fats are industrially-created fats should be avoided at all costs. The FDA no longer recognizes trans fats as safe for consumption and are directly linked to heart disease, as well as stroke and diabetes. Trans fats are typically in products such as pastries, fried foods, processed/packaged grains like cookies and crackers, canned dough, pie crusts, and frozen pizzas. Look for “partially hydrogenated oils” in the ingredient list to ensure that food is truly free from trans fats. Partially hydrogenated oils are trans fats. Often, labels state 0g trans fat but actually contains these harmful oils.

So what can you do? Trend more toward a plant-based diet. This will reduce an overall intake of cholesterol and saturated fats, whilst increasing consumption of fiber and unsaturated fats. Overall, plant-based diets give blood vessels more elasticity, reduce blood pressure, decrease risk of stroke and heart attack, promote brain and bowel health, and add vitamins/minerals. Meat and animal-based products have a place but keep in mind you want to add more plants.

Also, add more fiber to your diet. Because our bodies don’t absorb fiber it helps lower cholesterol by seizing it in the intestine, and excreting it before it’s absorbed in the bloodstream.

Add oils to your diet including olive, canola, peanut, sunflower, safflower, corn, flaxseed oils. Many of the plant oils are heart-protective. Please note coconut oil has both “good” and “bad” fats present, so use it in moderation. Additionally, 2-3 servings of fish each week such as salmon, trout, albacore tuna, mackerel, will help increase omega-3s. If you have high blood pressure, be cautious of the salt content in canned fish.

Also, look for food that have "whole grain" as the first ingredient on the list. Good sources of whole grains include certain breads, cereals, pastas, and dried grains like brown rice.

And last but not least, don’t worry about eggs. The amount of cholesterol in an egg yolk is a full day’s worth. Remember though, dietary consumption of cholesterol has minimal impact on blood cholesterol levels. So, eat an egg, but make it an omelet with lots of veggies!

-- Erin Plumberg is a dietician and nutritionist at St. Mary's Medical Center and can be reached at 816-655-5597.