Although cholesterol has received a bad reputation in the diet community, it is not inherently bad. Cholesterol is a type of fat in the body that helps to build cells. There are two kinds: healthy HDL cholesterol and unhealthy LDL cholesterol. Too much LDL can raise your risk of heart attack and stroke.
There are several ways to prevent high cholesterol, and some may surprise you. You may not know that full-fat milk is healthier than skim milk, or that you don't have to exclude saturated fats. Here are the habits, diet advice, and knowledge that you need to keep your cholesterol levels healthy.
First, Check If It's Genetic
Some people can inherit high cholesterol. The condition is called familial hypercholesterolemia and is often undiagnosed. The American Heart Association says that if you have a family history of high cholesterol or early cardiac death, you may want to get tested for the condition. It is an "invisible" disease, meaning that it shows few to no symptoms.
Because of a genetic mutation, familial hypercholesterolemia causes harmful LDL cholesterol to be unusually high. According to the Familial Hypercholesterolemia Foundation, people who leave it untreated are at an increased risk of heart disease. Cholesterol tests and medical history can diagnose the condition.
Eat More Oats
If you're an oats lover, you may have healthy cholesterol levels. In 2016, a study from St. Michael's Hospital determined that eating oats lowers cholesterol levels. Participants who ate oats for over 50 years had a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
The researchers said that oats interrupt LDL cholesterol. LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is called the "bad" cholesterol because it builds up in your blood vessels. Another study in Food & Function found that oats reduce LDL cholesterol by 16%. A bowl of oatmeal can provide fiber, lower blood pressure, and stabilize cholesterol.
Limit (But Don't Exclude) Saturated Fats
Saturated fat has received a negative reputation in previous decades. In 2018, a study in OpenHeart determined that saturated fats raise both HDL (high-density lipoprotein) and LDL cholesterol. In high amounts, it could harm your heart. The American Heart Association tells people to limit daily saturated fat to 6%.
The good news is that eating saturated fats in moderation will not raise the risk of heart disease. In fact, 2017 research in The Lancet found no correlation between saturated fats and cardiovascular illness. Limit these fats, and your cholesterol levels will thank you.
You Might Be Eating Too Much Sugar
A healthy person should eat six to nine teaspoons of sugar per day. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar daily. This is bad news for cholesterol, which has a negative response to sugar.
In 2010, research from the American Medical Association announced that the more sugar you eat, the less HDL you have. Participants also had higher LDL cholesterol when they ate more sweets. Avoiding sugary drinks, such as sodas and juices, can effectively aid your cholesterol levels.
Dietary Cholesterol Barely Impact Blood Cholesterol
It's easy to mix up cholesterol in food with cholesterol in the blood. Believe it or not, dietary cholesterol hardly affects the body's cholesterol. According to Harvard Health Publishing, the greatest impact on cholesterol comes from the fats found in foods.
In fact, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines are planning not to put as much emphasis on dietary cholesterol. Nutrition researchers agree that fats, sugars, salt, and genetics play a larger role in heart disease than food cholesterol. Don't worry about that kind; take action for the cholesterol in your blood.
Full Fat Milk Can Actually Be A Healthier Choice
For decades, experts have advised people to drink skim milk for heart health. But recent studies have challenged this. In 2018, scientists from the University of Copenhagen discovered that full-fat milk is better for cholesterol. While skim milk can lower LDL cholesterol, whole milk reduces LDL and raises HDL.
Another study from Tufts University came to the same conclusion. The researchers found that heptadecanoic fatty acid actually shrinks the risk of mortality from heart disease. Study author Marcia Otto claimed that "a growing body of evidence" reaffirms that full-fat dairy is good for you.
Adding Spices Helps More Than Just Taste
What's the easiest and tastiest way to reduce cholesterol? Add spices to your meals. A study in Current Cardiology Reviews concluded that Indian spices--including garlic, ginger, black pepper, cinnamon, coriander, and turmeric--improve cholesterol levels. They suppress harmful LDL cholesterol in the body.
