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Sharp Health News

Foods that help lower cholesterol

Jan. 4, 2022

Green salad

We know that diet contributes to helping maintain a healthy weight. But did you also know that diet can play an important role in helping to lower cholesterol and, in turn, reduce the risk of heart disease?

Cholesterol — a waxy substance that travels through the bloodstream — can limit blood flow and lead to heart attack or stroke. But not all cholesterol is bad.

According to Lindsay Yau, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Centers, there are two main types of cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is often referred to as the “bad” cholesterol because it contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries. But HDL cholesterol — or the “good” cholesterol — helps remove excess cholesterol from the blood by carrying it back to the liver, which then removes it from the body.

The good news is there are foods that can help lower cholesterol levels and improve other risk factors for heart disease. These include:

High-fiber foods
Fiber-rich foods can help improve cholesterol. There are two types of fiber — soluble and insoluble — found in plant foods. Fiber is a type of indigestible carbohydrate that is beneficial for overall general health and prevention of chronic diseases. Therefore, it’s important to consume fiber from a variety of dietary sources.

Dietary fiber, particularly soluble fiber from whole grains — such as oats, brown rice and quinoa — as well as whole fruits, vegetables and legumes (beans, peas and lentils) may help lower LDL cholesterol.

Soluble fiber dissolves in water and forms a thick, gel-like substance that helps bind dietary cholesterol from the foods we eat. Women should aim for at least 25 grams of fiber per day and men should aim for at least 38 grams of fiber.

Most plant foods — fruits, vegetables, legumes, vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and whole grains — contain a small amount of a substance called plant sterols and stanols, also known as phytosterols, that may help lower LDL cholesterol. Consistent evidence has shown that as part of a balanced diet, consuming at least 2 grams of phytosterols per day is associated with reducing blood levels of LDL cholesterol by 8% to 10%.

Meeting the recommended amount of phytosterols from food alone can be difficult, but the added benefits of increased fiber and nutrient density from them is still beneficial in reducing cholesterol levels.

Omega-3 fatty acids
Replacing saturated fats with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to reduce blood triglyceride, or fat, levels and increase HDL cholesterol levels. Omega-3 fatty acids are found both naturally in food and added to some fortified foods. You can get adequate amounts by eating a variety of omega-3 rich foods, including:

  • Fish and other seafood — especially cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines
  • Nuts and seeds, such as flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts
  • Plant oils, such as flaxseed oil, soybean oil and canola oil
  • Fortified foods, such as certain brands of eggs, yogurt, juices, milk, soy beverages and infant formulas

“It’s also important to limit your intake of foods high in saturated fat,” says Yau, “as these can increase your LDL cholesterol and your risk of developing heart disease, stroke and obesity.”

Additionally, Yau says that exercise is important in maintaining heart health. “Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity each week,” she says. “Physical activity increases HDL cholesterol, which helps remove excess cholesterol from the body.”

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