Tuesday, May 31, 2016

May is Electrical Safety Month

Contributing Author: Gentle Heron

May is Electrical Safety Month. Being aware of potential electrical hazards is the key to reducing home electrical fires, injuries and deaths.

The top electrical safety hazards are electrical fires caused by aging wiring; incorrect use of extension cords and surge protectors; and electrocutions.

Research by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) indicates that electricity causes over 140,000 fires each year in the US. Electrical fires result in 400 deaths, 4,000 severe injuries, and $1.6 billion in damage to property. Most of this is preventable.

About half of the homes in the US were built before 1973, and about a third of them were built before many of our modern electronic devices were even invented. These homes and their electrical systems were not made to handle the power needs of many of the appliances and electronics that we use today.

Extension cords are never meant to replace permanent wiring. Having an electrician add another outlet is a lot less expensive than dealing with a home fire. Although half of injuries caused by extension cords are due to tripping over them, improper use of extension cords causes 3,300 home fires each year in the US.

About 400 people are electrocuted in the US each year. Approximately 180 of these electrocutions relate to consumer products, with large appliances such as stoves, refrigerators, and washers and driers leading the causes. Other electrocution hazards include damaged or exposed wiring, ladders contacting power lines, and power tools with frayed cords or contacting water.

Warning signs of electrical hazards in your home include:
  • Flickering or dimming lights
  • Odor of overheated or burning/melting plastic
  • Sizzle or buzzing sound
  • Showers of sparks or flashes when unplugging items
  • Switch plates or outlet covers that feel hot
  • Fuses burning out often or circuit breakers needing to be reset frequently
Take a virtual home tour where you can watch videos and click on items in various rooms to learn about dangers and safety tips.

The Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) offers many online resources for electrical safety in your home and at work. You can find some very useful information at their website:
Think about potential hazards and live safely with electricity, in May and every month.

Images credit: MorgueFile

Monday, May 30, 2016

Feed Your Second Brain Right

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

Our digestive system is so important to the body that it has its own local nervous system. Often referred to as the body's 'second brain', the enteric nervous system monitors the entire digestive tract from esophagus to anus, and is so extensive it can operate as an independent entity without input from the central nervous system. The gut is the only organ in the body which needs a local nervous system of its own, its own 'brain'. The network of neurons in the gut is as large and as complex as those of the spinal cord. In addition, there are hundreds of millions of neurons connecting our (primary) brain to the enteric nervous system.1

All of this begs the question: Why? The gut's requirement for a brain or nervous system of its own is suggestive: do we need a 'second brain' simply to manage digestion? Or is something far more sophisticated happening within the digestive tract? Recent studies indicate that your gut microbes, or microbiota, play an extremely important role in the body's health, far more than was previously thought.2,3,4 Stanford microbiologists Justin and Erica Sonnenburg believe there is a direct link between the health of the body's ecosystem of intestinal microbial organisms, and many Western diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, diabetes, and immune system problems such as allergies or food sensitivities.5 The root of the problem, they believe, is the recently-evolved Western diet -- a diet high in processed foods which lack the abundant and diverse fibre we actually need. With such foods, digestion takes place in the stomach and small intestine, leaving too little fuel for the beneficial microbes in the large intestine to maintain themselves with. This leads to low bacterial diversity in the gut, unbalanced microbe communities, and a system seriously out of whack. The change from traditional high-fibre hunter-gatherer diets to the last 100 years of the most processed and modified foodstuffs ever experienced in human history,6 has contributed to what the Sonnenburgs call a "mass extinction event" of the 100 trillion bacteria, comprised of 1200 different species, required to tune our immune systems and regulate inflammation.7

To reverse this demise, we need to feed our gut plenty of fibre. Specifically, we need polysaccharides, the complex carbohydrates found in plant matter, and we need a wide range, because different microbes require different polysaccharides.8 Research shows that there is a direct correlation between the food we eat, and the species of bacteria which responds: for example, the standard Western diet which is high in protein and fat produces greater proportions of the Bacteroides genus, while a high-carbohydrate, high-fibre diet, encourages higher numbers of Prevotella bacteria.9 The greater the diversity of our intestinal bacteria, the healthier our microbial community, and the better our overall health will be.

So what should we do? Feed our second brain! Eat the following three types of food to encourage a higher diversity and population of the right kinds of bacteria for optimum health.
  1. Insist on Roughage.
    Eat your fibre every day, from as wide a variety of high-fibre plant foods as you can. Include leafy green vegetables, fruit, beans, legumes, whole grains, seeds and nuts.10
  2. Incorporate Prebiotics.
    Prebiotic foods are dietary fibre which encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine. These include onions, garlic, leeks, shallots, asparagus, beets, cabbage, beans and legumes, bran, whole wheat and grains, oats, barley and bananas.11
  3. Go for Live Sours.
    Properly fermented foods are full of beneficial lactic acid producing bacteria. These include yoghurt with live cultures, unpasteurised miso, kefir, tempeh and fermented vegetables such as pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi. NOTE: Always look for these foods in the refrigerated section, as shelf-stored varieties do not contain live bacteria.12
1 The Good Gut: Taking control of your weight, your mood and your long-term health, 'Gut Feelings: The 'Second Brain' in our gastrointestinal systems' [excerpt], Justin Sonnenberg & Erica Sonnenberg.

2 The Good Gut: Taking control of your weight, your mood and your long-term health, 'Gut Feelings: The 'Second Brain' in our gastrointestinal systems' [excerpt], Justin Sonnenberg & Erica Sonnenberg.

3 Enteric Nervous System in the small intestine: Pathophysiology and clinical implications, PubMed Central, Behtash G. Nezami & Shanthi Srinivasan.

4 From Structure to Function: the ecology of host-associated microbial communities, PubMed Central, Courtney J. Robinson, et al.

