Meatless Monday: Rolling the High (Cholesterol) Numbers

I went meatless at 13 because I love animals and couldn't justify eating them. Becoming vegetarian, and ultimately vegan has meant I can eat food that's entirely yum and benefit the animals I love and the environment at the same time. The personal health benefits, they were nice, but they were not the prize. Until now.

After an annual checkup with my doctor, I get a call from her assistant.

"Everything looks good," she says, "except your cholesterol is high."

"You're kidding me," I say.

But she wasn't. "Try eating less steak," she says.

"I don't eat any. I haven't in decades."

"Eggs?" (More cholesterol in one little yolk, by the way, than anything else you can put in your mouth.)

"I don't eat eggs, either."

"Well, what do you eat?"

"Plants." I've been vegan for over a decade.

There's no question moving towards a plant-based diet will lower your cholesterol if you're coming from a cholesterol-rich diet of meats and processed food. However, there's only so much a plant-based diet and an active lifestyle can do when you're gifted, as I am, with familial hypercholesterolaemia. Nigh on impossible to pronounce, what it means is, I've inherited my parents' propensity for high cholesterol. Gee, thanks, mom and dad.

"So what's the worry?" my folks say. "We take medication and it's not a problem."

I'm glad it's not a problem for them. I want my folks to be healthy and here for a long time. It's a problem for me, though. Statins, the medication for lowering cholesterol, works as long as you're on it. You give it up and your cholesterol returns to whence it was. I'm on no medication, no pills at all, and would like to stay that way. As with all medication, statins have side effects, plus there's the bit the pharma folk would like you not to know about -- statins have been linked in cases to scrambled brains and memory loss. Um, no thank you.

The irony is, I'm crazy about your great natural cholesterol-reducing foods. I love oatmeal. Oats weren't in the picture (or in the kitchen) when I was a kid. I came to this passion as an adult. They're so soothing, so filling, so energizing. We're not talking your wimpy instant oats. I go for the really gravelly full oaten experience -- steel cut. I eat lavish amounts of plant sterol-rich vegetables, beans and whole soy like tofu, miso and edamame. In moderation, heart-healthy olive oil, walnuts and almonds. The spices I love -- cinnamon, cumin, turmeric -- boost circulation and lower cholesterol. Throw in some fruit and this is makes up my diet, my happy world. And still, I rolled the high numbers.

It's crappy. But it's not making me say the hell with it and eat a steak or a bowl of ice cream. Being vegan lowers your risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. I still love animals, I still have no desire to harm them, let alone eat them. Plus, plant-based food is yum.

I'm staying the course -- eating vegan and exercising daily. While I've got high cholesterol, I have no family history of heart disease. I'm lean, active, never smoked. It's my HDL -- the so-called good cholesterol -- that's high. What's low is my blood pressure. "The blood pressure of a teenager," mutters my doctor, not without envy. I don't have ripped abs (if only), but my overall health is enough to keep her from pushing statins at me.

But I'm not stupid, I'm getting new blood work in six months. Will check back with you then. In the meantime, my bowl of steel cut oats is ready. Yum.

Steel Cut Oats

Steel cut oats are not your basic rolled oats. They're cut crosswise, so they're pebbly, not flaky, and have oaten oomph. They also require twice as much water and twice as much time to cook. But they are delicious, filling, and fabulous for you.

Enjoy topped with flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, nuts, any manner of berries or chopped fruit, dried or fresh, a sprinkle of cinnamon, a drizzle of maple syrup, whatever pleases you.

2 cups water
1/2 cup steel cut oats

In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a boil over high heat. Add the oats and cook, stirring occasionally, until the oats thicken, a few minutes.

Reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the oats and water magically coalesce to optimal creaminess, 20 to 30 minutes.

Alternately, soak the oats in the water ahead -- overnight, even. This shortens cooking time by several minutes.

Either way, get it while it's hot. Enjoy as is or lavish with toppings to your heart's delight.

Serves 2