Following a cholesterol diet is beneficial for people who are struggling to keep their blood cholesterol under control. Cholesterol is often thought of as a bad thing, but our body uses cholesterol as a major component of cell membranes. It is also an integral part of certain sex and adrenocortical hormones, fat-soluble vitamins and bile acids that we require for normal digestion. What many people don’t understand is that the body already creates all the cholesterol that it needs in the liver, but additional cholesterol is acquired through our diet, specifically through the animal products. The problem, of course, is when there is too much cholesterol in the body, which must be stored somewhere such as the main arteries of the body. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommends consuming no more than 300 mg per day of cholesterol.
When this extra cholesterol is oxidized in the bloodstream, it is deposited in the blood vessels and arteries as plaque. This can cause blockage in the circulatory system and significantly increase your risk of coronary heart disease, as well as atherosclerosis, heart attacks, and strokes. It also elevates blood pressure, triglycerides, and can increase your risk for diabetes.
Furthermore, there are also “good” forms of cholesterol and “bad” forms of cholesterol, more properly known as HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, respectively. HDL cholesterol can help transport cholesterol through the body and back to the liver where it is secreted as bile. Whereas LDL cholesterol causes a build-up of cholesterol in the arteries and blood vessels, posing a threat to your health. Going on a low cholesterol diet requires understanding the difference between these good vs bad fats and reducing the number of cholesterol sources consumed. It also includes learning what other lifestyle tips might help to lower or balance the cholesterol levels in your body such as weight loss and exercise.
Foods that Help to Lower Cholesterol
Whole Grain Oats
Numerous studies have linked an increase in whole-grain oats with a reduction in LDL cholesterol due to a substance known as beta-glucan, in addition to the amount of dietary fiber found in these grains. A simple shift of your morning cereal can make a major difference in the overall cholesterol levels.
Various types of nuts have good levels of HDL cholesterol as well as healthy fats, which can actively reduce your levels of “bad” cholesterol. Almonds, cashews, and walnuts are particularly good for this, but be wary of how many you eat, as there is a high-calorie content per serving in most nut varieties.
Known as one of the healthiest vegetable oils to use in your diet, olive oil is rich in mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids. This can help to lower LDL cholesterol and improve heart health, particularly if you replace canola oil and other seed-based oils with this staple of the Mediterranean diet.
Packed with antioxidants and sulfuric compounds, studies have found that regular garlic intake can lower blood pressure. It can also help to prevent cholesterol from being deposited in the blood vessels, and measurably lower your risk for cardiovascular conditions.
Beans are rich in dietary fiber, which can regulate the amount of cholesterol that is absorbed by the body. Since the liver already produces enough cholesterol for our daily needs, food items like beans can help cholesterol quickly pass out of the body and be excreted.
Green tea is perhaps the most thoroughly studied and globally praised tea variety, as it can lower LDL cholesterol levels and prevent oxidative stress, both of which can increase your risk of heart disease.
Tips for Lowering Cholesterol Naturally
When it comes to lowering cholesterol naturally, aside from designing a smart cholesterol diet, you should also quit smoking, increase your exercise regimen, limit alcohol and lose weight, just to name a few helpful tips.
A cholesterol diet is a great place to start if you want to improve your health, but regular exercise can further help to increase levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. It also aids in boosting circulation, lowering blood pressure and preventing the deposition of cholesterol in the arteries.
While consuming a small to moderate amount of alcohol has been linked to lowering cholesterol levels, drinking alcohol in excess will cause a rise in triglyceride levels and “bad” cholesterol. So always drink in moderation, and avoid beer and liquor, if possible. Instead, choose wine as a healthy option for your evening treat.
By increasing blood pressure and acting as an astringent on blood vessels, smoking is one of the worst things you can do if you have high cholesterol. It is well-known that smoking will reduce levels of HDL cholesterol in the body, which is the good kind that you want for optimal health.
If you are obese, you likely lead a more sedentary life and eat poorly, both of which can contribute to a rise in the overall cholesterol and a poor balance between HDL and LDL. Even 30 minutes of regular exercise, such as walking, per day can make a notable difference in your cholesterol management.
