Cholesterol is a tricky little thing: You have bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL) and good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL) and these levels can fluctuate quite a bit based on what you eat. The difference that food makes in affecting cholesterol levels may not seem significant at a glance, since the liver is the primary source of cholesterol, which makes about 85% of cholesterol in the blood.
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But foods that are high in cholesterol also tend to be rich in saturated fats and, in some cases, trans fats. Saturated fats and cholesterol are mainly found in animal products such as fatty meats, high-fat dairy products, poultry skins, and baked goods. Eating these foods can lead to an increase in LDL and a decrease in HDL, which can cause plaques to form in the arteries and eventually lead to heart disease.
“Your diet affects your overall risk for many conditions in multiple ways,” says registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD. “Why do we even care about cholesterol? Because it is a risk factor for heart disease. So, what we are really trying to prevent is heart disease.”
Foods that help lower cholesterol
You can increase HDL through exercise, but when it comes to your diet, there are many foods that can help reduce LDL and the key here is to reduce, replace, and improvise.
Soluble fiber is a mucilaginous fiber that sticks to bile (which is made up of cholesterol) and removes it with body waste. For every 1 gram of soluble fiber you eat, you can cut your LDL by 1%. Replacing foods rich in saturated fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help reduce LDL in your body. It’s important to find small ways to introduce these foods into your diet, such as replacing cheese on your salad with avocado slices or substituting a creamy dressing for olive oil and vinegar.
Oats and cereals
Oats and cereals are a great source of soluble fiber. A good way to start your day is to eat a bowl of oatmeal or an oat bran muffin. “Oats are very versatile,” says Zumpano. “It can also be ground to make oatmeal and used as an alternative to traditional white flour for an increase in fibre.” Try different types of grains like quinoa, barley, buckwheat, rye, and millet, or use more mainstream grains like brown or wild rice as a side dish.
Another source of soluble fiber is legumes, which include dried beans such as kidney beans or black beans, lentils, and peas. They are also rich in protein and incredibly filling – helping to curb food cravings from one meal to the next. Legumes are also a great alternative to meat, which also helps lower cholesterol values. “They don’t raise blood sugar as much as some other carbohydrates might, which can also be supportive in glycemic control,” Zumpano says.
Replace potatoes, peas, and corn with non-starchy vegetables like asparagus, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, peppers, celery, carrots, leafy greens, and onions, as they are low in calories, high in fiber, and high in protein. . “This vegetable supports all the goals we’re trying to achieve to keep cholesterol, sugar, and salt low,” says Zumpano.
Nuts and seeds
Next time you need a little crunch, or just a snack between meals, you might want to try a handful of nuts. Walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds have been shown to increase HDL and lower LDL and triglycerides (blood fats similar to cholesterol) if you eat them regularly and use them to replace other crunchy and salty snack foods. Not only can these foods be satiating, but they can be added to meals to enhance flavor and nutrition.
Sprinkle sunflower seeds or pepitas on salads, or add chia seeds and flaxseeds to oatmeal, whole-grain pancakes, or Greek yogurt. “This is a very satisfying food category, and it can help when you eat a lot of plant-based foods,” Zumpano notes.
Berries are a key ingredient: Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, pomegranates, and strawberries are rich in soluble fiber and low in sugar. Apples, bananas, and pears also provide soluble fiber, but beware of portions of these fruits as they contain more sugar. Fruit can be an excellent addition to oatmeal, salad or snack.
Soybeans, edamame and tofu
Plant-based diets can be powerful. As we’ve seen with beans, soybeans, edamame and tofu are all heart-healthy options that provide the feeling of satiety while also serving as an alternative to red meat, which is high in saturated fat.
Choose a tuna steak instead of the traditional steak, or try the salmon fillet instead of the burger. Fatty cuts of red meat, which includes beef, pork, veal and lamb, should be replaced with fatty fish such as salmon, herring, tuna and mackerel because they provide the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated fats, to help lower LDL.
“You’re improving your overall fat pad,” Zumpano says. “When you replace the fats in red meat with fish fats, you really support overall cholesterol reduction.”
Olive oil and avocado
Extra virgin olive oil is low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fatty acids, which support heart health and can increase HDL. Avocados have similar properties. “Extra virgin olive oil and avocado should be used as the primary fat in a heart-healthy diet to replace saturated fats such as butter and margarine, and white condiments such as mayonnaise, sour cream, and cream cheese,” Zumpano says. “When you start using vegetable fats to replace animal fats, it will help lower cholesterol and improve overall heart health.”