5 Cute Family. And you should see their bacteria, New York Magazine, John Swansburg.

6 Food processing: a century of change, British Medical Bulletin, 2000, 56 (No 1) 1-17, R.W. Welch & P.C. Mitchell.

7 Cute Family. And you should see their bacteria, New York Magazine, John Swansburg.

8 Cute Family. And you should see their bacteria, New York Magazine, John Swansburg.

9 Eat these 3 foods for a healthy gut, Johannah Sakimura.

10 Eat these 3 foods for a healthy gut, Johannah Sakimura.

11 Eat these 3 foods for a healthy gut, Johannah Sakimura.

12 Eat these 3 foods for a healthy gut, Johannah Sakimura.

Images source: Pixabay

Friday, May 27, 2016

12 Kitchen Tips From 8 Years of Reluctant Cooking

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

The Tortoise is a mess-averse spectrum individual relatively new to cooking for others. Eight years of trial and error in 3 kitchens, plus one hospital visit, have produced these following kitchen tips.

  1. Wear your rubber washing gloves to open any pull-tab or pull-top tin cans, such as sardine tins, baked beans tins or tinned meat. If your hand slips, you will not cut yourself.
  2. A tip from Mum: When stir-frying/cooking dishes which do not need sugar, add a (literal) pinch of sugar anyway. This helps brings out flavour in a similar way to 'taste-enhancers' such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), but without the negative effects.
  3. If you are tired of soaking and scrubbing blackened oven trays after roasting chicken/meat, line the trays with oven-safe greaseproof/baking paper (£1.20 for 20 metres), and just roll up and bin the paper after cooking. No mess, no soaking!
  4. To prevent chicken pieces from cooking in a bath of their own fat in the oven, line the tray with cheap stale bread (on top of the greaseproof paper). Sit the chicken on top, and the bread soaks up all the fat that comes out.
  5. A tip from Grandma for curry lovers: When adding water to the pot after frying the spices, add the water VERY SLOWLY, a little drizzle at a time until you've put all the water in. Do NOT add the water all at once, or in large splashes. If you flood the pot and drive the temperature down, your curry will lose the best of its flavour.
  6. Another tip from Grandma: If you're making a creamy white fish soup, add a spoonful of peanut butter. It adds great flavour.
  7. If you grind a little WHITE pepper into your scrambled egg mix whilst beating it, it makes the dish much creamier in taste. Do not use too much!
  8. If you put a metal dish of water inside the oven when you bake bread or roast meat or vegetables, the steam helps prevent food from drying out while cooking.
  9. To prevent mess during food-preparation, place a sheet of newspaper on the worktop, sit the chopping board on top, and prep. Push all chopped waste off the board onto the newspaper. When you've finished, simply wrap up all the waste into a small neat newspaper parcel, and bin it. No mess!
  10. Newspaper is also very good at killing odour. Wrap particularly pongy waste such as brassica or fish leftovers in a piece of newspaper before putting it in the bin. Or if the bin itself smells too much, sit a piece of newspaper over the waste inside, and push the edges down between the waste and the interior bin wall. This will form an odour-eating seal.
  11. If you can't get rid of the smell from a jar (glass, plastic, etc), just stuff it full of newspaper right up to the rim, fill it with water, put the cap back on and let it sit for a couple of days. The more black text print is on the newspaper, the better it works.
  12. If you are a new cook, do your cooking slowly, over a low fire. This does not noticeably reduce the quality of the meal in most cases, lets you take your time without panicking or burning things, and gives you far more control over the situation and the final result. It works.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

20 of the Most Powerful Heart Foods on the Planet

Or, What Should You Eat After a Century of Processed Food?

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

A vintage joke goes: An old man in a supermarket asks for help from one of the assistants. The assistant says, "Sir, at your age you will no doubt want all the freshest and healthiest foods." The old man answers: "Forget the health food. At my age, I need all the preservatives I can get." The joke might generate a laugh, but not that long ago, the idea of preservatives, additives and chemicals in food created much less alarm than it does today. The 1900s to 1990s was a century of incredible advancements in food processing and automation, and the consumer was the focus of a food modification industry without par in human history. The first flour bleaching agent was developed in the 1900s. Trans fats were marketed in the 1910s. Brine injection and rapid freezing technologies emerged in the 1930s. Meat preservatives, vegetable freeze drying and flour additives or 'improvers' were developed in the following decade.1

Processed Food Mania
From the 1950s onwards, the processed food industry went into overdrive: all manner of canned, instant, frozen and pre-cooked foods flooded supermarkets, accompanied with a boom in television food commercials targeting the postwar housewife.2 These ad campaigns "made processed foods seem better than fresh ones."3 The 1950s to 1990s were a time of food processing and preservation technologies designed to take the stress, labour and mess away from the preparation of food, thereby specifically appealing to the homemaker who made the family's food choices.

Packaged Heart Disease
The end of the 20th century, however, also witnessed increasing consumer concern over the safety of food technologies and the environment.4 There was mounting evidence about the dangers of saturated fats, trans fats, processed foods, refined sugar and bleached flours. By the 21st century, in the United States, "chronic illnesses and health problems either wholly or partially attributable to diet represent[ed] by far the most serious threat to public health."5 These so-called 'diseases of civilisation' included obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and cancer, with an estimated one-third of all cancer deaths attributed to nutritional factors, including obesity.6 According to the World Health Organisation, cardiovascular disease is now the leading cause of death for men and women globally.7

Back to Green
Today, the appeal of processed and modified foods has diminished. Mounting evidence of the negative effect of processed foods is encouraging growing numbers of food manufacturers to reduce salt, sugar and fat in their products. Saturated fats and trans fats are now recognised to increase cardiovascular disease risk, as does highly processed foods. As cardiologist Arthur Agatston points out, "In traditional societies, where people don't eat processed foods, heart disease is rare."8 Consumers are beginning to seek out healthier foods, with less processing and fewer additives. After a century of experiencing the most highly processed foodstuffs humans have ever known in history, people are starting to reassess their diets.