Nutritionist Sharon Zarabi told Everyday Health that spices stabilize fat in cells. This results and fewer triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood. Every spice is different, but many are nutrient-packed, especially when you eat them fresh. Search for ones with high antioxidants, such as turmeric, to detox your body.
The Dangers Of A Low-Sodium Diet
A common myth tells people to reduce salt intake for the sake of their hearts. This works for people with hypertension and diabetes. However, if you lower sodium too much, you risk having more cholesterol.
According to a study in The American Journal of Hypertension, reducing sodium led to a 1% drop in blood pressure (3% in people with hypertension). But it heightened cholesterol by 2.5% and triglycerides by 7%. "We know that a decrease in blood pressure would probably improve or decrease the risk of cardiovascular death," said lead author Neil Gradual. "But, on the other hand, an increase in [cholesterol] would increase the risk."
Watch Out For Trans Fats
Trans fats are the least healthy type of fat for cholesterol. According to Harvard researchers, trans fats increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol. Doing so raises your blood pressure and puts you at a greater risk of heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends searching for products with zero trans fats and no "partially hydrogenated oils." Try to lower trans fats to 1% of your daily diet, less than two grams per day. Always check the nutrition labels for trans fats before buying prepackaged foods.
Get More Fiber Through Beans
Even a few beans can impact your cholesterol. Scientists in Canada discovered that every serving of beans reduces LDL cholesterol by 5%. One serving is only three-quarters of a cup, and eating beans frequently could keep your cholesterol low.
Beans provide soluble and insoluble fibers, which absorb cholesterol in the gut. While beans lower LDL cholesterol, they do not affect HDL cholesterol, which can benefit your heart. Beans will also keep your digestive system running smoothly. There is no downside to eating them.
Don't Wait To Check Your Cholesterol
Some people believe that they don't need to worry about cholesterol until late adulthood. That is not true. High cholesterol could impact people of any age and weight. Because it shows no symptoms, you won't know if you have it unless you get tested fairly regularly. Doing so could prevent disease in the future.
According to the CDC, the average healthy adult gets their cholesterol checked every four to six years. If you have a heart condition, diabetes, or a family history of high cholesterol, get it checked every year. It is a simple blood draw test.
Don't Tie Cholesterol To Weight
Overweight and obese people are indeed more likely to have high cholesterol. However, don't let weight or body type sway your opinion. Thin people are also likely to get high cholesterol, says the American Heart Association.
People who do not gain weight easily may not feel motivated to eat heart-healthy. No one can eat anything they want consequence-free. Regardless of your weight, take steps to stabilize cholesterol. Enjoy a healthy diet, exercise, and get tested whether or not you think you're at risk.
Good News For Avocado Toast Fans
If you love avocado toast, you're in luck. Researchers from Penn State claimed that an avocado a day might lower your LDL cholesterol. Specifically, avocado swept away oxidized LDL particles. These are "activated" to start harming your arteries.
"Oxidation is not good," said nutrition professor Penny Kris-Etherton. It can cause inflammation and damage your blood vessels. By eating avocados, you can remove some LDL cholesterol and oxidation. According to the Journal of the American Heart Association, you can thank avocado's healthy unsaturated fats for its effects on cholesterol.
Any Type Of Nut Will Help
In 2010, the Archives of Internal Medicine recorded 25 trials on nuts. Researchers concluded that nuts could reduce LDL cholesterol by 7.4% and total cholesterol by 5.1%. It does not matter which type of nuts you eat; almost all have been proven to regulate cholesterol.
Walnuts can lower LDL cholesterol by 10% and raise HDL cholesterol, according to a 2004 study. In 2005, another study found that almonds and soy are among the best cholesterol-lowering foods. And these are just a handful of studies done on cholesterol. Go nuts!
Olive Oil Is Better Than Other Oils
Olive oil is one of the healthiest cooking oils for cholesterol. In 2018, research in BMJ Open compared olive oil, coconut oil, and butter. Of the three, olive oil improved LDL cholesterol levels better than both alternatives. Coconut oil was the second best and also increased HDL cholesterol.