Low-cholesterol Dietary Patterns
The DASH dietary pattern or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension has been shown as one of the most effective ways to lower LDL-C. This diet emphasizes the intake of plants, primarily fruits, and vegetables, along with nuts, lean meats, fish, legumes, low-fat dairy items, and whole grains.
Vegetarian or Vegan Diet
When you cut out fatty meats and poultry from your diet, you will need to get your protein from other sources. The sources can be nuts, seeds, and beans, most of which will help to lower your cholesterol or increase your “good” forms of cholesterol.
Engine 2 Diet
This is a 4-week diet that involves cutting out different food groups for the first three weeks – 1) Processed Foods/Refined Foods/Dairy, 2) Meat/Poultry/Eggs, 3) Oils – and primarily consuming legumes, nuts, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables throughout the month. Following a vegetarian diet can cause an unconscious increase in carbohydrate sources, therefore monitoring blood glucose levels if you have existing type 2 Diabetes is still imperative.
Similar to a vegetarian diet, a majority of your intake will be plant-based, but without the strict rules of vegetarianism or veganism, meat can be consumed occasionally, roughly 5-15% of the time.
Considered one of the healthiest diets on the planet, this diet consists of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and beans, along with eliminating excess salt and limiting red meat intake to 1-2 times per month. Eating fish twice per week in place of meat, poultry, or eggs is also apart of the dietary pattern.
Cholesterol Food Myths
There are quite a few myths about cholesterol that should be cleared up before they affect your dietary choices.
All Cholesterol is Bad: Remember, our body requires cholesterol for countless bodily functions, and “good” cholesterol can actually protect your heart health, so completely cutting out cholesterol from your diet is a poor decision. It is recommended to discuss the estimated amount that would be beneficial for your health with your Primary Care Physician and/or Registered Dietitian.
Low-fat, High-carb Diets are Best: Your body needs fat to function, so eliminating it and replacing it with carbs is a good way to increase overall calorie intake and blood sugar levels. Fat is also a more long term source of energy as it takes longer to digest and can be stored in the liver and other adipose tissue. A balance of all three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) are ideal.
Seed Oils are Good: Alternate vegetable oils are appealing, but some oils, such as soybean, safflower, sesame, and peanut oil, are all very high in omega-6 fatty acids, which can damage your overall cholesterol levels.
Trans Fats vs Saturated Fats: Saturated fats aren’t ideal options in your diet, but they are much different than trans fats. They are known to increase inflammation, as well as boost your risk of heart disease. Both saturated and trans fats should be limited in the diet (<10% of total calories) and can be found on the back of food labels below Total Fat.
Super Foods that Help Lower Cholesterol
Rich in curcumin and other antioxidant compounds, this spice is an excellent way to lower overall cholesterol levels and increase the metabolism, which will help to burn fat and aid weight loss efforts.
One of the best foods for accessing omega-3 fatty acids, which are the “good” form of cholesterol. This can help balance your cholesterol levels and provide other valuable minerals and nutrients.
Rich in monounsaturated fats, avocados are some of the healthiest fruits in any diet. They have directly been linked to raising HDL and lowering LDL cholesterol levels, even if you only consume them 1-2 times per week.
Foods that Increase Cholesterol
If you are trying out a new cholesterol diet to lower your overall cholesterol levels, the foods that you should definitely avoid include trans fats, fatty meats, butter/margarine, full-fat dairy, and fast food.
- Fatty Meat: Red meat and fatty, dark forms of protein should be consumed every so often in the diet. Red meat is known to have higher amounts of cholesterol versus white lean meat or fish.
- Butter/Margarine: Replacing these high and saturated fat items with olive oil or other healthy options are essential, as both butter and margarine contribute to raising your LDL cholesterol levels.
- Full-Fat Dairy Products: While some of the minerals and nutrients in dairy products are good for the body, the amount of fat in cheese, creams, whipped toppings and coffee creamers is dangerously high. Try to choose dairy options that are labeled as Non-fat or Low-fat.
- Trans Fats: These fats are found in foods like cookies, snacks, junk food, fried food, and highly processed food and/or oils. Trans fat is known to increase “bad” cholesterol levels and inflammation in the body as well as increase triglyceride levels.