Here, then, are 20 of the most powerful foods known to contain benefits for your heart, arteries and health.

The A-List of 20 Heart Healthy Foods


Blueberries top the list as one of the most powerful disease-fighting and cardiovascular-friendly foods. They have been shown to reduce blood pressure and arterial stiffness, and may improve or prevent pathologies associated with the metabolic syndrome, including diabetes and coronary heart disease. They are rich in phytochemicals called polyphenols, which have protective health benefits, and anthocyanins, the antioxidant which gives the fruit its dark blue colour.9,10,11

Seeds and Nuts
Nuts and seeds contain phytosterols, a group of chemicals which have been shown to lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of some types of cancer. Among commonly available seeds and nuts, pistachios, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds had the highest levels of phytosterols, followed by pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, black walnuts, pecans, cashews, peanuts and hazelnuts. Many seeds and nuts also contain high levels of oleic acid, a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.12,13

Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil is one of the healthiest of oils to add to your diet. It has high levels of heart-healthy monounsaturated oleic acid, an essential fatty acid proven to have positive effects on cholesterol levels, oxidative stress in the bloodstream, and cardiovascular health.14,15

Sardines have some of the highest omega-3 fatty acids levels of any coldwater oily fish. These 'good' fats help raise protective HDL levels, lower harmful triglycerides, and are beneficial to heart and artery health.16

Coldwater Oily Fish
Like sardines, coldwater oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, bluefish, halibut all contain concentrated levels of protective omega-3 acids and healthy polyunsaturated fats.

Salads with Olive Oil
Scientists now believe it is the combination of olive oil with salad or vegetables that gives the Mediterranean diet its heart-healthy reputation. The unsaturated fat in olive oil combines with the nitrite in nuts, vegetables and avocado to produce protective, heart-healthy nitro-fatty acids. Nitro-fatty acids lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease by blocking a potentially dangerous enzyme called epoxide hydrolase.17


Garlic is often called a 'superfood' for its disease-fighting qualities. Research suggests that garlic can help lower LDL levels as well as an enzyme called angiotensin, which constricts blood vessels, and has significant impact on the buildup of plaque in the arteries.18,19,20

Green Tea
Studies have found that green tea helps lower LDL ('bad') cholesterol and triglycerides. It contains powerful antioxidants, including catechins, which are plant phenols which reduce the absorption of cholesterol during digestion, and epigallocatechin gallate, which helps prevent atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque in the arteries.21,22

Broccoli helps prevent calcification, or hardening of the arteries, and oxidation of LDL cholesterol. It is packed with antioxidants, vitamin K, and heart-healthy fibre which helps to normalise blood pressure and plaque build up in the arteries.23

Oats is full of viscous fibre, also known as soluble fibre, which helps to lower LDL and total cholesterol. The viscous fibre also encourages a good balance of colonic bacteria. The beta glucans in oats can also help to prevent absorption of cholesterol from food.24,25,26

Oranges have been shown by recent research to be a powerful heart food. It contains citrus pectin, which helps neutralise a protein called galectin-3 which causes scarring of heart tissue and eventually leads to congestive heart failure. This condition is often difficult to treat with drugs. In addition, the soluble fibre pectin acts like a sponge, soaking up cholesterol in food and blocking its absorption by the body -- the same effect produced by a class of drugs called bile acid sequestrants.27

Kale is a heart superfood. It boasts high levels of heart-healthy antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, fibre, folate, potassium and vitamin E. It is also rich in lutein, which helps protect against early atherosclerosis. In addition, it contains an unusual compound called glucoraphanin, which activates a protective protein called Nrf2, which, as Eat to Live author Dr Joel Fuhrman describes, "creates a sort of Teflon coating in your arteries to keep plaque from adhering."28

Red Wine

Red wine contains powerful compounds called polyphenols, which help keep blood vessels flexible and reduce the risk of unwanted clotting.29 Also called procyanidins, these polyphenols were found in levels two to four times higher in red wine from Sardinia and the Gers region of the Midi-Pyrenees in south-west France, both areas famous for the longevity of their population.30

Dark Chocolate
The high cocoa content in dark chocolate is a cardiovascular ally. Cocoa is rich in compounds called flavanols, which improve blood vessel flexibility. The Kuna Indians off the coast of Panama consume enormous quantities of minimally processed cocoa. As a result, they have enviably low blood pressure, and unlike most other people, they do not develop hypertension as they age.31

Scientists have found that pomegranates can significantly reduce oxidative stress in the arterial walls. They are rich in polyphenolic antioxidants, which not only help to block the progression of plaque, but may actually help reverse plaque buildup, by activating an enzyme which breaks down oxidized cholesterol. A recent Israel Institute of Technology study has shown that consuming a combination of pomegranate juice and dates, another cardiovascular ally, produces a combined effect more powerful than either fruit on its own.32,33

Like pomegranates, dates contain superior cardiovascular benefits. They contain high concentrations of phenolic radical scavenger antioxidants, inhibit the oxidation of LDL ('bad') cholesterol and stimulate the removal of cholesterol from lipid-laden arterial cells. In a recent Israel Institute of Technology study, scientists found that a combination of dates and pomegranate juice reduced oxidative stress in the arterial wall by 33% and decreased arterial cholesterol content by 28%.34

Studies have shown that daily consumption of avocado can decrease triglycerides and LDL ('bad') cholesterol by up to 22%, and increase HDL ('good') cholesterol by up to 11%.35 With the highest levels of healthy unsaturated fat of any fruit apart from coconut, avocados are a nutrient-dense food, with approximately 4 grams of protein and 11 grams of fibre per avocado, and nearly 20 vitamins and minerals.36,37


Research has shown that eating spices such as turmeric, paprika, rosemary, oregano, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves and garlic powder with your meals can lower triglyceride levels by up to 30%. The high antioxidant levels of spices help mitigate oxidative stress, which has been linked to heart disease, arthritis and diabetes.38,39

Spinach is loaded with fibre, potassium and folate, which help lower blood pressure and lower homosysteine levels, both risk factors for cardiovascular disease.40

Soy Protein
Soy protein, made from soy beans, has numerous benefits for the cardiovascular system. It is a quality plant protein which contains fibre, vitamins, minerals and healthy polyunsaturated fats, which help lower triglycerides.41

1Food processing: a century of change, R.W. Welch & P.C. Mitchell, British Medical Bulletin, 2000, 56 (No 1) 1-17

2Why the fries taste good, E. Schlosser, Food, Inc.

