High cholesterol can be a factor in a number of different health issues, but particularly for heart health. Elevated cholesterol levels are one of the risk factors for cardiac and vascular problems like heart disease, stroke, and peripheral artery disease. Fortunately, cholesterol is one risk factor that you can control. Often, the answer is right in front of you: on your plate.
‘Good’ vs. ‘bad’ cholesterol
Before you start shopping for foods to lower your cholesterol, it’s important to understand that a little cholesterol is a good thing. In fact, your body needs it to build healthy cells. It’s what kind of cholesterol you’re consuming that makes all the difference. There are two types of cholesterol: LDL cholesterol—the ‘bad’ cholesterol—is found in foods like bacon, cheese and red meat; HDL cholesterol—the ‘good’ cholesterol—is what is in the foods below. Although LDL cholesterol isn’t overly dangerous in moderation, it’s better to fill up on foods with HDL cholesterol like:
Nuts are full of protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins and nutrients. A salty snack, they can also help satisfy your cravings for something less healthy, like potato chips. Although most nuts are good for your heart, walnuts and almonds in particular have been recognized for their ability to reduce your levels of LDL cholesterol, so grab for a to-go or 100-calorie pack when you’re looking for a snack.
Red meat is one of the biggest culprits for LDL cholesterol, so leaner options like chicken or turkey are usually better options for your main entrée. Even better than those? Fish.
Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and halibut have high levels of an ingredient called omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce your blood pressure and risk of blood clots. To keep your meal healthy, avoid frying fish and opt for grilling or baking it. If you’re not a fan of fish, try taking omega-3 fish oil supplements, instead.
Avocado has gotten more attention as of late, and rightfully so. Although they’re a little high in calories, avocados contain monounsaturated fat and beta-sitosterol, which can help reduce the amount of cholesterol that your body absorbs. Add it to the blender with your favorite fruits for a healthier alternative to creamy yogurt or milk or try it as a topping for avocado crab cakes.
Going green isn’t just good for the environment, it’s good for your health, too! Look for cholesterol-lowering green foods like broccoli, Swiss chard, bok choy, spinach and cabbage next time you’re in the produce aisle, but remember: Don’t ruin their nutritional value with creamy dressings or dips. Instead, use them in a salad and drizzle with oil and vinegar.
It doesn’t matter what kind of beans you prefer: they’re all beneficial when it comes to lowering your cholesterol. Beans are especially high in soluble fiber, which helps bind acids and cholesterol in your body to prevent it from being re-absorbed. Next time you’re mixing up a salad or soup, try incorporating kidney beans or chickpeas for a little extra fiber, or in a recipe like our black bean chili.
Not a fan of beans? Look for fiber-rich foods like brown rice, oatmeal or other fruits and veggies.
In addition to these five cholesterol-lowering superfoods, make sure you're getting enough plant sterols and stanols, which can help lower levels of LDL cholesterol. You can get your daily dose of with orange juice, margarine, or yogurt that contain plant sterols or stanols.
Christine Hurley, RD, LDN, CDE is a registered dietitian for the Diabetes and Nutrition Center at Main Line Health Center in Newtown Square.