As you get older, you probably hear more and more about cholesterol, and more often than not, it usually gets a bad rap. That’s because when people talk about cholesterol, it’s normally all about the “bad” cholesterol, and trying to figure out ways make it go lower. But first, it’s important to understand what cholesterol actually is in the first place.
According to the American Heart Association, cholesterol is a waxy substance which your body needs to ‘build cells and make vitamins and other hormones,’ such as estrogen, vitamin D, and progesterone. It also helps make bile acids in the liver that absorb fat during digestion.
There are two types of cholesterol known as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, otherwise called “bad” cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which is considered “good” cholesterol. Too much bad cholesterol or not enough of the good cholesterol can cause build up in the inner walls of the heart’s arteries that are what feed the brain and the heart. When there is too much build up, it can cause major heart conditions like blood clots, or blocked blood flow, which could potentially lead to heart attacks or strokes.
While the body needs cholesterol, too much bad cholesterol is just not good for you. If you have been diagnosed with high LDL, depending on how high the levels are, your doctor will probably advise you to make some changes to your diet. As explained by Registered Dietician, Emily Schmidt, RDN, from Mayo Clinic, “Food is going to be your first line of treatment.”
Usually, diets high in saturated fats or trans fats tend to result in bad cholesterol. Some examples of food that have high levels of these kinds of fats are butter, lard, beef, and whole milk dairy products. As for trans fats, they are usually found in highly processed foods.
According to one nutrition researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Kevin Klatt PhD, RD, he explained, ‘The largest impact on our cholesterol levels comes from replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats.” Meanwhile, another way to help lower high LDL levels is eating foods that have soluble fiber, since they bind cholesterol to the small intestine, preventing them from going into the bloodstream and going to other body parts. Rather, they are excreted out of the body through the bowels.
Another dietician, this time from Cleveland Clinic, Julia Zumpano, RD, shared, “A high fiber diet has been shown to be effective in lowering cholesterol.” Moreover, a study that was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that plant-based diets have also helped lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.
If your doctor is asking you to make some changes to your diet, but it’s a struggle, here are a few foods that can help you lower your cholesterol.
1. Olive Oil
Generally, plant-based oils are a good source of heart-healthy fats, and olive oil tops the list. A recent studythat was published in Stroke journal in November 2021 found that individuals practicing the Mediterranean diet, where people are made to add tons of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) to their food, had a slower progression of plaque formation. Plus finding ways to include EVOO to your meals is incredibly easy. You can use it on bread, in salad dressings, even to sauté your food, or simply drizzle over your meal.
Avocados are probably the most popular fruit with high fat, which is why they’re used by Keto-dieters. Schmidt shares, “Anything with avocado is going to have a really good ratio of monosaturated versus polyunsaturated fats.” And while both these fats work towards lowering cholesterol, Schmidt adds, “too much of only the polyunsaturated fats can lower your good [HDL] cholesterol too.” Instead, try to balance both types of unsaturated fats by having a variety of foods that are high in heart-healthy fats, like avocado. You can eat it raw, add some olive oil, mash it into guacamole, or just include it in your salad. Any which way you choose to eat it, it’s sure to be yummy and help work towards lowering your bad cholesterol levels.
Beans are considered very good sources of protein, which can be used as a substitute for foods that have high amounts of saturated fats. According to Zumpano, “Beans are a great replacement for meats.” Plus, they are high in soluble fiber, which work to lower high LDL levels as well. Add beans to your diet by making them into soups, or adding them to salads or burritos. You can even switch up your regular beef patty for a veggie one.
4. Fatty Fish
You’ve probably heard that pregnant women are often made to eat fish that are considered fatty, and that’s because fatty fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for the baby’s brain development. But moreover, fatty fish can also lower cholesterol – which reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes, while also working as a substitute for protein in foods that tend to have saturated fats, like beef. Although salmon is probably the most popular of fatty fish, other sources are mackerel, anchovies, and black cod.
If you enjoy eating nuts, then you should also know that they are great sources of unsaturated fats, protein, and soluble fiber, all of which help lessen cholesterol levels. There are also studies that show how nuts help reduce the risk of heart disease as well. Nuts are considered energy dense, so you can’t eat all the nuts you want without any repercussions as they can heighten other issues like high uric acid, or even sugar and carbohydrates if you don’t read the nutrition facts label properly. While you can eat them raw, sprinkle them on your salad, or even add them to a sandwich or smoothie, be sure to limit your serving to around one ounce only per day.
Most people don’t necessarily see seeds as a good source of heart-healthy fats, but that’s exactly what they are considering all their soluble fiber. Schmidt explains, “Seeds do double duty, because not only do they have the fiber, but they also have unsaturated fats.” A number of seeds like chia and flax are considered “superfoods” as well, which means that they pack a major nutritional punch. Other seeds include pumpkin, sunflower, and sesame, all of which can be easily added to meals like oatmeal, puddings, smoothies, or even just eating them alone.
As the saying goes, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” and there’s a lot of truth to it. That’s because apples are amazing sources of soluble fiber, which makes them efficient at lowering LDL levels. The skin of the apple is where most of the fiber content is, which is why you want to eat it with the skin on rather than peeling it. Although people eat apples in lots of different ways, having them fresh with the skin kept on is the best way to get their natural, nutritional benefits.
8. Filtered Coffee
If you like coffee, then this will make you happy, unless of course you prefer your coffee unfiltered. Dr. Klatt explains, “Unfiltered coffee, such as espresso and French press coffee, contains fatty compounds called terpenes that can raise our cholesterol levels.” Instead, choose to take your coffee using a drip method, or even the old way which is brewed, since this is made using a filter as well. Plus all the anti-oxidants in coffeeadds to the overall benefits.
So if you’ve been asked by your doctor to try and lessen your LDL levels, begin by adding a little bit of each of these foods to your diet. You may be surprised at how much you’ll actually enjoy eating them, while benefiting from their positive effects as well.