This article was refreshed on November 15, 2021 to reflect recent research and information.
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A diet rich in healthy fats, antioxidants and soluble fiber can keep your cholesterol levels in check.
A heart-healthy diet should also include less meat, fewer dairy fats and little to no saturated fat.
A Providence heart doctor shares some easy tips for updating what’s on your plate to benefit your cholesterol – before, during and after the holidays.
It’s no secret: Exercise, healthy lifestyle choices and a well-balanced diet all play an essential role in your health, particularly in lowering your cholesterol. With so many healthy ingredients available, and so many delicious temptations during this part of the year, it can be hard to know what food to prioritize.
We called in an expert, Providence cardiologist Jason Bensch, M.D., to share some easy ways to help lower your cholesterol with the foods you eat.
A heart-healthy diet is the foundation for all of our patients to reduce their risk for cardiovascular diseases and events like stroke and heart attacks. There are certain foods that can help lower cholesterol.
“A heart-healthy diet is the foundation for all of our patients to reduce their risk for cardiovascular diseases and events like stroke and heart attacks. There are certain foods that can help lower cholesterol,” says Dr. Bensch. “These foods can be an important addition to a heart-healthy diet to help keep cholesterol in check.”
Read on to learn more about these cholesterol-lowering ingredients and delicious ways you can add them to your plate, both before, during and after the holidays.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is packaged into spherical molecules called lipoproteins along with other lipids like triglycerides. Cholesterol can be made by your liver or can be absorbed from your diet (called dietary cholesterol), especially if it includes certain animal products, such as meat or dairy.
Low-density lipoproteins, or LDL, contain mostly cholesterol and are the main cause of plaque buildup in our large arteries. High-density lipoproteins, or HDL, are thought to be somewhat protective against heart disease—and indeed, higher levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with favorable outcomes for patients.
“Having too much LDL cholesterol in your blood can raise your risk for cardiovascular disease,” explains Dr. Bensch.
Why do I need to keep my cholesterol in check?
When LDL cholesterol is elevated, it can enter the walls of the blood vessels and cause plaque buildup. This buildup of plaque in the walls of arteries and blood vessels is called atherosclerosis and can eventually lead to narrowing of the blood vessel limiting blood flow, or the plaque can rupture, leading to a heart attack or stroke.
“Atherosclerosis increases your risk of heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease, and maintaining healthy levels of LDL-cholesterol is one of the best ways to reduce your risk over time,” says Dr. Bensch.
HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, can help carry LDL cholesterol away from the arteries and into the liver, which can break down the cholesterol and help reduce your risk for heart attack or stroke.
While it’s important to limit foods that can increase cholesterol, you can also help your heart health by incorporating ingredients that can actively lower your LDL cholesterol or raise levels of HDL cholesterol.
Foods that can help improve your cholesterol
The first step in lowering your cholesterol is reducing your dietary cholesterol.
- Eating less meat – Try meals that feature plant-based proteins, like beans, or “meaty” vegetables, like eggplant and mushrooms. If you do eat meat, try to stick to lean cuts with less fat (chuck, round or sirloin) or poultry (chicken and turkey).
- Reducing saturated fats – Saturated fats are found in fried and processed foods. Try baking foods, rather than frying, and limit fast food and processed meats like hot dogs and sausage.
- Limiting dairy fats – Stick to low-fat milk, cheese and yogurt whenever possible.
While it’s important to limit foods that can increase cholesterol, you can also help your heart health by incorporating ingredients that can actively lower your LDL cholesterol or raise levels of HDL cholesterol. Here are a few favorites to add to your plate:
Have you been eating more chocolate during the pandemic? Depending on the type of chocolate, it may have some health benefits. Studies have shown that eating dark chocolate can help your heart in many ways. Not only can it help improve blood flow and blood pressure, but it may also improve overall cholesterol levels. The antioxidants in dark chocolate can help reduce the amount of LDL cholesterol buildup in the blood.
More recent studies have shown that combining dark chocolate with almonds can also help reduce levels of LDL cholesterol.
While dark chocolate can be a healthy substitute for your sweet tooth cravings, remember to keep everything in moderation.
“Try sticking to just a few ounces of dark chocolate a week,” says Dr. Bensch. “And keep it simple — avoid any bars that include added sugar or fat.”
Nuts are loaded with healthy, unsaturated fats that can help lower LDL cholesterol. Research consistently shows that tree nuts — including almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, cashews, hazelnuts and Brazil nuts — can not only lower cholesterol but also reduce fats in the blood, called triglycerides, that cause the arteries to harden and increase the risk for heart attack or stroke.
“Nuts are easy to add to holiday snacks and desserts, but keep in mind that they are still high in calories,” notes Dr. Bensch. “Aim for one-and-a-half ounces per day (about a handful). Try them for a healthy snack during the day, or add them to your oatmeal or low-fat yogurt for breakfast. And if possible, stick to unsalted nuts, as added sodium can increase your blood pressure.”
