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7 Essential Foods To Help Lower Cholesterol

What is Cholesterol and What Causes High Cholesterol?

A female patient meets with her doctor in an exam room

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance,  found in all the cells in your body, which the body uses to make hormones, vitamin D and other substances that help digest foods.

Cholesterol is really common, and is found in a number of different foods. Some of the most noteworthy foods with cholesterol are egg yolks, meat and cheese. While it is an essential component for the function of our bodies, too much cholesterol can come with some concerns.

High cholesterol may sometimes be inherited, but it is often a result of lifestyle choices, especially when it comes to diet. According to the Mayo Clinic, the main causes of high cholesterol are inactivity, obesity and an unhealthy diet. The good news is that these are controllable factors.

It may seem daunting, but high cholesterol can be lowered by making simple lifestyle changes. Of those changes, diet is one of the most important contributions to lowering cholesterol.

What is Bad Cholesterol?

A male patient has blood drawn by a phlebotomist

There are two main types of cholesterol: high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). They are a combination of fat (lipids) and protein. Additionally, high Triglyceride levels are also high in people with diabetes and they are another major component of cholesterol and will be reported during testing.

HDL is considered to be the “good” kind of cholesterol. This type of cholesterol carries cholesterol from other parts of your body to your liver. LDL is often dubbed “bad” cholesterol. This is because LDL does not carry cholesterol to the liver like HDL does.

Instead, LDL can cause cholesterol to build up in the bloodstream and form plaque, which is a combination of fat, cholesterol and other substances. Too much plaque build-up is dangerous as it causes your arteries to narrow and may cause serious heart and organ issues if unaddressed. This reduces blood flow to the brain, kidneys, arms and even legs.

Other risk factors that cause high levels of LDL include smoking, age, diabetes and lack of exercise. Since cholesterol is already made in the body, the foods that we eat may contribute to that build-up as well.

Foods that have high trans fat, sugar and salt levels contribute most to high levels of cholesterol. These types of foods include butter, pastries, canned soup, fast food, soda and more. There are many healthy alternatives that contribute to lowering cholesterol and boosting your heart health. 

Essential Foods That Lower Cholesterol

Legumes

Multiple types and colors of beans and lentils spill out of jars and bowls

Legumes are part of a group of plants that include beans, peas and lentils. Legumes are loaded with minerals and essential nutrients like fiber and protein. Some examples of legumes include soybeans, snap peas, chickpeas and mesquite.

A recent study found that eating a ½ cup, or 100 grams, of legumes per day is effective at lowering LDL (“bad” cholesterol) compared to not eating legumes at all.

From black beans to peanuts, legumes come in a wide variety and make for an easy food to incorporate into your diet to lower cholesterol.

Avocados

A halved avocado sits next to a plate of avocado toast and a bowl of guacamole

Nutrient-dense and highly versatile, avocados are a wonderful superfood that lowers cholesterol and yields other health benefits. Avocados contain two essential nutrients for lowering cholesterol, fiber and monosaturated fats.

Fiber is crucial for proper digestion and it can help transport cholesterol out of your digestive system and body before they’re absorbed. Luckily, one cup of avocados contains about 10 grams of fiber, about a third of the recommended daily intake.

In a study by the American Heart Association, overweight adults with high LDL levels were asked to eat one avocado per day. Compared with adults who did not eat avocados, those who ate avocados lowered their LDL levels substantially.

Avocados make for a great substitute for other fats and can replace any unhealthy fats that might be causing higher levels of LDL. 

Nuts

Whole raw nuts

While nuts may sometimes get a bad rap, they are one of the best foods you can eat to help lower cholesterol. Along with their ability to reduce LDL levels, nuts carry a wealth of other nutrients that contribute to overall health.

Walnuts and almonds are especially great to incorporate into your diet. Walnuts are known to be high in omega-3 fatty acids, and almonds have high levels of amino acids that help regulate blood pressure and heart health. Packed with minerals for heart health and cholesterol-lowering fats and fiber, are excellent snack options to help naturally lower LDL levels. The serving size for walnuts is ¼ cup while a typical serving size for almonds is the same, these sizes are roughly the size of a handful.

Fatty Fish

Raw tuna, herring and shrimp surrounded by other heart healthy foods

Fatty fish are great for heart health and make a great food for diabetics as they are loaded with omega 3 fatty acids. These nutrients bolster heart health by increasing the amount of HDL cholesterol while also fighting inflammation. Remember, HDL cholesterol is the “good” kind of cholesterol.