Scientists believe that olive oil's effect on cholesterol can help the heart. Researcher Marta Guasch-Ferre said that Mediterranean countries, which have a higher consumption of olive oil, also have lower rates of heart disease. Thank stabilized cholesterol for those health benefits.
Believe It Or Not, Dark Chocolate Helps
It sounds too good to be true: chocolate can enhance cholesterol levels. Specifically, raw cocoa has antioxidants that counter LDL cholesterol. During a 2015 study, participants enjoyed a cocoa drink twice a day for one month. Their LDL levels decreased, and their HDL cholesterol increased.
According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, cocoa prevents LDL from oxidizing. This might delay heart disease down the line. For the best results, eat dark chocolate with a cocoa content of at least 75%. These results have not appeared with milk chocolate or white chocolate.
How Exercise Reduces Cholesterol
If you want to lower LDL cholesterol, stick to an exercise routine. Researchers have long known that exercise can help cholesterol, but scientist Amit Khera has suggested why. One reason is that enzymes from exercise convert cholesterol into bile. Exercise also enlarges protein particles, which carry cholesterol through the blood.
As a result, exercise can reduce LDL cholesterol. Fortunately, a study in Sports Medicine explained that you don't need intense exercise to make a difference. Moderate aerobic exercises are enough to regulate your cholesterol levels.
Get Omega-3 Fatty Acids From Fish
To get enough omega-3 fatty acids, eat fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel. Doing so will lower harmful cholesterol. In the European Journal of Nutrition, a 25-year-long study concluded that fish might prevent people from developing high blood pressure and cholesterol.
Cardiologist Leslie Cho recommends eating two servings of fatty fish per week. If you decide to use fish oil pills, take them in moderation, she says. Otherwise, you'll heighten LDL cholesterol as well as HDL cholesterol. You're better off receiving omega-3s naturally.
Increase Your Fiber Intake
The easiest way to protect your cholesterol levels is to eat more fiber. According to the Rayleigh Medical Group, fiber clings to cholesterol in your small intestines and prevents it from absorbing into your bloodstream. Excreting some cholesterol prevents it from becoming too high.
Research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered that even small amounts of fiber could lower LDL cholesterol. For instance, a bowl of oatmeal with three grams of fiber reduces LDL by 0.13 mmol/L. Include more fiber in your diet, and your cholesterol will gradually improve.
Vegetable Oils Improve Cholesterol, But Not Heart Disease
Vegetable oils, including palm, soy, and canola oils, are touted as being better for cholesterol than saturated fats. The conclusion came from a five-year study in the '60s that was never analyzed by peers. But a 2016 study in The BMJ came to a different conclusion.
Researchers discovered that replacing saturated fats with vegetable oil does lower cholesterol slightly. However, this seemed to have no bearing on heart disease. It also became harmful for participants over 65. And vegetable oils are not as good for cholesterol as olive oil.
Try Whole Grains Like Barley
Switching to whole-grain products could benefit your cholesterol levels. In 2015, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition determined that whole grains lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. They provide nutrients and fiber that clean the bloodstream.
One of the best whole grains for cholesterol is barley. According to a systematic review in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, barley has beta-glucans that reduce LDL cholesterol. HDL cholesterol levels remain the same, which is ideal for a healthy heart and blood. Barley comes in some snack foods, cereals, and protein bars.
Another Reason To Manage Stress
People who are chronically stressed have a greater chance of developing high cholesterol. In 2007, researchers questioned participants over three years. Participants who reported that they were stressed were more likely to have high LDL cholesterol, despite not having it prior.
Another study examined over 200 men in London. After reviewing blood tests and stress tests, researchers came to the same conclusion. Fifty-six percent of participants had high cholesterol after reporting negatively on stress tests. Scientists aren't sure why stress impacts cholesterol, but lowering your daily stress will still help.
Know That Gender Can Influence Your Risk
A person's gender slightly influences their chances of high cholesterol. In 2016, scientists compared cholesterol tests from random inpatients in an Indian hospital. They determined that men are more likely to get high cholesterol than women. However, a woman's risk rises after menopause.