3Why the fries taste good, E. Schlosser, Food, Inc.

4Food processing: a century of change, R.W. Welch & P.C. Mitchell, British Medical Bulletin, 2000, 56 (No 1) 1-17

5Origins and evolution of the Western diet: Health implications for the 21st century, Loren Cordain, et al, American Society for Clinical Nutrition, 2005

6Origins and evolution of the Western diet: Health implications for the 21st century, Loren Cordain, et al, American Society for Clinical Nutrition, 2005

7Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), World Health Organisation

89 Superfoods for your heart, Anne Underwood, Prevention.com

9Health benefits of wild blueberries abound, Science Daily

10Blueberries may help reduce blood pressure and arterial stiffness, Science Daily

115 Heart-healthy Foods, WebMD

12Pistachios Pummel Cholesterol, WebMD

13Monounsaturated Fats, American Heart Association

14Bioactive effects of olive oil phenolic compounds in humans: reduction of heart disease factors and oxidative damage, M.I. Covas

15Olive oil consumption, plasma oleic acid, and stroke incidence: the Three-City study, C. Samieri, PubMed

169 Superfoods for your heart, Anne Underwood, Prevention.com

17Olive oil and salad combined 'explain' Med diet success, BBC News

189 Superfoods for your heart, Anne Underwood, Prevention.com

19Garlic for treating hypercholesterolemia, C. Stevinson, PubMed

20Is Garlic good for you? 7 surprising benefits of garlic for optimal health, Lizette Borreli, Medical Daily

2121 foods that naturally unclog arteries, Natural Living Ideas

227 Teas that can help or harm your heart, Debbie Strong, Everyday Health

2321 foods that naturally unclog arteries, Natural Living Ideas

24Beta-glucans, WebMD

25A soluble fiber primer -- plus the top five foods that can lower LDL cholesterol, Judith C. Thalheimer, Today's Dietician, Vol 15 No.12, p16

26Major Cereal Grain Fibres and Psyllium in relation to cardiovascular health, Adam M. Bernstein, Nutrients 2013, 5(5), 1471-1487

279 Superfoods for your heart, Anne Underwood, Prevention.com

289 Superfoods for your heart, Anne Underwood, Prevention.com

299 Superfoods for your heart, Anne Underwood, Prevention.com

30Red wine health locations found, BBC News

319 Superfoods for your heart, Anne Underwood, Prevention.com

329 Superfoods for your heart, Anne Underwood, Prevention.com

33Pomegranate and Dates for Life, Israel Institute of Technology

34Pomegranate and Dates for Life, Israel Institute of Technology

35Monounsaturated fatty acid (avocado) rich diet for mild hypercholesterolemia, Ledesma R. Lopez, PubMed

3621 foods that naturally unclog arteries, Natural Living Ideas

37Avocados: Health Benefits, Nutritional Information, Megan Ware, MedicalNewsToday

38Spice Things Up to Lower Triglycerides, J. Dalessio, Everyday Health

39A high antioxidant spice blend attenuates postprandial insulin and triglyceride responses and increases some plasma measures of antioxidant activity in healthy, overweight men, AC Skulas-Ray, et al, Journal of Nutrition, Aug 2011

4021 foods that naturally unclog arteries, Natural Living Ideas

415 Heart-healthy Foods, WebMD

Other Sources

Combining key ingredients of vegetarian diet cuts cholesterol significantly, says study, Science Daily

Diet that combines cholesterol-lowering foods results in greater decrease in LDL than low-saturated fat diet, study finds, Science Daily

Effect of a dietary portfolio of cholesterol-lowering foods given at 2 levels of intensity of dietary advice on serum lipids in hyperlipidemia, David JA Jenkins, et al, Journal of the American Medical Association

Eating heart healthy: Which foods actually help?, Sara Miller, Live Science

The Best Heart-Friendly Foods, Everyday Health

Monday, May 16, 2016

What is Cholesterol?

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

You cannot live without cholesterol. It is present in your blood and every cell of your body, and your body needs it in order to function normally. It also needs it to make hormones, Vitamin D and bile for digestion. Known as a lipid, cholesterol is a fatty substance which comes from two sources: your body and your food. While cholesterol is produced in the liver for the body's needs, it is also present in food from animal sources, such as meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products. Eggs, offal and shellfish are also rich in cholesterol. Although your body can make all the cholesterol it needs, the liver produces more cholesterol when your diet is high in saturated and trans fats. The effects of excess cholesterol can cause serious health problems. Because cholesterol cannot dissolve in blood, it has to be carried to and from cells by carriers called lipoproteins. Lipoproteins are little packages are made of fat (lipid) on the inside and proteins on the outside, and there are two kinds: low-density lipoproteins (LDL), and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). In recent years, LDL has become regarded as 'bad' cholesterol, while HDL has been called the 'good' cholesterol. We are going to take a closer look at these types of cholesterol and their function in your body.

LDL Cholesterol
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) carries cholesterol to the cells in your body which need it. If there is too much cholesterol for your cells to use, this excess cholesterol can build up in the artery walls, leading to plaque and disease of the arteries. Plaque is a thick, hard deposit that can clog arteries and make them less flexible, resulting in a condition called atherosclerosis. Plaque can also break open and cause blood clots. If a blood clot blocks an artery to either the brain or the heart, the result is a stroke or a heart attack. Therefore, too much LDL cholesterol is unhealthy, and LDL is known as 'bad' cholesterol for this reason. A diet high in saturated fat and trans fat raises LDL cholesterol. As a general guide, LDL levels should be 3 mmol/L or less for healthy adults, and 2 mmol/L or less for those at high risk.