Some examples of fatty fish include salmon, tuna, trout, herring and more. The manner in which the fish is prepared is just as important to health as the fish itself. With fatty fish, the best ways to prepare it are broiled, grilled or steamed. Frying or deep frying fatty fish is not recommended. Frying the fish reduces some of the nutritional benefits you’d get otherwise and adds unnecessary fat to your meal. For fatty fish, the typical serving size is 3.5 oz, which is equivalent to ¾ cup.

Fruits and Berries

A bowl of fruit salad with citrus and berries

As a staple in any healthy diet, fruits and berries make for great foods to help naturally lower cholesterol. According to studies done by Tulane University, fruits and berries are typically rich in soluble fiber, which lends a hand to helping reduce LDL cholesterol levels.

One of these soluble fibers, pectin, lowers cholesterol by up to 10 percent. Fruits like apples, grapes, oranges, strawberries and citrus fruits contain this wonderful nutrient.

In general, fruits are great for heart health. They often contain bioactive compounds that help prevent heart disease and many other chronic diseases related to inflammation. Berries are especially rich in these compounds, and greatly reduce LDL levels in the body while promoting healthy HDL levels as well. 

The typical serving size for berries is about 1 cup, while fruits like apples and bananas are one whole piece of the fruit.

Dark Chocolate and Cocoa

A bar of dark chocolate

Dark chocolate is proven to have several different health benefits given its high levels of fiber, iron, magnesium and antioxidants that contribute to the body’s overall wellbeing.

In one study involving cholesterol levels in men, cocoa powder was found to significantly reduce oxidized LDL levels. For those in the study with high cholesterol, the cocoa powder actually decreased LDL levels while also increasing HDL levels in the participants.

Some dark chocolate and cocoa even have higher levels of antioxidants than some fruits or berries, making them a great snack option if you’re craving something sweet. Dark chocolate is also brain food, and is a great option to help boost memory.

However, like all foods, it’s important to moderate dark chocolate in your diet as too much of any food may be unhealthy.

Garlic

Several bulbs of garlic are laid out on a counter

Garlic has been used all over the world for centuries as both a food and medicine. Garlic contains many powerful plant compounds, including its main compound allicin.

Several studies suggest that garlic may greatly reduce total cholesterol levels in the body. However, these same studies also say that this really only has short term effects, and the true heart-healthy characteristics of garlic are still being reviewed.

Since the effects of garlic on cholesterol are somewhat small, large amounts of garlic are needed to achieve these heart-healthy benefits. As a result, aged supplements have often been used in studies with measurable effects.

Avoid taking supplements unless directed by a medical professional. Before looking for garlic supplements, look for better diet options to help lower or moderate your cholesterol levels.

Foods That Raise Cholesterol

Trans Fats

Fast food and other high trans-fat foods

Trans fats are perhaps the worst type of food to eat if you are trying to lower cholesterol. Trans fats are found in packaged foods like pastries, cookies, biscuits, doughnuts, margarine and fried fast food.

Trans fats are often naturally-occurring, but high levels are often found in packaged or processed foods as they serve as a preservative. In studies, these fats have been proven to simultaneously raise LDL cholesterol levels and lower HDL levels. 

Salt

High salt foods like olives, deli meat, chips etc

Sodium is an essential nutrient for the human body, however too much of it can reap negative health effects. High sodium intake is often associated with high blood pressure.

Canned soup and salty snack foods such as potato chips are perhaps the most obvious examples, however high levels of sodium can also be found in other, less evident foods such as bread, cured meats, pizza and fast food sandwiches.

Sugar

High sugar foods like white bread, ice cream, jam, juice etc

Reducing sugar intake is a great place to start lowering your cholesterol. Sugar has been known to cause weight gain, heart disease, diabetes and high cholesterol.

Soda, sugary candy, cakes, cookies and ice cream are high in sugar, but levels can be high in certain types of bread, pasta, condiments and sauces as well. 

There are many great alternatives to sugary foods and drinks like water for soda, and whole grain bread for white bread. 

At Iora, we take a comprehensive approach to healthcare, with the goal of addressing every aspect of our patients’ health. Whether it’s physical health, mental health or nutrition, our dedicated care teams work with patients down to a personal level to embark on a journey to better health.

Knowing which foods lower cholesterol and which foods raise cholesterol is vital in managing your heart health. For more heart healthy tips, learn natural ways to lower your blood pressure

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