“Can I lower my cholesterol if I eat better?”
I hear this question time and time again.
And, my answer is always the same, “If you exercise regularly and move more, maintaining good eating habits will put you on a sure path to a healthy cholesterol status.”
In case you didn’t know, high cholesterol (also known as hypercholesterolemia) is a chronic health condition in which there’s too much “bad” cholesterol and an abundance of triglycerides (fats from foods) floating around in the bloodstream. In order to fully understand the ways in which what you eat can directly influence cholesterol, you must first have a general understanding of the components that make up your cholesterol profile.
As I already mentioned, too much bad cholesterol in the blood is what largely drives the onset of hypercholesterolemia. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is the type that’s generally branded as “bad”. Along with triglycerides, excess LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream tends to settle as fatty deposits within the walls of the arteries.
Over time, these deposits can build up and form what are called plaques. These plaques can ultimately cause narrowing or blockage of the arteries. This condition (also known as atherosclerosis) limits the healthy flow of blood (and consequently oxygen) and increases the risk of heart disease and potentially life-threatening complications like heart attack and stroke due to reduced oxygen supply to the heart and brain, respectively.
On the flip side, there’s high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which is known as the “good” kind. This type of cholesterol actually helps remove deposits of bad cholesterol from the artery walls. Needless to say, it’s desirable for HDL cholesterol levels to be high, as this’ll lesson the likelihood of LDL cholesterol build up in the arteries.
Heredity plays a large role in the accumulation of excess LDL cholesterol but dietary factors can also have a significant impact. And, contrary to long-held beliefs, the dietary cholesterol found in food sources like seafood and fish, egg yolks, red meat and dairy foods contributes very little, if any, to this condition.
In fact, day-to-day consumption of foods comprised of artificial trans-fats, empty carbohydrates, and added sugar are greater contributors to high cholesterol and overall poor health.
Now, from a dietary standpoint, it doesn’t stop at LDL cholesterol.
Since, HDL cholesterol can actually reduce the presence of LDL cholesterol, eating foods that promote increases in this good cholesterol can substantially improve your total cholesterol and thereby lower your risk for associated health problems.
Day-to-day consumption of foods comprised of artificial trans-fats, empty carbohydrates, and added sugar are greater contributors to high cholesterol and overall poor health.
So, what should you be eating?
Well, in order to lower LDL cholesterol, it’s important to consume foods rich in dietary fiber and cholesterol-fighting micronutrients.
Fiber binds with LDL cholesterol particles in the bloodstream and removes them from the body (along with other wastes) before they are fully absorbed. It also supports healthy weight management by adding essential bulk to the diet helping you feel fuller for more prolonged periods of time. This is especially beneficial as excess body weight promotes higher levels of LDL cholesterol.
Foods that house large amounts of dietary fiber include:
- Vegetables (leafy greens, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, and soybeans)
- Fruits (berries, apples, citrus fruits, prunes, and pumpkin)
- Legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), nuts, and seeds.
- Whole grains (whole-wheat flour, pastas, rice and breads, bran, whole oats, and oatmeal)
To ensure you’re getting sufficient amounts of fiber, make an effort to consume at least 5-6 servings of vegetables, 2-4 servings of fruit, 3-5 servings of legumes and whole grain foods, and 1-2 servings of nuts and seeds, every day.
Most fiber-rich foods are also rich in the micronutrients needed for proper functioning of the arteries. Many of these micronutrients function as antioxidants that stimulate dilation (or widening) of narrowed or blocked arteries in ways that promote healthy blood flow. This is particularly beneficial if you already have high cholesterol as this’ll reduce the likelihood of a sudden heart attack or stroke.
And, believe it or not, these antioxidant-associated benefits extend to indulgences like dry (or semi-dry) red wines and even dark chocolate. Both contain specific micronutrients called polyphenols that can significantly bolster antioxidant activity in the body.
But, before I move on, let me stress the word “moderation”. When it comes to chocolate, that’s about 1.5 ounces a day. As for red wines, that’s no more than one 5-ounce glass a day for women and two glasses for men. Now, if you don’t currently drink alcohol, don’t start drinking it for potential benefits. It’s always better to abstain.
In addition to eating the food sources I’ve highlighted thus far, it’s also important to take in sizable amounts of protein and naturally fat-rich foods, as both have been shown to reduce elevated LDL cholesterol.
Moreover, the latter can greatly increase your HDL cholesterol levels, which is indeed a plus!
Certain fats are generally considered “healthy” or “good”. These include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated (omega-3) fats. Some saturated fats can also boost your HDL levels. Problem is, these fats tend to raise LDL cholesterol levels as well. Therefore, foods rich in saturated fats (fatty meats, butter, and high-fat dairy foods) are best consumed in moderate amounts.
To maintain healthy HDL cholesterol levels, 25-35% of your daily calorie intake should come from fats of which no more than 7-10% should be comprised of saturated fats.
Foods rich in good fats include oily fish like salmon, trout, halibut, sardines, and anchovies in addition to plant-based foods like avocado, olives and extra-virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds. Although these fats are branded as “good”, for healthy weight management moderation is definitely key, as many also tend to be relatively high in calories (145 calories in 1/2 avocado, 120 calories in 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 200 calories in 1/4 cup of nuts).
Now, at the end of the day, there’s no real guarantee that the healthy eating practices I’ve described will completely lower elevated cholesterol or even prevent the likelihood of your developing hypercholesterolemia. But, such behaviors certainly put the odds in your favor, even if you’re at increased risk due to a family history or other risk factors.
But remember, even if you’re eating well, physical activity is a critical component of the cholesterol-lowering equation. It also happens to be one of the most effective ways to reduce triglyceride levels. So, be sure you’re getting in at least 30-60 minutes of exercise or other forms of physical activity each and every day.