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I was recently on Quora and a variation of the same question kept coming up in my feed: “what foods can I eat to lower cholesterol?” Since I am ever the problem-solver and I love the healing power of food, I decided to do some research and write an article detailing the types of foods you can eat to help naturally lower cholesterol levels.
If you already know about cholesterol and how it affects your body, you will learn how you can use food along with any medicine recommended by your physician, to help lower your blood cholesterol. If you only have a vague idea about cholesterol and its role in our health, you will come away with a basic understanding of this natural compound and how we can manage levels for optimum health.
What Is Cholesterol And Why Should We Lower It?
According to the dictionary, cholesterol “is a compound of the sterol type found in most body tissues. Cholesterol and its derivatives are important constituents of cell membranes and precursors of other steroid compounds.” Doesn’t reveal much, does it? What the heck is a sterol? It turns out that a sterol is a type of lipid or fat that is biosynthesized by all animal cells, including ours.
Cholesterol then is essentially a type of body fat that we make naturally. It’s used by our bodies to make cell membranes, tissues and other steroidal compounds that are essential for us to survive. We make two types of cholesterol that are transported in the blood throughout our bodies:
- HDL or high-density lipoprotein the so-called “good” cholesterol; and
- LDL or low-density lipoprotein which is the “bad” cholesterol
According to the CDC, HDL makes up most of the cholesterol in our bodies and having high levels of HDL can raise our risk for heart attacks and strokes. Conversely, LDL cholesterol absorbs cholesterol and carries it back to the liver where it is flushed from the body. Having high levels of HDL cholesterol can lower your risk for heart attacks and strokes.
Some people are predisposed to having high levels of LDL cholesterol which can build up on the walls of blood vessels causing what is known as “plaque.” Over time, this plaque can cause narrowing of blood vessels which blocks blood flow to the heart and other organs and consequently cause a heart attack or stroke.
Cholesterol plays a very important role in our lives, but as in all things, care must be taken to maintain optimal levels of both HDL and LDL cholesterol.
Can Some Foods Help Raise Cholesterol?
Now we know that our bodies naturally make cholesterol, is it possible that some of the foods we eat can also raise cholesterol levels too? The answer is both yes and no.
We do know that eating foods that are high in saturated fats and trans fats may contribute to significantly raising cholesterol levels and the concomitant diseases that arise as a result. However, research has also shown that dietary cholesterol does not significantly impact cholesterol levels in our bodies, and studies do not support the association between dietary cholesterol and heart disease in the general population.
This means that when we consume high levels of dietary cholesterol, our bodies compensate by synthesizing less natural cholesterol. This does not mean that we can consume any and all high cholesterol foods. Some are beneficial and others are extremely harmful. Some healthy high cholesterol foods we can safely eat include foods like:
- Eggs (can increase heart-protective HDL levels)
- Cheese (excellent source of protein, calcium, and vitamins)
- Shellfish (many contain compounds that help to lower LDL or “bad” cholesterol)
- Grass-fed meats and organs (great source of heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids, protein, iron, and anti-oxidants)
- Sardines (excellent source of iron, selenium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, magnesium and vitamin E.)
- Full-fat yogurt (great for protein, calcium, B vitamins, reduces bad LDL cholesterol and improves gut bacteria)
Below are some of the unhealthy high cholesterol foods we should avoid:
- Deep fried foods (high in calories and contains trans-fats that cause obesity, diabetes, and heart disease)
- Fast/Processed Food (high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium which lead to negative health outcomes)
- Processed Meats like bacon, hot dogs and sausages (linked to increased risk of heart disease and colon cancer)
- Desserts (tend to be high in cholesterol and sugars which lead to negative outcomes like obesity, diabetes and heart disease)
This shows us that some care and discretion must be made when consuming high cholesterol foods. We can and should consume healthier high-cholesterol foods as they have no negative impact on our blood cholesterol. However, unhealthy high cholesterol foods can increase blood lipids which can lead to higher levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol.
Which Foods Help Lower Cholesterol?
Now that we know that some foods can help to increase “bad” LDL cholesterol, what foods can we consume to help us combat this condition while increasing the “good” HDL cholesterol? There are several foods we can eat that will help regulate and normalize cholesterol levels in our bodies including:
- High fiber foods like oatmeal and beans help reduce LDL cholesterol levels
- Foods high in unsaturated fats like avocado, olive oil, and nuts help prevent and manage high levels of LDL while increasing good HDL cholesterol levels
- Dietary omega-3s like those found in wild caught salmon and other fish are shown to reduce LDL and raise HDL levels
- Fruits and vegetables help lower LDL cholesterol levels and prevent heart disease
As we can see from this list, there are a variety of foods that can help our bodies to regulate and maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Proving yet again that there is indeed something to the age-old advice to eat your veggies and lean protein for optimum health.
What About Supplements?
While foods can be the cure for a lot that ails us, there are times when food is simply not enough. This is where supplementation or at the extreme, pharmaceutical drugs, can help some of us to maintain healthy cholesterol levels. So what are some of the supplements or drugs can we use to help regulate cholesterol levels?
Proven supplements that help regulate cholesterol by reducing HDL levels include:
- Fish oil pills
- Artichoke extract
- Ground Flaxseed
- Green tea or green tea extract
- Oat Bran
- Soy protein
When diet and supplementation are insufficient to significantly lower bad LDL cholesterol, doctors employ a class of drugs called statins to help. Statins are medications that lower lipids in the blood, decrease LDL cholesterol while helping the body to make the good HDL cholesterol.
As with most medications, there are side effects that can occur when taking statins, so it’s best to consult with a doctor about what the pros and cons are of taking these types of medications.
Final Thoughts On Lowering Cholesterol
I hope I’ve shed some light on cholesterol and what we need to do to maintain optimal levels of both HDL and LDL cholesterol. To briefly summarize my findings, simply follow these tips to maintain healthy cholesterol levels:
- Eat foods that are high in fiber, omega-3s, and unsaturated fats
- Avoid foods that are processed, high in sugar and contain high levels of saturated fat
- Exercise – physical activity especially high intensity aerobic is very effective at reducing LDL cholesterol
- Lose weight – lowers LDL cholesterol while increasing HDL cholesterol
- Quit smoking as this damages blood vessels and increases the risk for heart disease
- Limit alcohol, too much can raise cholesterol levels and triglycerides (blood fat)
- Add supplements or medication on the advice of your physician
By following these tips, you and your loved ones can help optimize your cardiovascular health by maintaining healthy levels of LDL and HDL cholesterol.