Preventive Health

What you eat can help improve your cholesterol

If your cholesterol numbers are high and your health care provider recommends you work to improve them, you can choose from among many lifestyle changes to turn that around. These include exercise, weight reduction and medication, to name a few.

True to the maxim “you are what you eat,” food choices can make a big difference in your cholesterol numbers and, therefore, your overall health.

“Diet matters when it comes to cholesterol,” said Mary Vojta, a registered dietitian with OSF HealthCare Cardiovascular Institute.

It’s not just one number

Total cholesterol count isn’t the only “number” to focus on. These individual elements are important to know and improve as well:

  • LDL, or low-density lipoproteins. When it comes to LDL, the lower the number, the better.
  • HDL, or high-density lipoproteins. A higher number here is best.
  • Triglycerides, which are cholesterol building blocks. The lower the number, the better.

So what are proven food strategies to get those numbers moving in the right direction?

“Reducing saturated fat and increasing soluble fiber are two of the best dietary ways to improve cholesterol numbers,” Mary said.

In particular, making those dietary changes can significantly reduce LDL and triglyceride numbers.

Reducing saturated fat

Saturated fat is found chiefly in animal products, such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy, and butter and cheese. It’s also found in coconut, palm and palm kernel oils. Keeping those to a minimum is key. No more than 10% of daily calories should come from these, and even less for those who have heart disease, Mary said.

Instead, unsaturated, heart-healthy fats such as avocado oil and olive oil can be used deliciously to replace saturated fat in recipes. Substituting low-fat dairy and lean meats also helps reduce saturated fat.

Increasing soluble fiber

What foods should you eat more of? Those rich in soluble fiber.

Soluble fiber — the indigestible parts of plants — can actually reduce LDL cholesterol and triglyceride numbers, Mary said.

That’s because soluble fiber creates a gel as it dissolves. As it moves through the digestive system, the gel binds with cholesterol, preventing it from increasing cholesterol in the bloodstream.

Foods that are rich in soluble fiber include:

  • Apples
  • Avocados
  • Beans
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Flaxseeds
  • Oats
  • Sweet potatoes

Plant sterols also can significantly improve cholesterol numbers, Mary said. Sterols naturally occur in nuts. Certain foods and drinks are fortified with sterols to help reduce cholesterol.

Choose the right diet

When it comes to overall diet, Mary said the best healthy eating plan is one that a person can stick to long term.

Are trendy diets good for improving cholesterol numbers? That depends.

A low-carb diet usually helps people lose weight, she said. As a result, cholesterol numbers, especially triglycerides, often improve. But that kind of diet is often not sustainable, and once eating returns to pre-low-carb style, lab numbers can worsen.

The keto diet — high fat, low carbs — is not a good idea for those working to improve their cholesterol numbers.

“I’m not a fan of keto because it can actually increase LDL numbers, due to its high saturated fat content,” Mary said.

Vegan diets are an excellent way to help improve cholesterol numbers, but long-term eating this way can be difficult. Mary suggested those who want to try eating vegan consider adopting a “meatless Monday” routine to help develop that pattern.

To improve cholesterol numbers, choose a low-fat, whole foods, plant-based diet.

A popular diet that matches this profile is the Mediterranean diet, which features a large amount of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and beans and legumes. A small amount of lean meat and dairy is also included. The DASH diet (a dietary approach to reduce hypertension, or high blood pressure) is similar. These diets also limit added sugars.

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