Top cholesterol-lowering foods to include in your diet

Excess cholesterol is often associated with high risks to heart and body health. Thus, adopting a balanced and healthy diet plays a crucial role in the fight against the cardiovascular risks of cholesterol.

In this article you’ll learn everything you need to know about cholesterol, as well as which are the best cholesterol-lowering foods to introduce into your daily diet.

What is cholesterol

Cholesterol is a water-insoluble lipid found in our bodies in the blood and in the composition of cell membranes in the liver, brain, spinal cord and other body tissues.

In our body, the liver naturally produces cholesterol, which passes through the body via the bloodstream.

Functions of cholesterol in the body

Here’s a brief tour of the essential roles of cholesterol, which will help you understand why an optimal cholesterol level assumes the role of silent guardian of our health.

  • Cholesterol gives cell membranes the flexibility and stability essential for their form and function
  • It is the cornerstone for the synthesis of steroid hormones
  • Turns sunlight into vitamin D, crucial for strong bones and a healthy immune system
  • It produces bile acids that help us digest fats and absorb essential vitamins.
  • A key component of myelin, it insulates and protects nerve fibres, ensuring efficient transmission of nerve signals.
  • Contributes to brain health by supporting the formation of synapses for learning and memory.

When we talk about cholesterol, we mean two types:

LDL cholesterol

This type of cholesterol is called “bad cholesterol” because it is deposited in the blood vessels and can cause them to become thin or even blocked. These blockages can have serious consequences for your body and heart, leading to heart attacks, strokes or coronary heart disease. A high level of LDL cholesterol is one of the main risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

HDL cholesterol

This type of cholesterol is also called ‘good cholesterol’. This type of cholesterol has a protective role – it collects LDL cholesterol deposited on the walls of blood vessels and returns it to the liver to be processed and eliminated from the body.

Causes of high cholesterol

The main cause of high cholesterol is lifestyle, but it can also be genetically based. Lifestyle aspects that contribute to increased levels of LDL cholesterol in the body are:

  • Unhealthy diets high in saturated and trans fats
  • Sedentary lifestyle, lack of frequent physical exercise
  • A body weight above the recommended limits
  • Smoking
  • High alcohol consumption

Symptom

High cholesterol has no symptoms, which is why it is often called a “silent killer”. On the other hand, high cholesterol that remains untreated leads to the formation of so-called atheroma plaques in the arteries, which are an increased cardiovascular risk factor.

Normal cholesterol values

Normal values for total cholesterol and HDL and LDL cholesterol differ according to age and gender. You can use the guide below to see where you stand:

Normal cholesterol guide values

Source: Cholesterol Numbers and What They Mean

Nutrition tips to keep our cholesterol in the normal range

The level of fat in your diet can affect the balance between LDL and HDL cholesterol. However, it doesn’t mean that you have to eliminate all fats from your diet (note that they are one of the 3 essential nutrients for the body), just that you have to be careful where these fats come from.

The types of fat we find in food are as follows:

  • Saturated fats – these are mostly found in meat and dairy products. They are responsible for the production of LDL cholesterol
  • Unsaturated fats – these are found in fish, nuts, seeds, beans, as well as certain vegetable oils (e.g. olive oil)
  • Trans fats – these are found in fast food, cakes, pastries and other processed foods

Recent studies show that simply reducing dietary saturated fat levels has no significant effect on health, but replacing them with unsaturated fats appears to help combat the risk of cardiovascular disease. The source of saturated fat also appears to be important: in a 2021 study, consumption of red meat and butter led to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, (7% and 2%, respectively), while consumption of yogurt and cheese led to a decreased risk.

What foods do we avoid to prevent high cholesterol?

So to prevent LDL cholesterol build-up and keep us as healthy as possible, it is advisable to limit consumption of foods high in saturated and trans fats. Here we are talking about foods such as:

  • Red meat (pork, beef, lamb)
  • Chicken meat with skin
  • Dairy products with a high fat content
  • Vegetable oils such as coconut or palm oil
  • Pastry products
  • Commercial snacks (biscuits, crisps)
  • Frying and fast food

Top foods that lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol

If you want to increase the level of good or HDL cholesterol in your body, it is advisable to increase the amount of fibre consumed daily, especially insoluble fibre.

Foods high in fibre that can help you facilitate HDL cholesterol production are the following:

  • Nuts, seeds and pulses
  • Oats
  • Chia seeds
  • Beans
  • Oranges
  • Blueberries
  • Brussels sprouts

In addition to lowering HDL cholesterol levels in the blood, insoluble fibre is also beneficial in controlling blood glucose, another risk factor for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Also on the list of cholesterol-lowering foods is extra-virgin olive oil – substitute sunflower oil for it, and your heart will thank you.

How we cook food to help our body cholesterol levels

Did you know that some cooking methods can change the level of saturated fat in your food? Here we are talking about methods such as:

  • Draining the fat and oil from the meat after I’ve finished cooking
  • Cooking food on the grill or in the oven instead of frying it in a pan
  • Cutting off pieces of fat from raw meat and removing the skin from poultry meat
  • Removing the fat layer from the surface of soups

Combining these cholesterol cutting techniques with a balanced, plant-based diet and a sustainable exercise routine can reduce the risk of heart disease and promote a healthier life.

How can you find out your cholesterol level?

You can find out your body’s cholesterol level through blood tests.

Through specialised tests, you can find out your lipid profile, which includes the four types of lipids in your blood:

  • Total cholesterol: the total amount of cholesterol in the blood.
  • LDL cholesterol
  • HDL cholesterol
  • Triglycerides: a type of fat in your body. High triglyceride levels increase your risk of atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular diseases.
Cardiometabolic profile generated in the Dahna application

Once you know your values, you can record them in the Dahna health app to build your cardiometabolic profile and find out your risk of cardiovascular disease over 10 years.

Conclusion

Maintaining a balance between HDL and LDL cholesterol in our bodies is essential in preventing cardiovascular disease throughout life. As we’ve seen, eating cholesterol-lowering foods is a key factor in maintaining this balance, but that’s not all – for the most noticeable effects on your health, it’s important to combine a diet rich in cholesterol-lowering foods with regular exercise.

Be sure to seek medical advice before making major changes to your diet and lifestyle.

Bibliography

High cholesterol – Cholesterol levels – NHS

5 Studies on Saturated Fat – Time to Retire the Myth?

Dietary Fatty Acids, Macronutrient Substitutions, Food Sources and Incidence of Coronary Heart Disease: Findings From the EPIC-CVD Case-Cohort Study Across Nine European Countries

Cholesterol Numbers and What They Mean

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