What should i eat for high cholesterol? It is a question that is often asked by many people who are dealing with this condition. Eating a diet that is low in fat and cholesterol may help lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol, but you still need to understand which are the best foods for high cholesterol. In particular omega-3 fatty acids from fish. Studies have shown that higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease such as stroke and heart attack.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a type of fat in your blood which is produced naturally by your body. It’s also found in some foods like eggs, offal (such as kidney and liver) and shellfish. Your body needs some cholesterol for it to work properly.
When you have high cholesterol levels in the blood (also called hyperlipidaemia) it speeds up the process of atherosclerosis. This is when plaque builds up in your artery walls, making them narrower. This makes it hard for blood to flow through them, and over time it can cause a heart attack or stroke.
What causes high cholesterol?
Some causes of high cholesterol include:
- High intake of foods containing unhealthy fats (saturated fats and trans fats) – such as fatty meats and deli-style meats, butter, cream, ice cream, coconut oil, palm oil and most deep-fried takeaway foods and commercially baked products (such as pies, biscuits, buns and pastries).
- Low intake of foods containing healthy fats – healthy fats tend to increase the good (HDL) cholesterol. Foods containing healthy fats include avocado, nuts, seeds, olives, cooking oils made from plants or seeds, and fish.
- Low intake of foods containing fibre – foods that are high in dietary fibre, particularly soluble fibre, can reduce the amount of bad (LDL) cholesterol in your blood. Include fibre-containing foods in your diet by choosing vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds every day.
- Low levels of physical activity and exercise.
- Being overweight or obese and having too much body fat around your middle.
- Smoking can lead to high cholesterol levels.
- Genetics – your family history may affect your cholesterol level. In some families, several people might be diagnosed with high cholesterol or heart disease at a relatively young age (men below age 55 years and women below 65 years). This type of pattern can be caused by genetics, including a genetic condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia. It’s best to speak to your doctor as soon as possible if you think you might be affected.
Cholesterol and healthy eating
What we eat has an impact on our cholesterol levels and can help reduce our risk of disease. The Heart Foundation recommends following a heart-healthy eating pattern, which means eating a wide variety of fresh and unprocessed foods and limiting highly processed foods including take away, baked goods, chocolate, chips, lollies and sugary drinks. Not only does this help to maintain a healthy and interesting diet, but it provides essential nutrients to the body.
A heart-healthy eating pattern includes:
- plenty of vegetables, fruit and wholegrains
- a variety of healthy protein-rich foods (especially fish and seafood), legumes (such as beans and lentils), nuts and seeds. Smaller amounts of eggs and lean poultry can also be included in a heart-healthy eating pattern. If choosing red meat, make sure it is lean and limit to one to three times a week
- unflavoured milk, yoghurt and cheese. People with high cholesterol should choose reduced fat varieties
- healthy fats and oils. Choose nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and their oils for cooking
- herbs and spices to flavour foods, instead of adding salt.
This way of eating is also naturally high in fibre, which is good news, because a high intake of dietary fibre can also reduce levels of bad cholesterol in the blood.
Also, be mindful of how much you are eating. Portion sizes have increased over time and many of us are eating more than we need which can increase our cholesterol and risk of heart disease.
Ideally, a healthy plate would include servings of ¼ healthy proteins, ¼ wholegrains and ½ colourful vegetables.
Serving size can vary depending on age, gender and specific nutrition needs.
Healthy eating tips to lower cholesterol
As well as sticking to a varied and healthy diet, try these tips to help you manage your cholesterol:
- The Heart Foundation recommends that people follow a heart-healthy eating pattern, which is built on eating mostly plant-based foods. Eating more plant-based foods like vegetables, legumes, fruit, wholegrains, nuts and seeds is good for heart health.
- Include legumes (or pulses such as chickpeas, lentils, split peas), beans (such as haricot beans, kidney beans, baked beans , bean mixes) in at least two meals a week. Check food labels and choose the lowest sodium (salt) products.
- Beans make a great alternative to meat in tacos, or snack on hummus with vegetable sticks. You can also add legumes to soups, pasta sauces, curries and stews.
- Use tofu or lentils instead of meat in stir fries or curries.
- Choose wholegrain breads, cereals, pasta, rice and noodles.
- Snack on plain, unsalted nuts and fresh fruit (ideally two serves of fruit every day).
- Use avocado, nut butters, tahini or spreads made from healthy unsaturated fats (such as canola, sunflower or extra virgin olive oil) instead of those made with saturated fat (such as butter, coconut oil and cream).
- Use healthy oils for cooking – some include canola, sunflower, soybean, olive (extra virgin is a good choice), sesame and peanut oils.
- For people at high risk of heart disease, the Heart Foundation recommends people eat 2-3 grams of plant sterol-enriched foods every day (for example, plant sterol-enriched margarine, yoghurt, milk and cereals).
- Enjoy fish two to three times a week (150 grams fresh or 100g tinned).
- Most people don’t need to limit the number of eggs they eat each week. However, a maximum of seven eggs each week is recommended for people with high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Select lean meat (meat trimmed of fat, and poultry without skin) and limit unprocessed red meat to less than 350g per week.
- Choose unflavoured milk, yoghurt and cheese. People with high cholesterol or heart disease should opt for reduced fat options. Check the labels to make sure there’s no added sugar. Non-dairy milks and yoghurts are ok too; opt for versions that have no added sugar and have had calcium added.
