Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made by the liver and circulating in the blood. It is also found in foods of animal origin, including meat and full-fat dairy products. More importantly, these foods contain saturated fat, which has been linked to higher cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is not necessarily “bad”, it is an essential element that our body needs to build cells, but because our body produces all the cholesterol it needs, experts advise to eat less possible saturated fats and trans fats (found in partially hydrogenated oils) because they cause the body to produce excess cholesterol.
If you haven’t been screened for high cholesterol or aren’t sure about your cholesterol levels, ask your doctor if you should have a blood test. If you know your level is too high, ask your doctor how you can lower it, either by changing your diet and lifestyle or by taking medication.
In the meantime, here are eight changes you can make to your diet to lower your cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease.
1. Reduce your consumption of meat and fatty dairy products
Saturated fats, found in animal products such as ground beef, pork, and any fatty cut of meat, as well as whole dairy products, cream, and butter, are major contributors to increased LDL cholesterol levels. LDL, which stands for low density lipoprotein, is called “bad” cholesterol because it increases the risk of heart disease. (As opposed to HDL, the “good” cholesterol, which may actually reduce the risk of heart disease). Try to limit calories from saturated fat to around 5-6% of daily intake. For example, if you eat 2,000 calories a day, that means saturated fat should be no more than 120 calories, or about 13 grams (g). For example, a Big Mac from McDonald’s (only the sandwich, without the fries) contains 11 g of saturated fat.
2. Limit your intake of butter and tropical oils
Replace coconut oil, palm oil and cottonseed oil (all of which are sources of saturated fat and should be used sparingly) with avocado, sunflower and olive oil, which are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Both of these fats help lower LDL cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. It is not necessary to say goodbye to all fats. Instead, choose healthier fats by avoiding saturated fats and trans fats. But, even though monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are healthier oils, you shouldn’t overdo them. After all, everything is in moderation.
3. Eat more omega-3s
Found in nuts, seeds, and some sea fish, omega-3 fatty acids can help fight inflammation, which is believed to contribute to heart disease and stroke. Omega-3s are found in flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds. They are also found in fatty cold water fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout, sardines and anchovies. Although some of these fish contain mercury, the risk of ingesting too much mercury is outweighed by the overall health benefits for most people. If you don’t like fish or are allergic to seafood, try to find plant sources of this fatty acid, including seaweed, or in dietary supplements.
4. Fill your plate with fiber
Fiber, especially soluble fiber, can help lower your cholesterol levels. Fiber can bind to cholesterol and help excrete it before it is digested and absorbed by the body.
According to the latest nutritional recommendations, women under 51 should aim to consume 25g of fiber per day, while women over 51 should aim for 21g. Men under 51 should aim for 38g per day, while men 51 and over should aim for 30g.
You can incorporate fiber into your diet by eating fruits and vegetables such as apples, oranges, prunes, broccoli and sweet potatoes. Eating the fruit with the skin on (after washing it) can be a good way to add fiber. Oats, barley, bran, whole grains, beans, and lentils are other sources of fiber. Beans and lentils are also excellent meat substitutes. Instead of eating a classic burger, you can eat a black bean burger.
Replacing less healthy foods with more heart-healthy choices is beneficial in other ways as well. Let’s take the example of beans for burgers: The soluble fiber in beans may help lower bad cholesterol, but you’ll also avoid the saturated fat dose in the burger. Additionally, the fiber in beans takes longer to digest, which can increase your level of satiety. You’ll feel fuller for much longer, which might help you delay or even skip a snack or dessert you’d normally eat.
5. Replace saturated fat with soy
Contrary to popular belief, soy consumption has beneficial effects on the heart. For example, if you crave a protein-rich meal, opt for tofu or tempeh instead of steak or beef. According to a study published in The Journal of Nutrition, replacing saturated fat from animal products with soy foods was associated with a 7.9–10.3 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol levels. Again, it’s not just about the benefits of what you’re adding to your diet, but also about avoiding the negative health consequences of the food you’re replacing. So if you eat a soy product like tofu or tempeh instead of red meat or pork, you get the benefits of soy while avoiding the harmful effects of saturated fat.
6. Pay attention to condiments and dressings
Sometimes small details can drive up the bill: Limit your use of condiments like mayonnaise and add a little avocado to your sandwich instead. An avocado contains monounsaturated fats, fiber and potassium, all of which are good for the heart, but it also contains fat, which can help satisfy our taste buds. Hummus is another healthy option to replace a traditional condiment.
7. Eat the Rainbow
Eating a variety of vegetables and fruits can help lower your cholesterol levels, try to eat at least five different colored vegetables each day. The reason: Vegetables contain phytosterols (called plant sterols and plant stanols) that work similarly to soluble fiber. Sterols can help block the absorption of cholesterol from meals. Rather than damaging blood vessels, cholesterol is eliminated as waste. A diet containing the recommended amount of plant sterols (2 g) can reduce LDL cholesterol levels by about 15%.
In general, vegetables contain more plant sterols than fruits. Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, apples, avocados and blueberries are good options.
8. Synchronize your meals with your natural circadian rhythms
Try to finish eating two to three hours before bedtime. Eating according to natural circadian rhythms, i.e. between sunrise and sunset, did not necessarily lower LDL levels, but it can help with weight control and better sleep, two factors that affect heart health. Also, people don’t usually make the best food choices late at night. Nighttime eating is often synonymous with chips, junk food, ice cream and sweets, foods that are not good for your heart. If you’re hungry in the evening, try sticking to a bowl of berries or a few slices of apple with nut butter.