If your cholesterol report is less-than-stellar, your doctor has probably already told you to examine and adjust your diet. It’s disheartening to hear that what you love to munch on may not love you back, but don’t despair—food can also have a positive effect on cholesterol. Eating right (and making other lifestyle changes) may even stave off the need to take medication to lower your levels.
We know it’s unrealistic to overhaul your diet in one day. In fact, too much change too fast could cause you to give up on your new plan altogether. Review these cholesterol-lowering food suggestions and try to make one new food choice every day. Eventually, you’ll be able to make all of them a regular part of your approach to eating.
To Reduce LDL Cholesterol
Though you may zero in on your total cholesterol results, it’s your low-density lipoprotein (LDL, also known as “bad cholesterol”) that is particularly important. Unlike its “good” counterpart, high-density lipoprotein (HDL), LDL is what builds up in the walls of the arteries and can block blood flow to the heart and brain. If your LDL cholesterol levels are too high:
- Reduce your saturated fat intake. The fats found in red meat and dairy foods have been found to raise LDL cholesterol. Experts suggest allowing saturated fats to account for no more than 10 percent of your daily calorie intake and replacing them with healthy fats (see below) rather than with refined carbs like white pasta and sugary drinks.
- Eliminate trans fats. Also known as partially hydrogenated oils, these mostly man-made fats also raise LDL cholesterol, even more so than saturated fats. They are most often found in packaged foods such as cakes, cookies and crackers, but the FDA has required all manufacturers to remove added trans fats from their products by 2018.
- Eat more nuts. Walnuts, almonds, pecans and more are all found to lower LDL cholesterol levels, thanks to their healthy unsaturated fats. Just be sure to choose plain nuts—ones that are glazed or salted can give you far more sugar and sodium than you need. And limit consumption to one to two ounce-servings (about a handful) per day to keep total fat intake in check.
- Increase fiber in your diet. Fiber, especially the soluble type, binds total cholesterol in the intestinal tract and promotes cholesterol excretion. Choose healthy fiber sources such as whole grains like oats and barley, as well as legumes, fruits and vegetables.
- Use olive oil. This staple of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet contains antioxidants that can help lower your LDL. Don’t douse foods in it, though—simply use it in place of other fats in your diet, lightly drizzled on broccoli instead of butter, for example.
- Add plant sterols and stanols. These plant compounds can reduce LDL by as much as 10 percent. Look for foods fortified with them, such as yogurt drinks and juices, and use them in place of your regular products.
To Reduce Triglycerides
These fats in the blood are an important measure of your risk for heart disease and stroke. If you’ve been told by your doctor that yours are too high:
- Increase omega-3 fats. The healthy fats found in fish such as salmon, sardines and trout can help bring down your triglyceride level. Omega-3 enriched eggs, ground flaxseed, flax oil and walnuts also contain the nutrient.
- Choose low-glycemic index (GI) foods. High GI foods, such as refined white breads and pastas, added sugars and some fruits, cause blood sugar spikes and can increase triglyceride levels in some people. Instead, choose low GI alternatives, such as whole grain bread, whole wheat pasta and quinoa. Moderate your overall fruit intake—especially fruit juice—and focus on eating low GI fruits like apples, pears and berries.
More Strategies for a Heart-Healthy Diet
To get a more complete view of your heart health profile, your doctor may order a C-reactive protein (CRP) test along with your cholesterol profile. The CRP test reveals the levels of inflammation in the body and can help determine your risk for heart disease. If your doctor is concerned about your CRP result (levels less than 1.0 mg/L are desirable), the following may help:
- Increase your flavonoid intake. People who eat more foods rich in flavonoid compounds, such as apples and vegetables, tend to have lower CRP levels, according to a recent study from Michigan State University.
- Up your omega-3s. Like LDL cholesterol, eating omega-3 rich fish and other foods is also beneficial to your CRP levels. More: Inflammation-Fighting Foods
Too much of the amino acid homocysteine in the blood is also related to heart disease, though the American Heart Association does not consider it a major risk factor. If your homocysteine levels were checked and found to be high (greater than 2.3 mg/L):
- Eat a balanced diet. While the American Heart Association does not recommend supplements to reduce homocysteine levels, they do suggest a diet rich in vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy to ensure you’re getting plenty of folate and other B-vitamins, which help break down homocysteine in the body.