HDL Cholesterol
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) carries cholesterol away from your cells and arteries back to your liver, where it is broken down and passed from the body. One-fourth to one-third of blood cholesterol is carried by HDL. Low levels of HDL cholesterol have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, while healthy levels of HDL cholesterol may protect against cardiovascular disease. For these reasons, HDL is regarded as 'good' protective cholesterol, and higher levels are better. In general, HDL levels should be above 1 mmol/L. Lower levels can increase the risk of heart disease.

So Why Should You Lower Your Cholesterol?
There is strong evidence that high cholesterol increases the risk of:

  • Artherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries from plaque buildup
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Transient ischaemic attack (TIA), or a 'mini stroke'
  • Peripheral arterial disease (PAD), or the narrowing of arteries supplying blood to the legs, from plaque buildup

What Causes High Cholesterol?
Many factors can play a part in causing high cholesterol. Lifestyle, underlying conditions and 'fixed' factors which cannot be changed, all contribute.

Lifestyle factors contributing to high cholesterol:

  • An unhealthy diet, particularly one high in saturated fat and trans fats.
  • Obesity. Being overweight can lead to higher levels of LDL cholesterol, and lower levels of HDL cholesterol.
  • Lack of exercise or physical activity. This can increase your levels of LDL cholesterol.
  • Smoking. Cigarettes contain a chemical called acrolein which stops HDL from carrying cholesterol from fatty deposits to the liver, which can lead to artherosclerosis.
  • Drinking

Underlying conditions contributing to high cholesterol:

  • Diabetes or high blood pressure
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Hypothyroidism

Fixed factors contributing to high cholesterol:

  • A family history of heart disease or stroke.
  • An inherited condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia, which can cause high cholesterol in someone even if they eat healthily.
  • A family history of a cholesterol-related condition, such as having a parent, brother or sister with familial hypercholesterolaemia.
  • Age. The older you are, the greater the likelihood of artherosclerosis.
  • Ethnicity. People of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan descent are at increased risk of having a heart attack.
  • Sex. Males are more likely to have heart attacks than females.

Consequently, lowering your cholesterol levels will reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, and improve your health. High cholesterol is often known as the 'silent killer' because there can be little or no indication of it. It is important to get your cholesterol levels checked regularly, and to do as much as you can to keep your cholesterol at a healthy level. Here are 6 tips on how to lower your cholesterol:

  1. Get expert advice. Your doctor can help you with a plan for a heart-healthy diet and exercise.
  2. Eat healthily. Eat less saturated fat and trans fat. Increase your intake of fruit, vegetables, fish, nuts, seeds and fibre.
  3. Give up smoking. Your HDL levels will improve as a direct result.
  4. Exercise. Physical activity lowers bad cholesterol and raises good cholesterol.
  5. Take your medications. If your doctor has prescribed medicine to lower your cholesterol, do not forget to take it.
  6. Try supplements. Fish oil, krill oil, fibre and soy protein supplements can lower LDL cholesterol. Ask your doctor if supplements may help you.

About cholesterol, American Heart Association
Cholesterol - the silent killer, Heart UK
Good vs. Bad Cholesterol, American Heart Association
High cholesterol, National Health Service
The myth of dietary cholesterol, Heart UK
Tips to keep your cholesterol in check, WebMD
What is cholesterol?, National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute
What your cholesterol levels mean, American Heart Association

Images Source: Pixabay

Friday, May 13, 2016

How Triglycerides Affect Your Health

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

This slippery-sounding part of your body is one of your most important indicators of heart health. Triglycerides are a type of fat, or lipid, which circulates in your bloodstream. When you eat a meal, your body converts any calories it does not immediately need into triglycerides. These triglycerides get dumped into your bloodstream, and later, stored in your fat cells. After an especially fatty meal, triglycerides can be so abundant in your blood that they give the blood a milky tint. Triglyceride levels are usually measured at the same time as blood cholesterol levels, and together with your HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, present a 'read-out' of the state of your cardiovascular health. High triglycerides often go hand in hand with low HDL levels ('good' cholesterol); in fact, the higher the triglycerides, the lower the HDL. Raised triglycerides is a risk factor not only for heart disease, but for obesity, pancreatitis and type 2 diabetes.

Triglyceride levels are ordered in four categories of health:

  • Normal: below 150 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL), or less than 1.7 millimoles per liter (mmol/L)
  • Borderline High: 150 to 199 mg/dL (1.8 to 2.2 mmol/L)
  • High: 200 to 499 mg/dL (2.3 to 5.6 mmol/L)
  • Very High: 500 mg/dL or above (5.7 mmol/L or above)

So how do you lower your triglyceride levels? Healthy lifestyle choices are the key.

Avoid bad fats. Replace saturated fats (in red meat and full-fat dairy products) and trans fats (usually found in restaurant fried foods and commercially prepared baked goods) with healthy unsaturated fats. Go for seeds, nuts, avocados and plant-based oils such as olive, sunflower and canola, and eat oily fish such as mackerel, sardines, tuna and salmon.

Choose good carbs. Easily digested carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, cornflakes, white-flour baked goods and sugary drinks raise triglyceride levels, so reduce your intake of sugar and refined foods.

Limit alcohol intake. Alcohol can have a particularly potent effect on triglycerides, with even small amounts raising triglyceride levels.

Lose weight. If you are overweight, losing just 5% to 10% of your weight can drop your triglyceride levels.

Exercise regularly. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day. Exercise lowers triglycerides and boosts 'good' HDL cholesterol.

Use spices in your food. Research has shown that eating spices such as turmeric, paprika, rosemary, oregano, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves and garlic powder can lower triglyceride levels.


