Low HDL levels, Sugar and cancer, Pumpkin seeds

Q: What can I do to raise a low HDL-cholesterol level?
Q: Is it true that sugar “feeds” cancer?
Q: Are pumpkin seeds nutritious?

Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research

Q: What can I do to raise a low HDL-cholesterol level?

A: Weight control and regular physical activity are the most important steps you can take to raise your “good” HDL cholesterol. Higher HDL levels (60 mg/dl or above) are linked with lower risk of heart disease, while low HDL (40 mg/dl and below) is considered a major cardiovascular risk factor and is now being linked with greater risk of memory loss later in life. Low HDL levels are often associated with being overweight, especially if excess body fat is located at the waistline. Studies suggest that overweight people who reach and maintain a healthier weight may raise low HDL levels anywhere from 5 to 20 percent. Daily moderate aerobic physical activity, such as walking or swimming, is also very effective at raising low HDL. Although some people assume a low fat diet is beneficial, completely cutting out heart-healthy fat can hurt rather than help your efforts. Instead, minimize saturated fat from fatty meats and high-fat dairy products, but include moderate amounts of olive oil and nuts. In addition, it’s important to avoid smoking, which is linked with lower HDL, and make sure that blood sugar is under control.

Q: Is it true that sugar “feeds” cancer?

A: While all cells in our body use sugar (glucose) for fuel, research does suggest that cancer cells take up blood sugar more rapidly than healthy cells. In addition, high blood sugar stimulates increased levels of insulin in our body, which may promote growth of cancer cells. Although this may sound frightening, the answer is not to avoid all sugar containing foods. The sugar in our bloodstream comes from all carbohydrate foods, including healthful vegetables, fruits, whole grains and low fat dairy sources; some glucose is even produced within our bodies from protein. For now our best answer is to keep blood sugar controlled with weight maintenance, regular exercise and a high-fiber diet. It’s also important to avoid big loads of carbohydrate at once, particularly from refined grains like white bread or foods with added sugars. Hopefully further research will provide more answers.

Q: Are pumpkin seeds nutritious?

A: Yes. Pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of the mineral magnesium and also supply some protein and fiber. They are naturally low in sodium as well, as long as they are unsalted, of course. Also, pumpkin seeds are among the nuts and seeds highest in phytosterols; these natural plant compounds help lower blood cholesterol levels and are currently added to some margarine spreads, juices and cereals. Despite being noted as a good source of omega-3 fat, the amount that pumpkin seeds contain is actually quite low.

Although usually encased in an edible yellow-white husk, the pumpkin seed itself is a flat, dark green kernel. You can buy pumpkin seeds year round, but supplies are freshest in fall when pumpkins are in season. If you want to prepare your own from a fresh pumpkin, separate the seeds from the pulp in a colander or on paper towels. Although not necessary, some people like to let the seeds dry overnight before roasting. Lightly roast them in a single layer on a cookie sheet in a low temperature oven (about 250 degrees) for 20-60 minutes. Instead of salting the seeds, try sprinkling with garlic powder and curry or with cinnamon. Pumpkin seeds make great snacks or additions to salads, stir-fries and cereal.

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