Have High Cholesterol? Here’s What to Do About It
High cholesterol causes plaque to build up in the arteries. Illustration via Shutterstock.
Everyone from your doctor to your mother to those ubiquitous Cheerios commercials has probably warned you about the dangers of high cholesterol. The phrase gets thrown around all the time, but how many of us actually know exactly what high cholesterol is?
You may be surprised to learn that cholesterol—a fat-like substance produced by the liver and found in your blood stream and cells—is actually a vital element of cell building and, therefore, human health. Cholesterol only becomes a problem when too much of it flows through the bloodstream, leading to the build up of artery-clogging plaque. This condition can be a result of a genetic predisposition to make too much, a diet high in cholesterol-raising trans and saturated fats, or a combination of the two.
Cholesterol levels are also altered by the proportion of “good” and “bad” cholesterol-delivery systems, or lipoproteins, in the body. High-density lipoproteins (HDLs), the “good” delivery system, act like waste removal vehicles by taking cholesterol from the blood and artery walls to your liver for removal from the body. Low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), on the other hand, are bad for your health because they keep blood cholesterol circulating, depositing plaque on artery walls along the way. As plaque builds up, the artery wall narrows and blood pressure increases.
Though lowering high cholesterol can seem like an uphill battle, especially if it’s in your genes, there are three very simple dietary changes you can make to get rid of plaque-depositing LDLs and increase your waste-removing HDLs.
1. Consume soluble fiber
Why: Soluble fiber acts like a sponge. Rather than being digested immediately, fiber mops up fat-absorbing bile acids as it travels through the body. And since the body uses cholesterol to replace the bile acids lost to fiber, cholesterol that might otherwise end up as artery-clogging plaque is excreted from the body.
How to do it: Avoid bars, yogurt, and other foods that have been fortified with fiber. Often times, the fiber that is added will upset your stomach and may not have the same cholesterol-lowering benefits as the real thing. Instead, turn to natural sources of fiber like oats, fruits and vegetables, and beans.
2. Eat more plant-based meals
Why: With the exception of coconuts, saturated fat is only found in animal products.
How to do it: Relying on plant-based sources of protein such as beans and soy will help reduce your saturated fat intake, which is directly tied to high cholesterol. When you do choose meat, be sure to look for lean (listed as 90 percent lean or 10 grams of fat per serving) and very lean (listed as 95 percent lean or five grams of fat per serving) choices.
3. Add plant stanols and sterols to your diet
Why: Phytosterols (plant stanols and sterols) are found naturally in fruits, vegetables, vegetable oils, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Though they are structurally similar to cholesterol, they function very differently. Instead of raising blood cholesterol, they prevent cholesterol absorption in the intestines, which in turn helps to reduce blood levels of total and LDL cholesterol without lowering HDL levels.
How to get it: Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to naturally work phytosterols into your diet. There are, however, plant stanol and sterol-fortfied foods available, like yogurt, milk, orange juice, and cereal.
Still need a little bit of guidance? Here are some meal and snack ideas to start off your cholesterol-lowering diet.
- Oatmeal: Combine a half cup plain oats (instant, rolled, or steel cut are all fine) with a half cup frozen mixed berries and one tablespoon walnuts. Bonus: Walnuts are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are heart healthy fats.
- English muffin with spread: Cover a 100 percent whole grain English muffin with one tablespoon of peanut butter or Smart Balance HeartRight Light spread. While Smart Balance is not nutritionally perfect, it is a better choice than butter and contains a good dose of plant stanols and sterols.
- Smoothie: Combine one cup of low-fat milk or milk substitute (try unsweetened almond or soy milk), a half cup plain yogurt, one cup frozen fruit, and one tablespoon honey.