It’s no secret that good nutrition is one of the key factors to a healthy life. After all, modifying and managing your diet can help with everything from allergies and illnesses to your blood glucose and cholesterol levels!
A heart-healthy diet is a great way to ensure you’re keeping your blood cholesterol levels right where they need to be—but why is this so important? And what is cholesterol anyway? Read on to find out more, and add some of our favorite cholesterol-friendly foods to your diet.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a lipid molecule—a waxy, fat-like substance—a vital part of your body. Lipids are an essential part of cell membranes, and they’re also used to make hormones and other molecules.
Cholesterol is produced by the liver and plays a vital role in many bodily processes. For example, it’s essential for producing bile acids, which are necessary for digesting fats. Cholesterol is also involved in the production of vitamin D and other hormones.
Although some cholesterol is necessary for good health, too much of it can be harmful. High cholesterol levels in the blood can lead to atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. Healthy eating is a crucial component in controlling and treating high cholesterol.
There Are Different Types of Cholesterol
There are two main types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). HDL, sometimes called "good" cholesterol, helps remove excess cholesterol from the blood and transport it to the liver for excretion. On the other hand, LDL is often referred to as "bad" cholesterol because it can build up in the arteries and increase the risk of heart disease. Remember, we need both HDL and LDL, but too much LDL can be bad for you.
High LDL cholesterol levels can increase your risk of coronary complications like blood clots, clogged blood vessels, and heart attacks.
Your Diet Can Help You Manage Your Cholesterol Levels
Not everyone needs a low-cholesterol diet, so don’t naturally assume this is a healthy option for everyone. And even for those who do, there’s no one-size-fits-all, so it’s best to speak with a registered dietitian to see what suits you.
Some foods are high-cholesterol because they contain added sugars and processed ingredients, which may be a good idea to avoid or reduce your intake of in any case. Others, like eggs, are thought of as high cholesterol but are not processed and contain other nutrients such as vitamin B-12, choline, and protein.
But research shows that eating one to three eggs is safe for healthy people. This may depend on genetic factors such as familial hypercholesterolemia, in which someone may need to limit their intake of these foods. The same goes for other ‘high-cholesterol’ foods, including red meat, dairy products, and shellfish.
There is some debate on the role of saturated fats and cholesterol and sugar intake and how both of these factors might influence our cholesterol levels. Diets high in sugar can lead to increased LDL levels in some people.
Since not everyone responds the same way to all foods, curating a diet that’s heart-healthy and good for your cholesterol levels will depend on your responses to food. You can use tools like the continuous glucose monitor to track how your body responds to different foods to figure this out.
While you may need to take medication to lower your cholesterol if it's too high (only a doctor will be able to assess this), most cholesterol-friendly foods are all-around healthy options. So there’s no real downside to adding them to your diet.
13 Cholesterol-Friendly Foods we Love
Instead of cutting foods out of your diet, it’s always a good idea (and a lot more fun) to add foods to your diet if you can tolerate them. Here are 13 tasty options to get you started:
Nuts are small, dry fruits typically with a hard shell and edible seed. They’re a good source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which help maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Some of our favorites are almonds, walnuts, pistachios, and peanuts.
Nuts are a good source of healthy fats, protein, and fiber, and they’re also rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Eating nuts can help lower cholesterol levels. They also contain plant sterols, which are compounds that can block cholesterol absorption.
Beta-glucan works by binding to cholesterol in the digestive tract and preventing it from being absorbed into the bloodstream.
As a result, oats can help lower total cholesterol levels and LDL cholesterol levels. The antioxidant content of oats can also help protect against heart disease by reducing inflammation.
3) Fatty Fish
Fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to promote heart health. Omega-3s fats can help lower LDL cholesterol levels and raise HDL cholesterol levels by reducing triglyceride levels.
In addition, omega-3 fatty acids can help to reduce inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation is a risk factor for heart disease, so by reducing inflammation, omega-3 fatty acids can help to reduce the risk of heart disease.
So, eating fatty fish regularly may help maintain healthy cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Avocados are often lauded for their healthy fats, but did you know that they can also help to lower cholesterol levels?
Avocados are rich in fiber, which has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol levels. They're also a good source of monounsaturated fat, which helps to improve HDL cholesterol levels. They’re often dubbed a "superfood" due to their high nutrient and antioxidant content.
Soybeans are a type of legume that is native to East Asia. They’ve been a staple in the diets of countries like China and Japan for centuries and are a rich source of protein. They also contain other nutrients, including fiber, iron, and calcium.
