Cholesterol is type of fat that circulates in the blood. Like other fats, it plays an essential role in our bodies. Unfortunately, if there is too much cholesterol in the blood, it can deposit on the artery walls and become a serious health risk. Although genetic factors play a part in how likely this is to happen, there is a lot we can do to reduce the risk of cholesterol build up. Being a healthy weight, having a healthy diet, exercising regularly and not smoking all help to avoid problems with cholesterol. This post looks at the effect diet has on cholesterol levels and what the best cholesterol lowering foods are.
HDL and LDL
A cholesterol test will usually show a count for both low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is often described as “bad cholesterol” and HDL as “good”. This isn’t entirely accurate. LDL cholesterol is made in the liver and carried to the cells to perform vital roles. The problem arises when there is too much LDL cholesterol and it begins to deposit on the artery walls. This can happen due to unhealthy lifestyles and too much saturated fat in the diet.
HDL takes excess cholesterol back to the liver for disposal or recycling. This is why it is called “good” cholesterol.
What are cholesterol lowering foods?
One of the main reasons there may be too much cholesterol in the blood is bad diet. We don’t need to specifically avoid foods that contain cholesterol – this isn’t the problem. If cholesterol containing foods such as eggs and prawns are part of a healthy, balanced diet, then the liver will compensate for the cholesterol intake by making less. But if the diet is too high overall in saturated fat, then the liver makes too much cholesterol.
So an overall healthy diet is important – you can find out more about how to eat healthily here. But there are 3 diet changes that are particularly beneficial to lowering cholesterol:
#1 Eat more foods containing soluble fibre.
There are two types of fibre: soluble and insoluble. As their names suggest, soluble dissolves in water and insoluble does not. Soluble fibre binds to cholesterol and transports it through the digestive system. Insoluble fiber is beneficial in other ways, but it’s soluble fibre that helps to keep cholesterol levels down.
Good sources of soluble fibre:
- Various vegetables including carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts
- Various fruits including bananas, berries, apples and citrus fruits
#2 Make sure most of your fat intake is unsaturated fat
The term “unsaturated” refers to the molecular structure of the fat. Like carbohydrates, fats are made up of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. In saturated fats, all the carbon atoms have bonds with 2 hydrogen atoms, whereas in unsaturated fats, some carbon atoms only have a bond with 1 hydrogen atom. This small difference makes a big difference to our health.
Eating fats is essential for health and the recommendation is that around 30% of our calories should come from fat daily. Research clearly shows that if the majority of fat calories comes from unsaturated fats, then LDL (bad) cholesterol levels are lower. What is less conclusive is whether this is due just to the absence of saturated fat, or whether unsaturated fat actually has a cholesterol lowering effect.
Either way, getting as much of your dietary fat from unsaturated sources is better. In general, any fats from animal sources, including eggs and dairy, are saturated. Fish can have both types of fat, but the oily fish like salmon and mackerel have a high unsaturated content. With a few exceptions, plant fats are unsaturated. Good sources of unsaturated fats include:
- vegetable oils
- nuts and nut butters
- seeds and seed butters
- oily fish (eg salmon, mackerel, herring)
#3 if you have high cholesterol levels, eat foods fortified with stanols and sterols
Stanols and sterols prevent cholesterol from being absorbed into the body. They are naturally present in plant foods, but in very small amounts, so would be hard to get in large enough quantities from an ordinary diet. For this reason, manufacturers produce certain foods with added stanols and sterols – juices and spreads for example.
In summary, a low cholesterol diet is in line with the standard healthy eating guidelines, in particular:
- Plenty of high fiber foods
- Adequate fat intake, mainly from unsaturated sources
- Plenty of fruit and vegetables
These steps will help to avoid a high cholesterol problem developing. If you already have high cholesterol, then in addition to the above, foods fortified with stanols and sterols can help.