A promising new treatment for high triglycerides, G. Curfman, Harvard Health Publications
Spice Things Up to Lower Triglycerides, J. Dalessio, Everyday Health
A high antioxidant spice blend attenuates postprandial insulin and triglyceride responses and increases some plasma measures of antioxidant activity in healthy, overweight men, AC. Skulas-Ray, et al., Journal of Nutrition, Aug 2011
Triglycerides: Why do they matter?, Mayo Clinic
Triglycerides, Heart UK

Photos from Pixabay.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Ugly, the Bad and the Good about Fats

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

In Monday's post, we talked about the different kinds of fats, and the three categories of them. There is good news and bad news about fats. Today, let's start off with the bad news and end on a better note.

Fats can be divided into 'good' or 'bad' fats, depending on whether they help or harm the body. Saturated fats and trans fats are considered 'bad' fats because they cause changes to your body which increase cardiovascular risks. Saturated fats increase LDL ('bad' cholesterol) and triglyceride levels (a type of fat converted from excess calories and stored in the fat cells), raise your blood pressure, and narrow your blood vessels1. Trans fat, or partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil, is considered to be even worse for your health, because it raises your 'bad' (LDL) cholesterol while lowering your 'good' (HDL) cholesterol, a combination which increases the risk of heart disease even more2.

The Bad News Boys: Saturated and Trans Fats

Some Saturated Fats
These foods contain higher levels of 'bad' fats. You should be careful to moderate your intake of them.

Foods with Higher Levels of Saturated Fat

  • Beef, Pork, Lamb, Goat meat
  • Full-fat milk, Full-fat cheese, Butter
  • Chicken thighs, Chicken skin
  • Coconut oil, Palm oil

Foods with Partially Hydrogenated Oil, a Source of Trans Fat

  • Baked goods containing shortening (cakes, cookies, pies, crackers)
  • Ready-made frosting
  • Snack foods (such as microwave popcorn), Potato crisps
  • Non-dairy creamers, Margarines
  • Any food fried in partially-hydrogenated oil

When information came to light about the health effects of trans fat on people, some producers of these foods developed new, trans fat free, formulations of their products.

Ready For Some Good News?

Avocado, a Good Fat
Unsaturated fats are the good guys here, having been shown to lower blood pressure, improve lipid levels, decrease LDL ('bad' cholesterol) and increase HDL ('good' cholesterol), all of which improve cardiovascular health3. Studies also suggest that eating unsaturated fats, or 'good' fats, may decrease the risk of type-2 diabetes4. We are encouraged to choose more of these fats.

Foods with High Levels of ‘Good’ Fats

  • Olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil, corn oil
  • Sesame seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios
  • Salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, trout, sardines, bluefish, halibut
  • Avocados, soybeans

1 Good Fats, Bad Fats, Eleanor Roberts
2 Trans fat is double trouble for your heart health, Mayo Clinic
3 Good Fats, Bad Fats, Eleanor Roberts
4 Dietary Fats: Know which types to choose, Mayo Clinic

Good Fats, Bad Fats, Eleanor Roberts
Foods High in Unsaturated Fat, Alia Butler, Livestrong.com
Eating Fish for Heart Health, American Heart Association
Polyunsaturated Fats, American Heart Association

Photos from Pixabay.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Three Types of Fats In Your Food

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

Fats. They are one of the main reasons many foods taste so good. And some fats taste better than others, making it even more difficult to say no to certain foods. Fast food french fries, for example, were often cooked in lard or beef tallow before the nineties, giving them a markedly richer taste compared to fries cooked in vegetable oil1. But all fats are not equal. And not all fats are good for us. Indeed, some of the tastiest fats may be some of the worst for our health. How do we know the difference?

Dietary fats fall into three categories: saturated fats, unsaturated fats and trans fats. We will examine each of these in turn.

Saturated Fats

Animals are the primary source of saturated fats. High levels are found in beef, pork, lamb and goat meat, and full-fat dairy products. The saturated fat levels in beef fat is 50%2, lard 39%3, and butter 64%4. Poultry and eggs contain medium levels, with chicken fat consisting of 30% saturated5. Some vegetable oils, such as coconut oil and palm oil, are also very high in saturated fat, containing 82% and 49.3% respectively6. Saturated fats remain solid at room temperature. They should be eaten in small amounts, no more than 5 to 6 percent of your total calories. For someone eating 2000 calories a day, that equates to 11 to 13 grams of saturated fat7. Eating high levels of saturated fat increases LDL ('bad' cholesterol) and triglyceride levels (a type of fat converted from excess calories and stored in the fat cells), raises your blood pressure, and narrows your blood vessels8. All of these effects on your body increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Unsaturated Fats

These 'good' fats should form the majority of your fat intake as part of a heart-healthy diet. Unsaturated fats come in two types: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Plant-based liquid oils such as olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil and sesame oil are high in monounsaturated fats, also known as oleic acid9. Many seeds and nuts contain good concentrations of oleic acid, including pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds10. One fruit high in monounsaturated fat is the avocado. While the avocado and coconut have the highest fat contents of any fruit in the world, the fat in an avocado is mostly unsaturated, unlike the coconut's. 100 grams of raw Hass avocado contains 2 grams of saturated fat and 13 grams of unsaturated fat, of which 9.8 grams is monounsaturated11. Polyunsaturated fats are the second type of unsaturated fat which is beneficial to the body, and can be found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna and trout, as well as in soyabeans and tofu, canola, walnuts, flax and sunflower seeds and their oils12. Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats have been shown to lower blood pressure, improve lipid levels, decrease LDL and increase HDL ('good' cholesterol), and reduce cardiovascular risks13. Studies also suggest that eating good fats may decrease the risk of type-2 diabetes.14