According to the American Heart Association, premenopausal women have the hormone estrogen that tends to raise HDL cholesterol. That said, don't think that only men get high cholesterol. The condition could arise in anyone, of any gender, and relies more on habits than genetics.
The Best Cholesterol-Fighting Seeds: Flaxseed
The best seed for cholesterol is flax. Flaxseeds contain fiber and some omega-3 fatty acids, both of which improve cholesterol. According to The Canadian Journal of Cardiology, flaxseeds prevent cholesterol from being deposited into the blood.
During a 2012 London study, researchers compared week-long diets with a flaxseed drink and flax bread. The flax drink was the best, lowering LDL cholesterol by up to 15%. Flax bread also improved cholesterol levels in participants. You can add ground flax into cereals and drinks or bake it into pastries.
Anything Soy Can Help Cholesterol
Soy products can improve cholesterol in the blood. After reviewing 43 scientific trials in The Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that soy can reduce LDL levels by 4%. Participants ate 25 mg of soy every day for six weeks. That is equal to 3.5 cups of soy milk or one large scoop of soy protein powder.
Another scientific review, this time of 35 studies, discovered that soy raises HDL cholesterol. In other words, it lowers the "bad" cholesterol and heightens the "good" cholesterol. Any soy product, such as tofu, tempeh, or soybeans, can help you.
Why Fried Foods Are Bad For Cholesterol
When foods are fried in trans fat, they only harm your cholesterol. In 2014, a study concluded that fried foods could lead to heart disease and diabetes. The lead author, Dr. Leah Cahill, said that the frying process results in higher cholesterol, along with high blood pressure and obesity.
On a positive note, you can make healthier fried foods at home. According to a 2012 study in The BMJ, frying food in saturated fats and butter is most likely to worsen cholesterol. Frying in olive and sunflower oil produces better results. Even so, it's best to avoid fried foods overall.
How To Make Your Diet "Berry Great"
Out of all the fruits, berries are most likely to improve cholesterol. According to a study by the American Chemical Society, "berries can significantly reduce the buildup of LDL cholesterol." The researchers said that this is because of their potent antioxidants.
Blueberries have the highest antioxidants of any berry. In 2004, the USDA Research Center discovered that blueberries have a unique compound called pterostilbene. This compound breaks down cholesterol. Scientists believe that pterostilbene also has anti-cancer and anti-diabetes properties. That said, you should eat any berries to cut down cholesterol.
It's Time To Quit Smoking
Believe it or not, smoke can worsen your cholesterol levels. Heart UK explains that tobacco makes LDL cholesterol "stickier." It clings to the walls of your arteries, raising blood pressure and harming your heart.
Smoke also reduces healthy HDL cholesterol. Usually, HDL cholesterol can sweep the artery walls. If the levels are too low, your blood pressure will pay the price. When someone quits their bad habit, their cholesterol levels will gradually return to normal. If you needed an extra reason to quit, consider this it.
The Perks Of Green And Black Teas
Good news for tea lovers: green and black teas have a positive effect on cholesterol. In 2003, scientists gave tea extracts to people with high cholesterol. After two months, participants had 16% lower LDL cholesterol. This worked for both black and green teas.
Green tea, in particular, has potent antioxidants. In 2011, researchers analyzed 14 randomized controlled trials on green tea. They discovered that the tea's catechins significantly lower LDL cholesterol. Mohsen Meydani, a nutrition professor at Tuft University, recommends drinking tea instead of taking extracts. Who wouldn't enjoy a cup of tea, anyway?
Guard Your Sleep Schedule
A lack of sleep could cause several issues, such as high blood pressure, harsher cravings, and cloudy thinking. Scientists from the University of Helsinki determined that it could also harm cholesterol. When participants didn't get enough sleep, they had lower HDL cholesterol.
Researchers believe that the genes responsible for healthy cholesterol function slow down from lack of sleep. When people are tired, they may make unhealthy diet decisions. They also tend to become more stressed. All of these contribute to high cholesterol; you can eliminate these factors by getting enough sleep regularly.