How Can I Eat a Diet That Lowers My Cholesterol?

Staff WriterLast Updated Jun 24, 2020 7:00:47 PM ET
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Unless you’re a child, you’ve probably heard cautionary tales from your doctor about the dangers of high cholesterol. It has been linked to heart-related conditions such as atherosclerosis and an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Cholesterol is a critical component in evaluating your heart health, so if your doctor has ever ordered blood work for you as part of a routine exam, it probably included information about your blood cholesterol levels.

If you aren’t familiar with how cholesterol works, it is a waxy substance that moves through your bloodstream to different parts of the body that need it to form new cells. Although your body must have a certain amount of cholesterol, the liver already produces all the cholesterol you need, which means that consuming foods with high amounts of cholesterol could cause excess cholesterol to build up in your blood vessels and cause blockages. To minimize this risk, it’s important to keep your LDL (low-density lipoproteins) low and your HDL (high-density lipoproteins) high. You can usually accomplish this by eating a low cholesterol diet and getting plenty of exercise.

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Dietary Guidelines for Lowering Cholesterol

For most people who don’t have hereditary conditions that cause high cholesterol, dietary changes can help lower bad cholesterol (LDL) levels and increase good cholesterol (HDL) levels. Meal plans that focus on heart health, such as diets recommended by the American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, will generally help improve cholesterol levels.

These eating plans focus on reducing saturated fats to no more than 5% to 6% of your daily calorie intake and trans fats to zero or at least very minimal levels. This generally means eating very little red meat and avoiding dairy products made with whole milk, such as many cheeses. Instead, your meals should include plenty of heart-healthy poultry, fish and nuts for protein as well as whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Fish containing high levels of omega-3 fatty acids make the best option.

Only healthy oils like vegetable oil should be used and only occasionally. The amount of cholesterol consumed in a day should not exceed 200 milligrams. Incorporating foods with high levels of soluble fiber into your diet is also a great choice. High-fiber diets have reduced cholesterol levels by up to 10% in some people. Sodium has been linked to high blood pressure and is another ingredient to limit when choosing your foods.

Cooking Practices for Lowering Cholesterol

Cooking meals to help lower your cholesterol doesn't have to mean serving boring, unappealing dishes with no flavor that no one in your family will enjoy. When you cook with whole ingredients and healthy fats and minimize sodium, you can prepare recipes that are delicious and satisfying that also promote good heart health.

When you cook meat, start by minimizing the amount of saturated fat by selecting the leanest cuts and trimming off any visible fat. Broil, roast or bake meats instead of frying them, preferably using a pan with a rack that separates the cooking meat from the fat drippings. For poultry, always remove the skin and remember that chicken and turkey have less fat than duck and goose. Ironically, the best fish options include oily fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and trout. Processed meats like bologna and hot dogs should always be avoided.

Sheet pan cooking is one simple example of creating a complete meal using a single pan filled with ingredients that are baked in the oven. Simply choose a lean meat like chicken breast or wild-caught salmon, cut it up into bite-sized pieces and place it on a baking sheet sprayed with a vegetable-based cooking spray. Add chunks and slices of onions, bell peppers, red potatoes, broccoli, asparagus, green beans and other fresh vegetables. Sprinkle a little extra-virgin olive oil on the vegetables and season with your favorite salt-free seasonings. Bake at about 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 20 to 30 minutes until the meat is fully cooked and the vegetables are tender.

Eating Fruits and Vegetables to Lower Cholesterol

Doctors recommend adding a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet for many reasons, including controlling cholesterol levels. However, vegetables boiled in a pan on the stove without the addition of delicious bacon fat may not hold a lot of appeal for your family. Try a different approach with vegetables by cooking them in a small amount of healthy oil — 1 to 2 teaspoons for about 4 servings — with your favorite salt-free seasonings added to boost the flavor.

Fruits are delicious served fresh, but they can also help you cut cholesterol in some recipes. Try using pureed or mashed fruits in muffins, cakes and cookies in place of oil. It cuts the saturated fat content and gives the sweets a whole new enhanced flavor profile. Cooked apples in muffins and mashed bananas in banana bread are great examples.

Eating Whole Grains to Lower Cholesterol

When the goal is heart health, whole grains serve the body much better than refined grains like white flour and white rice. When eating breads and grains in your diet, it’s easy to make some simple replacements that still taste delicious. For example, swap whole grain breads for other breads, including many wheat breads, which aren’t automatically whole grain. Use brown rice in recipes instead of white and choose a whole grain or veggie pasta instead of traditional pasta.

Plant Sterols and Supplements for Lowering Cholesterol

Sterols are natural substances found in plants that help lower cholesterol levels in the blood by blocking the absorption of cholesterol. LDL cholesterol levels could be reduced by 5% to 15% simply by adding 2 grams of plant sterols to your diet. They occur naturally in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and other plants and are sometimes added to other products like orange juice and margarine.

Certain other ingredients and supplements could help lower your cholesterol, although the results aren’t always consistent. Artichokes, barley, blond psyllium and oat bran could possibly reduce total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Flaxseed, soy protein and green tea may reduce LDL cholestrol. Taken as a supplement, niacin could possibly reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol. Garlic has been a popular option for lowering cholesterol for a while, but its success has not been proven. Another supplement, red yeast rice, could be dangerous due to naturally occurring lovastatin and should be avoided.

Resource Links:

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/symptoms-causes/syc-20350800

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20350806

https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/about-cholesterol

https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/prevention-and-treatment-of-high-cholesterol-hyperlipidemia

https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/prevention-and-treatment-of-high-cholesterol-hyperlipidemia/cooking-to-lower-cholesterol

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/in-depth/cholesterol-lowering-supplements/art-20050980

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/in-depth/cholesterol/art-20045192