Trans Fats

Of the three types of fats, trans fat is considered to be the worst type of fat you can eat. Also known as trans-fatty acids, trans fat raises your "bad" (LDL) cholesterol while it lowers your "good" (HDL) cholesterol, a combination which increases your risk of heart disease15. But what is trans fat? While trans fat occurs naturally in small amounts in some meat and dairy products, most trans fat is produced through an industrial process which adds hydrogen to vegetable oil, causing the oil to become solid at room temperature. This partially-hydrogenated oil is less likely to spoil, so foods made with trans fat have a longer shelf life. Manufactured trans fat may be found in baked goods containing shortening, such as cakes, cookies, pies and crackers, ready-made frosting, snack foods such as microwave popcorn, non-dairy creamers, margarines and any foods cooked or fried in partially-hydrogenated oil16. Trans fat, particularly the manufactured variety, appears to have no known benefit, with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determining that partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil is no longer "generally recognized as safe" and should be phased out of food production within the next few years.17

1 Palmer, Katie M., "What exactly is in McDonald's famous french fries?", Wired, July 16, 2014
2 "Making Sense of Food: Types of Fat", NutritionMD
3 "Making Sense of Food: Types of Fat", NutritionMD
4 "Ask the doctor: Coconut oil", Harvard Health Publications
5 "Making Sense of Food: Types of Fat", NutritionMD
6 United States Department of Agriculture, National Nutrient Database, "Oil, Coconut", and "Oil, Palm"
7 "Know Your Fats", American Heart Association
8 Roberts, Eleanor., "Good Fats, Bad Fats", www.everydayhealth.com
9 "Monounsaturated Fats", American Heart Association
10 Roberts, Eleanor., "Good Fats, Bad Fats", www.everydayhealth.com
11 "How Many Grams of Fat Are in Avocados?", Livestrong.com
12 "Polyunsaturated Fats", American Heart Association
13 Roberts, Eleanor., "Good Fats, Bad Fats", www.everydayhealth.com
14 "Dietary Fats: Know which types to choose", Mayo Clinic
15 "Trans fat is double trouble for your heart health", Mayo Clinic
16 "Trans fat is double trouble for your heart health", Mayo Clinic
17 "Trans fat is double trouble for your heart health", Mayo Clinic

Photos from Morguefile.com.

Friday, May 6, 2016

How to Do Your Budget

Personal finance is exactly that: personal. Like one man's meat, ideas for money management, strategies and styles are individual - what works for you may not work for someone else. Choosing a budget plan for yourself from the multitude available may still require personalisation: you have to tweak it till it fits.

Budget planning is done in two parts. Part one is determining the how; part two is the what.

How To Budget

Begin your budget planning by considering four main budgeting styles and choosing which best fits your style.

The Classic Category Method
The classic budgeting style assigns a fixed spending limit on each of your expense categories - such as Food, Entertainment or Transport - for the month's budget. Once you have hit your limit for the particular category, you are done for the month.

The Zero-based Method
This is a budget style for the regimented and organised mind. Every dollar, pound, euro, etc. of the monthly income is accounted for in your budget plan. There is no 'left-over' or extras: the aim is to get your spending down to zero each month. The zero-based method requires you to plan your spending limits in advance, and the willpower to stick to it.

The Envelope Method
The envelope system is based on the classic category method with one difference: it requires you to pay for things in cash. After taking care of priority categories (rent, utilities, retirement contribution, etc), assign to each of a series of envelopes a category, spending limit and its fund of cash. Once you've spent the amount in an envelope, you may move cash from another envelope across, but you may not draw out more money from your account. What is in the envelopes is your limit for the month.

The Priority-based Method
Automate everything important, such as the rent, utilities, retirement contribution, etc. Cover all important and required priorities. What is left is the amount you can spend as you wish, until it has gone. This method allows you the security of always covering all your financial priorities, and the freedom of not having to set up categories for the rest.

When you have decided on a suitable method, you can follow these next steps to determine what goes into your budget.

What to Budget

  1. Get organised. This is the part where you gather all the necessary paperwork and documents you will need to plan your budget. These will include:
    • several months' worth of bank statements
    • recent credit card bills
    • copies of your household bills
    • copies of your medical bills
    • details of your savings and pension/retirement contributions
    • information on any other sources of income
  2. Add up your income. Make a list of all income, savings, investments, self-employment, rent from properties you own, and anything else, after deducting compulsory payments such as tax or national insurance. Add any weekly, yearly or sporadic earnings as well, such as dividends from shares. Separate your regular/monthly and irregular/annual earnings into columns, then calculate overall totals for each income trajectory, as well as a 'yearly earnings' figure. This is also a good time to check that you are paying the correct amount of tax. ASIC's online budget planner may help you with this and the following stages of determining what goes into your budget.
  3. Work out what you are spending. Look at your bank statements, credit card bills, and household and medical bills to determine where your cash is going. Be realistic and avoid guessing. The more accurate your figures, the better your budget plan is going to work. Remember to account for occasional spending such as vacations, festival gifts, birthdays, insurance policies, car maintenance and tax, etc. Add these costs to your list of expenses in a separate 'yearly/occasional outgoings' column. Once you have included everything you need to, add up your monthly and occasional spending separately into two totals. Next, calculate an overall figure that incorporates all your yearly expenditure. If you divide this number by 12 and check the difference between your result and the 'regular spending' total, you will see how much money you need to earmark each month for 'irregular' spending such as gifts and car insurance.
  4. Compare incoming and outgoing. You now examine your income and spending totals against each other. Subtract annual and monthly expenditure totals from annual and monthly income figures. The result will indicate the yearly and monthly surpluses or shortfalls in your finances (a shortfall will have a negative number).
  5. Draw up your budget. Base your plan on the budget method you have chosen. Be as realistic as possible when budget planning. Balance detail and practicality. Your plan should consist of what you intend to spend each month on priority items, and in some cases each year. Keep in mind, however, that there will always be unforeseen costs, or emergencies. Once you have your budget plan, remain as faithful to it as you can.

