September is National Cholesterol Education Month, but it’s never a bad time to learn more about cholesterol! Most of us already know that too much is harmful to our health, but you may not be aware that our bodies need good cholesterol to produce hormones, protect cells, and more. In fact, filling up on foods with healthy cholesterol will boost your protein levels and even help you protect your heart from cardiovascular disease.
In this article, we’ve broken down:
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that your body uses to carry out essential functions like cell membrane and hormone production. Your liver actually makes all the cholesterol you need, but you can also get dietary cholesterol from animal-derived foods like beef, poultry, and dairy. Your body requires cholesterol to:
So if we need cholesterol, why do we seek out low-cholesterol foods and caution against high cholesterol levels? Well, there are two types of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol through your bloodstream; the “good” kind takes cholesterol to your liver, while the bad kind takes it to your cells and can build up dangerously in your blood vessels. We’ll talk more about these below.
HDL and LDL are both lipoproteins, a combination of lipids (fat) and proteins. High-density lipoproteins (HDL) consist of more protein than fat. It’s referred to as “good cholesterol” because this lipoprotein removes the cholesterol your body doesn’t need from your arteries and bloodstream. HDL carries cholesterol back to your liver, which removes excess cholesterol from your body.
On the other hand, low-density lipoproteins (LDL) contain more fat than protein, so they’re lighter than HDL. Your cells still need cholesterol, so LDL carries it to cells through your bloodstream. However, if LDL oxidizes, it can promote inflammation and cause lipids to build up on the walls of your arteries. This buildup of plaques can limit or block blood and nutrients from getting to your organs and tissues. Eventually, clogged arteries may result in atherosclerosis (narrowing arteries), blood clots, a heart attack, or heart disease.
To protect your heart and arteries, strive for a diet and lifestyle that’s high in HDL and low in LDL. You can do this by:
If you’re not sure where to start on your cholesterol-lowering journey, we’ve provided a list of 10 heart-healthy foods you’ll love. These options are pretty versatile, so you can incorporate them into various meals, snacks, and sides. After all, eating well doesn’t mean you have to stop enjoying your food!
Fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential fats your body needs to regulate cellular function, start making hormones, and lower triglycerides (fat in your blood). While eating fish won’t directly reduce your LDL levels, it will help you lower your blood pressure and risk of heart disease. You’ll find the most omega-3s in these types of fish:
Oats contain soluble fiber, which lowers your LDL levels and may even help you prevent heart disease. The fiber does this by slowing down your bloodstream’s cholesterol absorption. In fact, eating just five to 10 grams of soluble fiber per day can help you bring down bad cholesterol! You’ll find fiber-rich oats in:
Dark leafy greens are full of carotenoids like lutein, which protects your body from eye diseases and cell-destroying free radicals that may otherwise narrow your arteries. Lutein is also a helpful antioxidant if you’re trying to lower your LDL levels because it helps your body get rid of excess cholesterol. Lutein-rich leafy greens include:
Red bell peppers are rich in lycopene, a nutrient with Vitamins A and C antioxidants, soluble fiber. Lycopene can also help you lower “bad” cholesterol and increase “good” cholesterol. What’s more, this veggie is low in calories at only 24 calories per cup. To add red bell peppers into your diet, you can:
Berries are soluble fiber-rich fruits that keep your body from producing too much cholesterol and even help you excrete it. Pectin, a soluble fiber in strawberries, can lower your cholesterol by up to 10%! Also, eating berries will not only lower your LDL but also increase your HDL. A few low-cholesterol berries you should try include:
Avocados are packed with monounsaturated fats that provide nutrients to your cells, fuel your body with Vitamin E, and reduce your risk of heart disease or stroke. Researchers from the Mayo Clinic suggest eating one avocado each day can help you lower your LDL levels. Try adding avocados to:
Like avocados, tree nuts are packed with unsaturated fats. Nuts also contain phytosterols, a plant compound that prevents your intestines from absorbing cholesterol. Keep in mind that tree nuts are high in calories, so just enjoy a handful of them for a snack each day. Types of low-cholesterol tree nuts include:
Beans are a legume full of fiber, minerals, and protein. Eating just ½ cup of legumes (like beans) each day has been proven to reduce your LDL. If you’re trying to lower your “bad” cholesterol levels but you’re worried about getting enough protein, beans like these are a great alternative to poultry or red meat:
Extra virgin olive oil is an excellent replacement for other (fattier) oils. One of the main antioxidants in olive oil is oleuropein, which prevents LDL cholesterol from oxidizing. It’s also full of Vitamin E, Vitamin K, and monounsaturated fats that can help you lower your chances of heart disease. You can cook with olive oil by:
Garlic is a staple in countless kitchens, but it can also give your heart a boost! The ingredient contains a plant compound called allicin that can help you treat cholesterol by lowering LDL and raising HDL. Garlic also prevents high blood pressure, hypertension, and coagulating blood. You can try adding garlic to:
We hope you love these heart-healthy foods and enjoy adding them to your meals! If you’re having trouble sticking to a low-cholesterol diet, don’t worry. A health and wellness coach can help you learn more about nutrition, plan meals, and have a positive relationship with food.