High blood cholesterol is a condition that plagues one out of three American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (1)
Considering the risks of high cholesterol—cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke—it’s vital that we alter our diets to include more foods that positively impact blood cholesterol levels and cut out foods that raise blood cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol is divided into two groups:
Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDL Cholesterol)
Otherwise known as “bad cholesterol,” in excess, LDL cholesterol can build up in the blood vessels and become what is known as plaque. Plaque in the blood vessels can compromise or block blood flow, leading to heart attack or stroke.
High-Density Lipoproteins (HDL Cholesterol)
Also referred to as “good cholesterol,” HDL cholesterol collects LDL cholesterol from the arteries and brings it to the liver to be disposed of.
It is a well-established fact that certain types of fats cause an increase in blood cholesterol levels. Saturated fats increase LDL cholesterol levels. Trans fats increase LDL cholesterol levels and decrease HDL cholesterol levels—they are considered the worst types of fats. Unsaturated fats are healthy fats; they can actually help to decrease bad cholesterol levels in the blood.
For these reasons, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends eating more unsaturated fats, cutting down on saturated fats, and cutting out trans fats altogether. (2)
Don’t allow yourself to fall into the 33% of American adults living with high cholesterol. Limit your intake of the following foods to lower the risk of obesity and heart disease.
1. Hydrogenated and Processed Vegetable Oils
This is an ingredient you want to steer clear of completely. Hydrogenated oils are made by taking liquid unsaturated fat and turning it into a solid fat by adding hydrogen. So margarine, vegetable shortening, fried foods, coffee creamers, and many baked and packaged foods contain hydrogenated oils. These oils have trans fats, which increase “bad” LDL cholesterol and decrease “good” HDL cholesterol levels in the bloodstream. Read food labels carefully.
If it contains hydrogenated oils, put it down and step away.
In addition to those hydrogenated oils, you need to watch out for added sugars. Baked goods such as cookies, cakes, muffins, doughnuts, pastries, and candies contain a lot of sugar, which raises the risk of obesity and high cholesterol levels.
If you do want to eat these foods, make them at home with whole grain flour and no sugar. Instead, use natural sweeteners like honey, date syrup, stevia, or coconut sugar.
3. White and Processed Flours
Refined flours are simple carbohydrates, which basically just turn to sugar in the body when consumed. Foods high on the glycemic index, like white bread, crackers, pasta, cereal, and white rice, have been stripped of most of their nutrients during processing. These foods cause a rise in blood sugar when consumed and pose a great risk of obesity and high cholesterol when consumed in excess (or at all).
If you’re looking to boost heart health, reduce inflammation, and decrease the risk of developing a chronic disease, processed foods should be avoided at all costs.
4. Fried Foods
Many commercially produced fried foods—at restaurants or in supermarkets—are made using partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Foods such as french fries, doughnuts, fried chicken, onion rings, and potato chips require deep frying, and the oils in which they are fried are sure to contain those nasty trans fats that should be avoided completely.
5. Processed Meats
Studies show a link between processed meats—such as bacon, sausages, hot dogs, dried meat, and canned meat—and chronic disease, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and bowel or stomach cancer.
Processed meat is preserved by smoking, curing, salting, or adding preservatives. These processes modify the meat, changing its makeup to allow for a longer shelf life. It also causes free radicals to be produced, which are toxins that cause chronic inflammation in the body.
6. Dairy Products
Conventional dairy products, including milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, and the like, contain many types of fatty acids, including saturated fats. As we know, saturated fats cause a rise in LDL cholesterol.
In addition, many milk products contain hormones you can avoid by choosing organic over non-organic.
Studies show, however, that fermented dairy products including kefir, sour cream, and certain cheeses and yogurts actually have a beneficial impact on cholesterol levels.
Alcohol is a tricky thing. In moderation, alcohol can increase “good” HDL cholesterol and decrease “bad” LDL cholesterol. In excess, alcohol can lead to high blood pressure, high triglyceride levels, obesity, cardiomyopathy, arrhythmia, heart failure, and stroke.
The recommended intake is up to one drink a day for healthy adults. So go ahead and sit back with a glass of red wine during dinner—but stop there.
8. Meat and Poultry
Not all meat will cause a rise in cholesterol levels, but there are certain meats to avoid for a heart-healthy diet.
Things to consider when eating animal proteins include the type of protein, method of preparation, and portion size.
For example, eggs were once thought to be an absolute no-no in a cholesterol-reducing diet. Now, experts believe you could be eating 4–6 eggs per week without it affecting your cholesterol levels at all. Moderation is key.
If you do have high cholesterol, avoid fatty beef, lamb, pork, and poultry with skin. Skinless chicken breast is a great option for those who still want to eat animal protein but need to reduce cholesterol levels.
Lowering cholesterol levels requires a two-pronged method: cutting out cholesterol-raising foods and eating more cholesterol-lowering foods.
Foods that are high in fiber, foods with polyunsaturated fats, and plant foods that contain plant sterols and stanols help to reduce LDL cholesterol in the blood. Fiber binds to cholesterol and drags it out of the body before it has a chance to clog up arteries. Polyunsaturated fats directly lower LDL cholesterol levels. Plant sterols and stanols stop the body from absorbing cholesterol. (3)
The following foods are rich in nutrients that have a direct impact on lowering cholesterol levels.
- Barley and other whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
- Vegetable oil (non-hydrogenated)
- Salmon and other fatty fish
- Fruit skins (apples, pears, blueberries, grapes, etc.)
Once you ditch unhealthy fats as well as processed and refined foods, you’ll benefit in more than one way. You may find that those stubborn pounds begin to suddenly melt away. You’ll feel more energetic, less achy and bloated, and of course, your blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels will decrease.