Added Note. Financial planners will often advise you when determining your expenses, "First, pay yourself." When determining your spending, allocate some percentage of your pretax income for yourself. Ten percent is a good figure, if you can manage it. if you receive a paycheck via direct deposit, arrange to have that percentage of your paycheck deposited into a separate savings account, so you don't even see it right away. If direct deposit is not an option for you, set aside that percentage and deposit it into your savings account manually. Do this religiously. A little will add up to a lot over time. Additionally, don't forget your retirement. Creating a retirement nest egg can give you some peace of mind in your golden years.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Humpday Hint: When to Pay with Debit or Credit

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

Many people own both debit and credit cards nowadays. But how do you know when best to use one and not the other? And what exactly is the difference between the two, anyway?

A debit card is a payment card that deducts money directly from your transaction account (also known as a current or checking account) to pay for a purchase. In theory, it removes the need for you to carry cash or a chequebook. A debit card also allows you to withdraw money from your transaction account through an automated teller machine. A credit card, on the other hand, is a credit facility which allows you to buy things immediately, up to a pre-arranged limit, which you then pay for at a later date. It is not linked to your transaction account. Both debit and credit cards have different advantages in different spending situations.

How do you decide which to use, and when? Here are several tips:

  1. If you are trying to maintain a good credit score, then paying with a credit card will help. The more you use your credit card while paying off its balance punctually each month, the healthier your credit report is going to be.
  2. If you need to track your expenses, paying with a debit card is useful. Since it is linked to your transaction account, where full details of all transactions are logged, you can always check your payment history via postal statements or an online tool.
  3. Debit cards are also a great convenience when it comes to recurring bill payments such as phone bills, utility bills, the monthly rent, etc. You can set up automatic payments which are taken directly from your transaction account. Just make sure there is enough money in the account to cover these payments when they are due!
  4. There are certain situations when it is both wiser and safer to use a credit card. These include car rentals, booking travel, vacation costs, making deposits on purchases, medical bills and large purchases. In all of these, a credit card offers more security and protection than a debit card. Credit cards often also include insurance and concierge services, and the chance to earn points or rewards. In addition, replacing a stolen credit card on vacation is easier than replacing a debit card, and no funds need come out of your account.
  5. If possible, do NOT use your debit card for online purchases. Since your debit card is linked directly to your bank account, entering your bank account information online increases your risk of identity or account theft. The recent spate of hacked user information from companies such as Target, EBay, Sony and TalkTalk is a grim reminder to keep your digital security tight at all times.


  • 'Debit Card', Investopedia
  • 'Debit or Credit? 11 Tips on Knowing How to Pay for Your Stuff', Mamiverse
  • 'What's the difference between a debit and credit card?', Barclays Bank

Monday, May 2, 2016

Understanding and Improving Your Credit Score

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

Credit reports. Credit history. Credit scores. To anyone who has never owned a credit card, bought insurance or taken out a bank loan, these things might sound unutterably alien. For the average citizen of the digital age, however, maintaining 'financial cred' has become an inescapable, sometimes stressful, part of modern life. Unlike 'credit ratings' which are assigned to businesses and governments, a 'credit score' is a numerical evaluation of an individual's creditworthiness, or the likelihood that you will pay your debts. Consequently, a good credit score often goes hand in hand with healthy personal finances, functioning as one's 'financial barometer'1.

Credit Report, source Pixabay
Most people will have a credit history. In the United States, three major credit reporting bureaus - Equifax, Experian and TransUnion - receive credit information about consumers. Any company which supplies you credit, from student to personal loans, mortgages or credit cards, will report information about your credit events to these three agencies. From this information, the bureaus calculate your credit score. Most lenders, however, depend not upon the bureaus' scores, but upon the Fair Issac Corporation (FICO) score, which is a calculation based upon information taken from the credit bureaus2. Scores over 720 are considered to be excellent, while scores below 650 are considered poor. A 'good' credit score will make banks, insurance companies and potential landlords look benignly and favourably upon you, while a 'poor' score might get you shown the door. Potential employers often also look at applicants' credit reports.

So how do you improve your credit score? Your first course of action should be to avail yourself of the free annual credit reports from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Financial consultant firm Credit Karma has a good tip: Space out these three reports at 4-month intervals, so you get a year-long indication of how your credit health is doing3. Check your reports for accuracy. Knowing what goes into the calculation of your credit score is also an important battle strategy. The five key factors used by FICO to determine your credit score are: 1) payment history; 2) amounts owed; 3) length of credit history; 4) new credit; and 5) types of credit card4.

Cards in Wallet, source Morguefile
Your financial cred battle plan should aim for the following: Always pay your bills on time, in full. This is possibly the most important single factor affecting credit score calculation. Pay off any small balances on your credit cards. Use your credit cards less. Try for a credit utilisation rate below 20% between all your credit cards5. If you cannot lower your spending, request for higher credit limits on your cards, to improve utilisation percentages. Keep old (even unused) accounts open, to show that you have multiple options for credit usage, and to avoid decreasing the length of your credit history. Cancelling cards gives you fewer payment options while retaining the same amount of debt. In general, a longer credit history is better for your credit score. Do not open several new credit accounts in a short period of time, especially if you do not have a long credit history. Lastly, review the types of credit you are using. Different types of credit cards are viewed differently by the scoring algorithm, and major credit cards are generally better regarded than departmental store cards6.

NOTE: This article describes the credit scoring system in the United States. Every country has its own system. Some information about the credit scoring system in the United Kingdom is available here: http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/loans/credit-rating-credit-score. Wikipedia has some basic information about credit scoring systems in other countries: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credit_score.


1Mamiverse, 8 Tips on How to Raise Credit Score Right Now
2Investopedia, What's the difference between a credit rating and a credit score?
3Mamiverse, 8 Tips on How to Raise Credit Score Right Now
4MyFICO, What's in my FICO Scores
5Mamiverse, 8 Tips on How to Raise Credit Score Right Now
6Money Management International, Understanding Your Credit Score

Other Sources:

Credit Karma, https://www.creditkarma.com