Heart-Healthy Foods that Lower Cholesterol

Dr. Christopher McGowan
February 16, 2023

Heart disease has been the leading cause of death in the United States since 1950, and in 2021 it claimed the lives of nearly 700,000 Americans. According to the American Heart Association, high cholesterol is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. But it’s also a factor that is controllable. High cholesterol levels have long been linked to dietary sources, and that means that choosing heart-healthy foods can actually lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of all types of cardiovascular disease.  

What is Cholesterol?       

Cholesterol is a subgroup of lipids, organic molecules that are also known as fats. As a type of fat, cholesterol is one of the main building blocks of tissue in the human body. In fact, cholesterol is one of the main structural elements of cell membranes. Cholesterol is also a precursor in the biosynthesis of some important vitamins, hormones, and other compounds used by cells all over the body. The liver synthesizes the vast majority of the cholesterol we need, but it can also come from food that is derived from animals. 

While cholesterol is generally found in the blood, it can’t travel through the bloodstream on its own. It needs to be attached to a protein, and in this state it is called a lipoprotein. The two main types are called low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL carries cholesterol into the arteries where it tends to be deposited along the arterial wall. HDL essentially does the reverse and carries cholesterol out of the arteries and on to the liver. 

Why Is Cholesterol Bad? 

Cholesterol is actually not inherently bad, and it’s a necessity for the human body to function properly. Though the liver synthesizes enough for the body’s needs, we can safely process additional cholesterol from animal-based food sources up to a point. It only becomes a problem when high levels in the blood cause it to build up in the arteries (atherosclerosis). Over time, this buildup can lead to increased blood pressure and stress on the circulatory system that dramatically increases one’s risk of heart disease.  

There are no symptoms of having high cholesterol, and you wouldn’t want to wait for symptoms related to heart disease to indicate a problem. The only way to know whether your cholesterol levels are too high is by getting them checked by a doctor. This is done via blood test, and the results will indicate four different numbers: 

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): LDL is considered the “bad” kind of cholesterol because it carries the cholesterol into the arteries where it builds up as plaque along the arterial walls. This narrows the arteries and is the source of numerous heart health-related problems. 
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL): HDL is considered the “good” kind of cholesterol because it carries cholesterol out of the articles and can even remove some plaque build up from the artery walls. Yet even though it’s good, it does have limits; HDL can only carry away about one third of blood cholesterol. 
  • Triglycerides: Triglycerides are a type of fat that can be used by the body for energy. A high triglyceride level, especially if combined with high LDL levels and low HDL levels, is often a strong indicator of increased risk for heart attack and stroke.  
  • Total cholesterol: Total cholesterol is the combined amount of HDL and LDL cholesterol levels and 20% of triglyceride levels. 

Fats that Increase Cholesterol 

For those with high cholesterol, one of the most important steps to take is to limit or eliminate foods with unhealthy fats. One type of fat you need to avoid is saturated fat; this is found in meats like beef, lamb, and pork as well as dairy products like butter and cream. Another type to avoid is trans fats; these are manufactured in an industrial process and they are found in fried foods and processed baked goods. Trans fats are also known as “partially hydrogenated oil” on some ingredient lists. 

By contrast, unsaturated fats are healthier and, when consumed in moderation, may even improve blood cholesterol. The two types of unsaturated fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These are found in fatty fish and some plant-based foods. There are also a number of liquid vegetable oils that contain unsaturated fat: extra virgin olive oil, canola oil, soybean oil, and flaxseed oil. Many of these oils are also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, a compound that is believed to provide a variety of health benefits. 

Cholesterol-Lowering Foods    

The connection between high cholesterol and numerous negative health outcomes has been well documented for decades. But unlike some other conditions, there are a variety of lifestyle changes that can decrease your risk for cardiovascular disease. One of the easiest changes to make is to develop a more healthy diet. Below are some foods and food groups that are known to lower LDL cholesterol:     

  • Whole grains: Whole grains like oat bran and rye contain a high amount of soluble fiber. In addition to being beneficial for other aspects of health, fiber has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol levels by limiting its absorption into the bloodstream. It only takes 5-10 grams of fiber per day to start making a difference.  
  • Fish: Fatty fish like mackerel, tuna, salmon, and sardines are rich in omega 3 fats that are known to reduce triglyceride levels and, by extension, total cholesterol. Omega 3 fatty acids can also be found in supplement form, but most doctors recommend dietary sources first.    
  • Nuts: Nuts like almonds and walnuts are beneficial for lowering cholesterol because they contain fiber and some omega 3 fats. Nuts are also relatively high in calories, however, and therefore they need to be eaten in moderation. 
  • Avocados: Avocados contain many beneficial nutrients as well as monounsaturated fat. Avocados are perhaps most popular as a dip for deep fried tortilla chips, though, so it would be better to add them into a balanced meal.  
  • Legumes: Lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, and other lentils are high in fiber and also good sources of protein. They are a versatile addition to many kinds of dishes, and they also have the benefit of being more filling.  
  • Vegetables: All green vegetables, like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach, and okra, contain good amounts of fiber as well as other important nutrients.   

You can add all of these heart-healthy foods (and more) to your diet, but if you’re not also replacing saturated and trans fats, it won’t make a significant difference in your cholesterol levels. It can start small at first: replace a serving of red meat with a serving of fish or cook a meal in olive oil rather than butter. Eventually, the goal should be to reduce calories from saturated fat to 6% or less. 

Weight Loss for Health 

Lowering your cholesterol is one of the best ways to reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease. Losing weight is another way, especially given that carrying extra body weight is also a factor for cardiovascular disease. Most Americans have tried to lose weight but just haven’t been able to make it work. That’s why at True You Weight Loss we offer a different approach that has a track record of success at helping people lose weight over the long run. If you’d like to learn more about how to find the freedom you’ve been looking for, please contact us to request a consultation

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan

Dr. Christopher McGowan, MD, a leader in endobariatrics, specializes in non-surgical obesity treatments and is triple-board-certified in Internal Medicine, Gastroenterology, and Obesity Medicine. Renowned for pioneering endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty (ESG) with over 2,000 procedures, his global influence and research contributions define him as a top expert.

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