The term “you are what you eat” certainly holds true when it comes to your cholesterol levels. While it can be easy to eat your way to an alarmingly high cholesterol level, you can also eat your way to lower cholesterol levels too.
Lowering your cholesterol levels by changing your eating habits is a simple two-pronged strategy: Add foods that lower LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol), while avoiding foods that increase it.
Here’s a guide of what foods to eat – and what foods to avoid – when you’re trying to lower or manage your cholesterol levels.
In with the good
Oats – An easy first step to improving your cholesterol is having a bowl of oatmeal or cold oat-based cereal like Cheerios for breakfast. It gives you 1 to 2 grams of soluble fiber. Add a banana or some strawberries for another half-gram.
Barley and other whole grains – Like oats and oat bran, barley and other whole grains can help lower the risk of heart disease, mainly through the soluble fiber they deliver.
Beans – Beans are especially rich in soluble fiber. They also take a while for the body to digest, meaning you feel full for longer after a meal.
Eggplant and okra – These two low-calorie vegetables are good sources of soluble fiber.
Nuts – Studies show that eating almonds, walnuts, peanuts, and other nuts is good for the heart. Eating 2 ounces of nuts a day can slightly lower LDL by as much as 5%. Nuts also have nutrients that protect the heart.
Vegetable oils – Using liquid vegetable oils such as canola, sunflower, and safflower, instead of butter, lard, or shortening when cooking or at the table helps lower LDL.
Apples, grapes, strawberries, and citrus fruits – These fruits are rich in pectin, a type of soluble fiber that lowers LDL.
Soy – Eating soybeans and foods made from them, like tofu and soy milk, was once touted as a powerful way to lower cholesterol. Recent analysis show that the effect is more modest – consuming 25 grams of soy protein a day (10 ounces of tofu or 2 1/2 cups of soy milk) can lower LDL by 5% to 6%.
Fatty fish – Eating fish two or three times a week can lower LDL in two ways. First, it’s a substitute for meat, which has LDL-boosting saturated fats, and secondly, fish contains LDL-lowering omega-3 fats.
Fiber supplements – Supplements offer the least appealing way to get soluble fiber, but they are effective. Two teaspoons of psyllium, which is found in Metamucil and other bulk-forming laxatives, a day provide about 4 grams of soluble fiber.
Out with the bad
Processed Vegetable Oils – When vegetable oils like canola oil undergo hydrogenation, which it often does to become a partially hydrogenated oil, this increases its level of trans fats. These are a group of fats that you want to avoid as much as possible since they’re scientifically known to increase LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol levels.
Potato Chips and Packaged Foods – Some studies show that 66% of calories consumed by Americans come from packaged foods and beverages. Snack foods are also closely linked to higher rates of obesity and high cholesterol levels. Avoid unhealthy snacks, such as potato chips, crackers, fried foods and other packaged foods.
Cookies and Other Sugary Treats – More than 75% of packaged and processed foods in the U.S. contain some form of added sugar. This includes baked goods, such as cookies, cakes, muffins, pastries, and candies, and sweetened beverages, such as soda and energy drinks. These sugary treats lead to weight gain and inflammation, which can negatively impact your cholesterol levels.
Bacon and Processed Meats – Evidence suggests that eating processed meat increases the risk of heart health issues, while eating unprocessed meat has a small or no association with cardiovascular disease. Limit consumption of processed meats, such as bacon, sausage, bologna, salami and hot dogs. Even processed meats with “reduced fat” labels are high in calories and saturated fats.
Alcohol – Too much alcohol raises your blood pressure and triglyceride levels, while moderate alcohol consumption (one drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men) may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Milk and Other Conventional Dairy Products – Milk fat contains a broad range of fatty acids, and some can have a negative impact on cholesterol-rich lipoproteins. However, dairy products, such as kefir and organic, cultured yogurt, can have beneficial effects on plasma lipid profile.
Refined Grain Products – A diet high in refined carbohydrates, like white bread, tortillas, bagels and pasta, can have a negative effect on your HDL cholesterol level. Reducing your intake of these types of carbohydrates can improve your HDL levels. Choose high-quality, sprouted wheat breads and fruits.