How To Improve Your Cholesterol Levels
(And why cutting out cholesterol containing foods doesn’t make a difference - for most people)
“I don’t eat eggs as I’m worried about my cholesterol.”
Yes, eggs contain cholesterol. But, (and it’s a big but)… for most people, the cholesterol they get from their diet has very little effect on their cholesterol levels! This may be counter intuitive but the more cholesterol in your diet, the less your liver makes.
So how does your diet affect your cholesterol levels and is cholesterol all bad?
With all the concerns about cholesterol, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a dangerous substance! But, as with many other substances in your body, it’s about balance. You need cholesterol to make sex and stress hormones, as well as vitamin D and bile salts. It is also needed to maintain cell membranes and insulate nerves. Whilst cholesterol is essential, too much increases your risk of a heart attack or stroke.
There are also different types of cholesterol.
‘Bad’ and ‘Good’ Cholesterol
The ‘bad’ cholesterol, low density lipoprotein (LDL), carries cholesterol and fats from food and from your liver to cells. Problems occur when this LDL is oxidised. The oxidised LDLs deposit cholesterol in your arteries forming fatty plaques (atheromas). This narrows your arteries, restricting blood flow and increasing the risk of clots.
The ‘good’ cholesterol’, high density lipoprotein (HDL), transports cholesterol from your cells to your liver where it is excreted via bile into your intestine and eliminated in your stool. So this ‘good’ cholesterol removes excess cholesterol from your body, preventing it from accumulating in your arteries. HDL also carries antioxidants and an enzyme that may help detoxify the oxidized LDL cholesterol.
Dietary changes to improve your cholesterol
So what dietary changes can you make to increase ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, decrease ’bad’ LDL cholesterol and protect against the oxidation of LDL cholesterol? Here are ten changes you can make - six types of food to include or increase and four to reduce.
Include / Increase
Unsaturated fats - The fats in nuts, seeds, oily fish, olive oil and avocados produce ‘good’ HDL cholesterol and can help lower ‘bad’ cholesterol
Fibre - Reduces your cholesterol levels. Soluble fibre binds to cholesterol in your gut, helping excrete it from your body. Good sources of soluble fibre include dried beans, oats and fruit, particularly citrus and apples. Artichokes and oats lower your LDL and increase your HDL.
Fruit and vegetables - Eat at least five to six portions daily to provide antioxidants to protect against oxidation of LDL cholesterol. Onions, kale, broccoli, apples and cherries contain quercetin which is a potent antioxidant; it’s also anti-inflammatory and cardio-protective. Red grapes lower LDL as do tomatoes, which contain lycopene. Garlic also lowers cholesterol. It is thought that it’s sulphur-containing compounds inhibit an enzyme necessary for cholesterol synthesis.
Phytosterols (plant sterols and stanols) - Lower total and LDL cholesterol, through inhibiting cholesterol absorption. Seeds, seed oils, beans and lentils are the richest source. Other sources include fruit, vegetables and grains.
Soy - Soy protein, in products such as tofu, tempeh, tamari and soy milk, may reduce LDL and total cholesterol and slightly increase HDL. Processed soy products with the isoflavones removed do not have this benefit.
Chromium-containing foods - Chromium can help decrease raised cholesterol. Good sources of chromium include wholemeal bread, rye bread, potatoes, green peppers, apples, parsnips, cornmeal, nuts and blackstrap molasses.
Reduce / Avoid
Saturated fat - In red meat and dairy as it produces LDL.
Trans fats - Found in some processed foods, trans fats increase LDL and interfere with your body’s ability to metabolise polyunsaturated fats to produce HDL. These fats are best avoided.
Cholesterol-containing foods that have been cooked at high temperatures - Contain high levels of oxidised LDL (e.g. poach rather than fry eggs).
Sugar - Interferes with the normal metabolism of cholesterol and is best avoided. Excess blood sugar reacts with proteins in your blood vessel walls causing inflammation and oxidation, hardening and narrowing your arteries/
It’s not just what you eat that affects your cholesterol. Reducing stress, stopping smoking and exercising can all benefit your cholesterol levels.
Not only are these measures beneficial for your cholesterol levels, they also help rebalance other systems in your body which can boost your overall health and help you lose weight.
Kanter, M.M., et al, 2012, ‘Exploring the Factors That Affect Blood Cholesterol and Heart Disease Risk: Is Dietary Cholesterol as Bad for You as History Leads Us to Believe?’, Adv Nutr, 3, 5, 711–717.