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High cholesterol is super common. In fact, it’s so common that 93 million people in the U.S. alone currently suffer from high cholesterol. Yet it’s hard to know what’s happening inside your blood vessels and arteries unless you’re getting regular blood tests. High cholesterol is a silent health concern, one that develops over time with no noticeable symptoms or obvious signs. But since high cholesterol can be tied to cardiovascular issues like an increased risk of heart disease, strokes and heart attacks, it’s incredibly important to pay attention to.
Fortunately, diet and cholesterol are often linked. Your diet can cause high cholesterol, and it just might be the solution to solving it too. If you adopt healthier eating habits, you could potentially lower your “bad” cholesterol levels or your overall high cholesterol. And while some cholesterol-friendly dietary changes are kind of obvious – like avoiding fried foods and processed products – small changes and different diets can both make a difference.
Wondering where to start? Make the following changes to your daily diet, and you just might be able to have a positive effect on your high cholesterol.
Keep your fat intake low
While fat isn’t inherently bad for you, some fats definitely are. One of the biggest cholesterol-raising culprits? Saturated fats and trans fats.
As the Mayo Clinic explains, saturated fats and trans fats are often tied to high cholesterol. Saturated fats, which are present in red meat and full-fat dairy products, can raise your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – or the “bad” kind of cholesterol. Similarly, trans fats present in everything from packaged cookies and crackers to microwave popcorn and margarine can increase your cholesterol levels. And trans fats raise your cholesterol across the board.
Additionally, even if you’re sticking to the healthier kinds of fat – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats – it’s a good idea to keep your overall fat intake under control when battling high cholesterol. Stick with the daily recommended total: No more than 25 to 35% of your total daily calories should come from fat of any kind. So, if you’re sticking with 2,000 calories per day, you’ll want to limit even healthy fats to between 56 and 78 grams total.
Get plenty of omega-3 fatty acids
Here’s a kind of fat you shouldn’t skimp on. Omega-3 fatty acids are fantastic for high cholesterol and your overall heart health, and it’s a good idea to eat foods rich in this key nutrient often.
While omega-3 fatty acids won’t lower your LDL cholesterol, they can fight bad with good. These fatty acids can raise your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels to counteract your high LDL levels. And if you’re getting plenty of omega-3s on a regular basis, you’ll also work to protect yourself against blood clots, potentially lower your risk for heart attacks and fight inflammation.
You can get omega-3s from supplements like fish oil and flaxseed oil. But foods like spinach, walnuts, flaxseed, nut butters and even grass-fed beef are also great sources. One of the best ways to get a high dose of omega-3s is to eat fish – salmon, tuna and mackerel are all great sources and can offer all-around heart health benefits when eaten regularly.
Increase your soluble fiber intake
Dietary fiber is essential in any healthy diet. You need it for digestive health, and it can offer benefits that stretch from better blood sugar control to improved satiety and less hunger. But when it comes to cholesterol, getting your fill of fiber is even more important.
Soluble fiber is particularly beneficial for individuals with high cholesterol because it works right at the source: your bloodstream. Eating plenty of soluble fiber actually reduces the amount of cholesterol that your body absorbs into your bloodstream, which can lower your levels overall. So, if you aren’t getting enough soluble fiber, increasing your intake can be beneficial.
You’ll find soluble fiber in plenty of CE favorites, from whole-grain oatmeal and oat bran to fresh fruits like avocados, apples, oranges, pears and bananas to veggies like Brussels sprouts and broccoli. All kinds of legumes, like kidney beans, black beans, lentils and chickpeas, also contain plenty of this cholesterol-fighting fiber. And you can learn even more fiber-boosting tips and tricks with our guide to increasing your fiber intake.
You already know that salt is both good and bad. It’s essential for cooking, but it’s also tied to plenty of health concerns and risks. And while salt is part of everyone’s diet, it can be particularly risky for those who are battling cholesterol.
While salt itself isn’t actually going to raise your cholesterol, it has far-reaching effects that can contribute to your risk for high cholesterol and other cardiovascular issues. Too much salt in your food can increase your risk for heart disease, increase your blood pressure and put you at risk for conditions like heart failure and stroke. It’s important to keep your sodium intake under control to prevent your high cholesterol from turning into a more significant health problem.
Try to keep your sodium at no more than 2,300 milligrams per day – or about 1 teaspoon of salt. Sodium can sneak into your diet without you even realizing it, so keep a close eye on the ingredients and nutrition labels of all of the food products you buy. You can also look for “no added salt” or reduced sodium labels to keep the added salt content under control.
Try whey protein
You might think whey protein is solely for building muscle, but it’s surprisingly beneficial for high cholesterol. Taken both as a dietary supplement and found in plenty of dairy products, whey protein is a complete protein that can potentially have a positive impact on everything from building muscle to weight loss to managing type 2 diabetes.
When it comes to cholesterol, whey protein has been found to be particularly beneficial when taken as a supplement. A 2010 research study found that taking whey protein daily for 12 weeks led to a noticeable reduction in both LDL and total cholesterol levels. Additionally, a 2016 research review of the results of previous studies found that in some individuals, taking a whey protein supplement could reduce total cholesterol; in others, it lowered triacylglycerol levels significantly.
You can try increasing your intake of whey protein through dairy products, if you aren’t sensitive or allergic to them. Or, as research suggests, you can try a whey protein powder supplement to get a bit more every day.
If you’re looking for a cholesterol-friendly, heart-healthy diet that’ll help you tackle high cholesterol alongside other concerns, the Mediterranean diet is one of the best approaches. With an emphasis on foods high in monounsaturated fats, plenty of fruits and veggies, high-fiber grains, fish (particularly varieties rich in omega-3 fatty acids), and lean cuts of meat, it includes some of the essential items for achieving healthy cholesterol levels.
And there’s proof that going Mediterranean can have a positive impact on high cholesterol. According to the Mayo Clinic, eating the foods of the Mediterranean diet can help decrease triglycerides, reduce the risk of heart failure and stroke, and fight inflammation. More directly, those same foods – and olive oil in particular – can lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels.
Studies have also shown that those who adopt the Mediterranean diet and have high cholesterol can lower lipid levels by an average of 10 percent. But it doesn’t just combat “bad” cholesterol. Eating Mediterranean-approved foods can also increase your “good” HDL cholesterol levels by as much as 5 percent. In some individuals, the diet even helped limit the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which can lead to atherosclerosis (or the buildup of plaque in the arteries).
What can you eat on the Mediterranean diet? There are a lot of choices. Rather than restricting a number of foods, this diet prioritizes more good-for-you foods over foods like red meat, refined carbohydrates and sugars, dairy products and unhealthy fats. Just try one of our Mediterranean diet meal plans to find out how many great choices you can make with this way of eating!
And if you’re interested in learning more about keeping your cholesterol levels and your heart healthy, keep reading:
- Eat More Beets for Your Heart, Brain and Endurance
- Decrease Your Risk for Heart Disease by Eating More Nuts
- Can Yogurt Keep Your Heart Healthy?
- Heart Healthy Protein: How Amino Acids Help
Featured Recipe: Low-Carb Chicken Parmesan