Can the right diet really lower cholesterol levels?
Poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle can result in an increase of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels and a decrease in protective high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, so what steps can you take to lower cholesterol levels?
Although genes play a role in how your body uses cholesterol – some people are genetically programmed to respond more readily to what they eat – genes aren’t something that we can change.
However, here are four things you can do to lower cholesterol levels:
1. Reduce saturated fat intake
Saturated fats in red meat, milk and other dairy foods, and coconut and palm oils directly increase LDL levels.
The easiest way to lower LDL cholesterol levels is to substitute these foods, such as choosing skim milk instead of whole milk, extra-lean ground beef instead of regular; olive or vegetable-oil margarine instead of butter; and baking fish or chicken instead of frying them.
2. Reduce trans fats intake
Trans fats occur chemically when liquid vegetable oils are turned into solid margarine or shortening, which prevents liquid vegetable oils from turning rancid.
Trans fats increase LDL in the same way saturated fats do, and also lower HDL levels. Although trans fats were once ubiquitous in prepared foods, many companies now use trans-free alternatives. Some restaurants and fast-food chains have yet to make the switch. It’s best to avoid trans fats if you want to lower cholesterol levels.
3. Maintain a healthy weight
Being overweight raises blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels and lowers HDL levels. The only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you consume. Increasing activity levels and eating healthily will boost weight loss, and in turn may lower cholesterol levels.
4. Incorporate cholesterol lowering foods into your diet
Different foods lower cholesterol levels in various ways.
Some deliver soluble fibers, which bind to cholesterol and pass it out through the body before it enters circulation. Certain foods contain polyunsaturated fats, which are able to lower LDL levels directly, and other foods contain specific compounds such as sterols that can directly lower LDL levels. Some examples of foods that lower cholesterol levels include:
Fruits, vegetables and seeds
Fruits, vegetables and seeds are rich in antioxidants that help limit the damage cholesterol does in the body (rather than lowering cholesterol levels themselves). You should try to incorporate at least five portions, and ideally 7-9 portions, of fruit and vegetables per day.
Some fruits, vegetables and seeds have other properties that allow them to lower cholesterol levels directly. Citrus fruits such as oranges are rich in pectin which helps to lower LDL levels.
The artichoke is a good source of fiber, magnesium, chromium, vitamin C, the B complex vitamins, vitamin A and potassium. It also contains cynarin, which increases the liver’s bile production, and boosts the flow of bile from your gallbladder, which helps remove cholesterol. You are also able to take artichoke is as a supplement.
Capsaicin from capsicum (chili pepper, paprika, cayenne, African chilies) also appears to decrease LDL cholesterol levels and promote blood flow to the heart.
Linseed (flaxseed) is rich in dietary fiber and omega-3 fats, which lower LDL levels. Further, linseed is particularly effective in post-menopausal women.
Brazil nuts are a rich source of selenium, a mineral that fights LDL oxidation. (Selenium is also in tuna, cod, beef, and turkey.) Eating around 2 handfuls of nuts a day can slightly lower LDL by around 5%. Nuts also contain additional nutrients that can help protect the heart.
Oatmeal or oatbran contains beta-glucan, a form of soluble fiber. Oat beta-glucan is able to bind to excess cholesterol in the gut, allowing it to pass through the body as waste, rather than being absorbed.
Having oatmeal or oatbran for breakfast, snacking on oatcakes, adding toasted oats to low fat yoghurt or smoothies, or even adding oats to meatloaf, all provides you with a source of beta-glucan, and increases your daily fiber intake.
Legumes and soy
Legumes are rich in soluble fiber, folate, magnesium, iron, and potassium. They are also low fat and cholesterol-free. Eating soybeans and derived products such as tofu can also improve LDL levels, with a daily consumption of around 25 g of soy protein potentially lowering LDL cholesterol by 5-6%.
Sterols and stanols
Sterols and stanols prevent the body from absorbing cholesterol. These are available from plant products such as rice bran, wheat germ and avocado oil. They tend to be more beneficial as a food fortification, however, such as in margarines, yogurts, and granola bars.
They are also available as supplements.
Eating fish 2 or 3 times a week can lower cholesterol levels by replacing meat, which contains saturated fats that boost LDL levels. Fish also provides a source of omega-3 fats, which reduce triglycerides in the bloodstream and helps prevent abnormal heart rhythms.
Curcumin is the pigment that gives turmeric its yellow color, and it is able to lower LDL cholesterol. Supplements are probably one of the easiest ways to increase intake, rather than adding the spice to a typical Western diet.
It can be difficult to lower cholesterol levels enough to reduce a high risk of cardiovascular disease with diet alone, but reducing bad cholesterol by any amount can only be beneficial. A healthy diet can also reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and reduce obesity risks.