Whole grains and other high-fiber foods
Fiber-packed whole grains, including oats, barley and oat bran, can all help keep your cholesterol levels in check. These foods feature soluble fiber, which can also help reduce the amount of cholesterol your body absorbs.
Try switching up your breakfast routine with different takes on oatmeal by adding various healthy toppings like fruit, nuts or honey.
Dr. Bensch offers this tip: “Try switching up your breakfast routine with different takes on oatmeal by adding various healthy toppings like fruit, nuts or honey. Or, you can make a tasty side dish for dinner with barley.”
Aim for 5 to 10 grams of high-fiber foods every day, making sure to mix in other fiber-full ingredients like bananas, pears, berries, apples and beans.
Avocados are more than just a trendy food. They’re loaded with nutrients and a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. This healthy fat can boost HDL cholesterol and lower LDL cholesterol. Avocados can also add fiber to your diet, which helps your body absorb less cholesterol.
Avocados are loaded with nutrients and a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. This healthy fat can boost HDL cholesterol and lower LDL cholesterol.
Aside from the popular avocado toast, try using avocado as a substitute for less healthy spreads and dips. Try replacing mayonnaise with mashed avocado on your leftover Thanksgiving turkey sandwich. Or try making a healthy appetizer of avocado dip for vegetables and whole-grain crackers.
Avocados can also be used as a binder for smoothies if you’re looking to mix up your recipes that often use bananas.
Raspberries are filled with an antioxidant called polyphenol, which can reduce LDL cholesterol levels in the blood and boost HDL cholesterol. Antioxidants can also help fight free radicals, chemicals in the body that can make LDL cholesterol more likely to stick to the side of an artery wall.
These tart and sweet fruits can be a great addition to your morning breakfast routine. They also can be used to make a healthy raspberry vinaigrette for your lunch or dinner salad.
Like avocados, olive oil and other vegetable oils have healthy, unsaturated fats that can lower LDL cholesterol levels.
“Extra-virgin olive oil is the most beneficial option, as it’s less processed and has more antioxidants,” notes Dr. Bensch.
Olive oil and other vegetable oils have healthy, unsaturated fats that can lower LDL cholesterol levels. Instead of using butter or lard for cooking meats and vegetables, try sautéing them in olive oil.
“When you’re cooking, instead of using butter or lard for meats and vegetables, try sautéing them in olive oil. You can also use olive oil to make heart-healthy salad dressings or even baked goods.”
Try this delicious and healthy banana bread recipe that uses oil as a substitute for butter.
Consider swapping out one of your cups of coffee for a cup of tea. Research has shown that tea may reduce bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol. Green tea, in particular, was linked to lower LDL cholesterol and lower blood pressure in a 2020 study.
“While I could never advocate giving up something as delicious as coffee, I think tea can be a helpful addition to a diet for a variety of reasons,” says Dr. Bensch. “A hot cup of tea can be relaxing before bed or during colder months. It can also be a tasty and low-calorie way to end your evening instead of dessert.”
Studies have shown that fish with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids can reduce LDL cholesterol and triglycerides while improving HDL cholesterol levels. Salmon and anchovies are both very high in omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids help the body create hormones that control inflammation, blood clotting, and the contraction or relaxation of artery walls.
If you’re not into fish, fear not.
“There are plenty of other foods that also contain these important fatty acids, including walnuts, vegetable oils, leafy green vegetables and flax seeds,” explains Dr. Bensch. “These can be sprinkled into foods, so even the pickiest eaters can’t detect them.”
Healthy foods for cardiovascular health
Whether you’re sharing your holiday meals virtually or in person, remember that what you eat can affect your heart health. There are several easy food additions or substitutions that can help your cholesterol. Foods like avocados, olive oil and even dark chocolate can lower your LDL cholesterol or raise levels of HDL cholesterol. Try to think of ways to add these foods to your typical dishes or create something new for your plate.
COVID-19 and heart conditions
It’s important to note that having a heart condition doesn’t make you more likely to get COVID-19. But having a pre-existing heart condition like high blood pressure, AFib, heart failure or pulmonary disease creates a higher risk of more severe infection if you do get COVID-19. That’s because these heart conditions lower the natural reserves your body needs to fight the infection.
There are a few things you can do to take care of your heart and help prevent a heart emergency during this pandemic.
- Keep taking your heart disease medicines (including your high blood pressure and high cholesterol drugs) based on your doctor’s orders.
- Make sure you have at least a 30-day supply of those medicines.
- Call your doctor right away if you have new concerns about your health, especially if you feel sick.
Most important of all, the American Heart Association says, “Don’t die of doubt.” If you experience the first sign of a heart attack or stroke, call 911. Hospitals are still the safest place you can go to receive lifesaving treatment. Don’t delay getting emergency care if you need it.
Find a doctor
You can learn more about your cholesterol levels and how to keep them in check by reaching out to your doctor. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can access a full range of healthcare services.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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