Fantastic Foods That Lower Cholesterol (And Why to Eat Them)
At a recent doctor’s visit, your physician tells you that you need to start eating more foods that lower cholesterol. Uh-oh. You’re a lifelong fan of fast food, french fries, and sweets. Now you need a go-to list of cholesterol-reducing foods and you need it yesterday. If this sounds like you, then you’ve come to the right place.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. If you plan on changing your diet to help lower your cholesterol, understanding the basics of cholesterol is crucial. Here's a quick, easy guide explaining the ins and outs of cholesterol as well as some foods that can help lower it.
What is cholesterol? Why is it important?
Cholesterol is a lipid (similar to fat) that is needed by your body to perform a variety of essential functions. Some of these functions include:
- Being an important part of cell walls (only in animals).
- Helping with digestion (by being a component in bile).
- Assisting in the production of Vitamin D, estrogen, and testosterone.
- Nerve cells use it for insulation
- Used to create the stress hormone cortisol
If cholesterol is so important, why do I need to lower it?
All cholesterol is not created equal. There are both “good” and “bad” kinds of cholesterol. The type of cholesterol depends on where they travel throughout the body and how they “act” when they get there.
- The Good: High-density lipoprotein (HDL) acts as a “good” lipid and carries cholesterol to the liver where it can be processed and removed from the body. Typically, this is not the type of cholesterol you are looking to lower.
- The Bad: Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) is the “bad” type of lipid that carries cholesterol throughout the body and can build up inside the walls of arteries. This built-up cholesterol (also known as plaque) makes it more difficult for blood to pass through. A high level of LDL cholesterol has been strongly linked to heart attacks, stroke, and coronary heart disease.
- The Ugly: Although not a type of cholesterol, triglycerides are another lipid that are closely related. When you consume more calories than you burn, your body stores those extra calories as triglycerides. Having high triglycerides suggests that you are consistently eating more calories than your body can burn. This can lead to obesity and strongly increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke, and coronary heart disease.
Did you know? According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 33.5% of Americans suffer from high LDL cholesterol.
When should you get screened for high cholesterol?
So how do you know when it’s time to start eating foods that lower cholesterol? Unfortunately, there are no visibly distinguishing characteristics of high cholesterol. The only way to determine for sure is to have blood drawn and tested. This should start between the ages of 9 and 11 and continue every 5 years. For men ages 45 to 65 and women ages 55-65, the test should be run every two years, and then annually from age 65 on.
How can I lower my LDL cholesterol?
Now that you’re familiar with cholesterol, we can get to the meat and potatoes (pun intended). While many doctors will prescribe cholesterol medication, the foods you eat every day have an enormous impact on your cholesterol levels. The following foods contain a variety of cholesterol-altering components that can help battle your high HDL levels. We’ve broken them down by which cholesterol-fighting component is found in each.
Beta-glucans are a type of soluble fiber found in several foods. This type of fiber slows your digestion and attaches itself to cholesterol particles. The cholesterol is then taken out of the body with the rest of your food waste. Good cholesterol foods containing beta-glucans include:
- Oats, oatmeal, and oat milk.
- Whole grains
Pectin is another soluble fiber similar to beta-glucans. It lowers cholesterol by the same means as beta-glucans but is not found in all of the same foods. Some common good cholesterol foods containing pectin include:
- Citrus fruits (including oranges)
Phytosterols (Sterols and Stanols)
Sterols and stanols, also known as phytosterols, are cholesterol-like steroid alcohols. On a biological level, they act like “replacement” cholesterol in the intestines and reduce absorption of actual cholesterol. The best cholesterol-reducing foods for phytosterols are:
- Brussels sprouts
- Unrefined vegetable oils
Omega 3s (Fatty Acids)
“Omega 3s,” as they are commonly called, are a form of fatty acid found in a variety of fish, nuts, and seeds. While they have not been proven to lower cholesterol, there is evidence to suggest that consuming Omega 3s lowers the level of triglycerides in your blood. The following foods to help lower cholesterol contain a high level of omega 3 fatty acids:
- Fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon, herring, etc.
- Chia seeds
Lycopene is a phytochemical found in many red-colored plants. However, not all red fruits and vegetables contain lycopene (and vice versa). Concentrated versions of tomato products contain one of the highest levels of lycopene. Common foods to eat to lower cholesterol that contain lycopene include:
- Tomatoes (sun-dried, pureed, or raw)
- Pink grapefruit
- Goji berries
Fun Fact: Lycopene is considered a carotene. Flamingos get their pinkish hue from eating a type of carotene found in brine shrimp.
Please keep in mind that many foods are best consumed in moderation. And while cholesterol is a major part of the human body, keeping your bad cholesterol levels down can be as simple as adding a modest amount of the previously mentioned foods into a low cholesterol diet. If coupled with other foods high in fiber and low in saturated fat, you’ll be watching your LDL drop in no time!
Foods to avoid with high cholesterol
While there are a variety of tasty low-cholesterol foods you can enjoy, there are also some foods that you want to limit or possibly even eliminate from a low-cholesterol diet. It’s important to focus on a diet to lower your cholesterol, especially if you’ve received this advice from your doctor. Foods to avoid with high cholesterol include a lot of dishes that are high in saturated fat, including:
- Red meats (pork, beef, processed meats, etc.)
- Sweets and other baked goods
- Fried food (french fries, fried chicken, etc.)
- Full-fat dairy (milk, creams, butter, etc.)
- Palm and coconut oil
Along with diet, there are several other risk factors that can throw your cholesterol levels out of balance. While you can use low-cholesterol foods to help manage, it’s still essential to take steps to protect yourself. These risk factors include:
- Obesity: If your BMI is over 30, you are at a greater risk of high cholesterol.
- Age: Those over the age of 40 are more likely to have unhealthy cholesterol levels.
- Smoking: Smoking will not only raise bad cholesterol, but it will actually lower the good kind as well.
- Alcohol: If you drink too much alcohol, it can lead to elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels
- Genetics: Cholesterol can run in the family in some cases
There are also several medical conditions that will impact cholesterol levels, such as lupus, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and hypothyroidism. There are also medications for a variety of conditions that will raise cholesterol levels, including those prescribed for acne, certain types of cancers, high blood pressure, organ transplants, HIV/AIDS, and more.
Tips for reducing your cholesterol
Along with a low-cholesterol diet, there are many multiple steps you can take to reduce your bad numbers. Taking these steps now will not only help you lower your cholesterol numbers but can even prevent you from having to worry about it in the first place. Some of the simple steps you can take are:
- Stop (or never start!) smoking
- Strive to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight
- Add additional foods or supplemental fiber to your diet
- Remain active with a goal of at least 30 minutes each day
- Moderate alcohol consumption, if you drink at all.