One of the most impressive things about soybeans is their ability to help lower cholesterol levels. It's because soybeans contain plant phytosterols, which are compounds that can block the absorption of cholesterol.
Numerous studies have shown that soy consumption can lead to a significant decrease in LDL cholesterol levels. This, in turn, can reduce the risk of heart disease. In addition, soybeans are a good source of fiber, which can help lower cholesterol levels.
For all these reasons, including soy in your diet is a simple and effective way to help keep your cholesterol levels in check. You can get good sources of soy from edamame, tofu, and organic tempeh. Or, if you can tolerate vegetable oils, try some soybean oil.
Legumes are a plant that includes beans, chickpeas, lentils, and peas. They’re a good source of protein, fiber, and several vitamins and minerals.
Legumes have many health benefits, including lowering cholesterol levels. They are high in fiber, which helps to reduce LDL cholesterol levels. In addition, legumes contain soluble fiber, which helps to remove excess cholesterol from the body.
Soluble fiber helps bind with cholesterol molecules in the digestive tract, preventing them from being absorbed into the bloodstream. And legumes are also a good source of plant-based protein, which helps to promote heart health.
So it’s no surprise they’re such an excellent addition to a heart-healthy diet, especially if you’re trying to manage or lower cholesterol levels.
Ah, apples. While an apple a day may not be enough to keep the doctor away, they’re seen as healthy food for good reason. They’re low in calories and fat and high in fiber, and they can also help lower cholesterol levels.
The soluble fiber in apples binds to cholesterol in the digestive tract and helps to remove it from the body. In addition, the polyphenols in apples help to prevent the absorption of cholesterol from your diet.
As a result, apples can be a great addition to a cholesterol-lowering, heart-healthy diet. Like the other foods on this list, apples alone can't miraculously lower cholesterol levels. But they can help improve cholesterol profiles when combined with other healthy lifestyle changes.
Barley is a versatile whole grain that can be used in various ways, from soups and stews to breakfast cereals and snacks. It also happens to be a nutritional powerhouse, offering a range of health benefits.
This effect is likely due to the beta-glucans found in barley. It binds to cholesterol and prevents it from being absorbed by your body. In addition, barley and other whole grains are good sources of fiber, which also help to lower LDL cholesterol levels.
Cocoa beans are a good source of antioxidants, which have been shown to have many health benefits, including lower cholesterol levels. Cocoa bean extract can help reduce LDL cholesterol, which contributes to plaque buildup in your arteries.
In addition, cocoa bean extract can help increase HDL cholesterol, the cholesterol that helps remove plaque from your arteries. Cocoa beans are also a good source of fiber, which can help to reduce the absorption of LDL cholesterol from the gut into the bloodstream.
As a result, cocoa beans may be an effective weapon against high cholesterol levels. This means that having some dark chocolate in your diet can be good for your health—and that’s always good news for us!
Berries are not only delicious and low fat, but they can also have a positive impact on your health. Studies have shown that berries can help to lower cholesterol levels, contain anti-inflammatory properties, and improve heart health.
One reason for this is that berries are rich in antioxidants, which help to remove harmful toxins from the body. Additionally, berries are a good source of soluble fiber, which helps to reduce the absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream.
Studies have shown that garlic can help to reduce total cholesterol levels and lower LDL cholesterol levels.
Garlic is also linked to lowering blood pressure levels, which can help prevent cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, garlic is a rich source of antioxidants, which can help to protect against cell damage. To get the most benefit from garlic, consume it raw or lightly cooked.
Tea is more than just a delicious beverage. It’s been used for centuries for its medicinal properties, and as the USDA states, it can help lower cholesterol levels. Tea is also a good source of antioxidants, which can help protect against heart disease.
Recent studies show that black tea may reduce total and LDL cholesterol, both risk factors for heart disease. While more research is needed to confirm these benefits, drinking tea may be a helpful way to lower your cholesterol levels and protect your heart health.
13) Leafy Greens
Leafy greens include kale, spinach, collards, and Swiss chard. They are an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and K and magnesium, iron, and folate.
They’re also low in calories and fat, making them a healthy addition to any diet, not just one to help your cholesterol. Leafy greens can help lower cholesterol levels. This is because they contain fiber, which helps to remove cholesterol from the body.
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Katie is a dietitian at Nutrisense. With over 11 years of experience as a dietitian in many areas of nutrition, Katie has worked as a clinical dietitian within a hospital, as well as in the fields of diabetes, sports and performance nutrition, recovery from addiction, and general wellness. She’s also an athlete and has run 8 marathons, including the Boston Marathon.