- Limit or avoid processed meats including sausages and deli meats (such as ham, bacon and salami).
Cholesterol-lowering diet plan
Below are some ideas for meals that may help improve cholesterol levels:
- apple and peanut butter on whole grain toast
- cinnamon oats and low fat plain Greek yogurt
- oatmeal with blueberries and almonds
- vegetables and hummus in whole grain pita
- Mediterranean vegetable stew with barley
- kale salad topped with edamame and avocado
- poached salmon with asparagus and brown rice
- lentil stew with salsa verde
- whole wheat pasta with chicken and brussels sprouts tossed in olive oil
Try the following snacks in moderation as part of a cholesterol-lowering diet:
- fresh or frozen fruits
- raw vegetables dipped in hummus or guacamole
- whole grain pretzels or crackers
- roasted chickpeas or edamame
- rye crisps with tuna
- low fat or fat free yogurt
- a handful of pistachios or another nut
- apple slices with almond butter
- a granola bar made from oats, nuts, and dried fruit
High-cholesterol foods to avoid
While some cholesterol in your diet is fine, lots of saturated fat isn’t. Diets high in saturated fat are linked to increased blood cholesterol and heart disease risk.
Experts recommend limiting or avoiding the following “unhealthy” high-cholesterol foods, which are also high in saturated fat:
Whole milk, butter and full-fat yogurt and cheese are high in saturated fat. Cheese also tends to be high in sodium, and most Americans get too much sodium, too.
Limit cheese to about 3 ounces per week, and choose part-skim cheese such as Swiss or mozzarella when cooking. Drink skim (non-fat), 1% or 2% milk to get your calcium intake. Look for non-fat or low-fat yogurt varieties. Use extra-virgin olive oil or avocado oil instead of butter.
Steak, beef roast, ribs, pork chops and ground beef tend to have high saturated fat and cholesterol content.
Choose 90% lean ground beef, lean cuts of beef (such as sirloin, tenderloin, filet or flank steak, pork loin or tenderloin), and focus on lower-fat sources of animal protein, such as baked skinless or lean ground poultry.
You should limit processed meat in general because of its high sodium content and low nutrition. In fact, bacon, sausage and hot dogs are usually made from fatty cuts of beef or pork.
If you must eat processed meat, choose minimally processed sausage or deli meat made from lean turkey or chicken.
French fries, fried chicken with skin and other foods cooked in a deep fryer have a high amount of saturated fat and cholesterol from the oil they’re cooked in.
A better choice is baked chicken or turkey without the skin, baked potatoes or baked “fries” tossed with a little olive oil. Try using an air fryer for a lower-fat “fried” food taste.
Baked goods and sweets
Cookies, cakes and doughnuts usually contain butter or shortening, making them high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
They also tend to be full of sugar, which can lead to high levels of blood triglycerides, an unhealthy blood fat (lipid) that can be a risk factor for coronary heart disease.
Instead, make your desserts at home, choosing recipes that don’t need shortening or lots of butter. This also allows you to modify recipes and cut down the amount of sugar used, to half or three-quarters the recommended amount. You can also enjoy baked fruit as a dessert, or substitute applesauce for eggs or butter in your baking.
Foods that lower your cholesterol
Some foods can actively help to lower your cholesterol and they all work in different ways. Try to include these foods in your meals whenever you can:
1. Oats and barley
Eating whole grain foods reduces your risk of heart disease. Oats and barley are extra special because they are high in a type of soluble fibre called ‘beta glucan’. Beta glucan helps to lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol in your blood.
Tip: Flavoured oat products like ‘Quick Oats’ often contain added salt and/or sugar. Choose products that contain 100% oats (like rolled oats) as they’re closest to how they’re found in nature.
2. Vegetables and fruit
Eating a variety of colourful vegetables and fruit everyday can help protect you against heart disease, stroke and some cancers. Many vegetables and fruit are high in soluble fibre which helps to reduce the absorption of cholesterol and lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol in your blood.
Tip: Leave the skins on vegetables like pumpkin, kūmara and carrot to maximise your intake of fibre. Use orange and lemon peel in dressings and sauces.
3. Foods rich in heart-healthy fats
Eating plenty of foods that contain heart-healthy mono and poly-unsaturated fats increases the levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol in your blood.
These foods contain heart-healthy fats.
- Oily fish like mackerel, sardines and salmon
- Nuts and seeds
- Vegetable oils and spreads
Eating these foods instead of foods high in saturated fat (butter, cream, meat fats) improves your cholesterol. It’ll reduce your risk of heart disease too.
Tip: Coconut, palm oil and many convenience foods are high in saturated fat and increase your ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. Switch to heart-healthy fats and whole foods where possible.
4. Legumes and beans
Legumes like chickpeas and lentils are a great source of soluble fibre and plant-based protein. Eating legumes and beans instead of meat (animal protein) can help to lower your ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol.
Tip: Choose canned legumes for a quick and easy option. Rinse and drain the salty brine before using them. Use them in salads, sauces, casseroles and when making legume-based dips like hummus.
Nuts contain heart-healthy fats and fibre which can help to keep your cholesterol in check. Regularly eating nuts is linked to lower levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
Tip: Eating a variety of nuts is best because they contain different levels of healthy fats. Choose nuts that are close to how they’re found in nature because they contain more nutrients. Look for nuts that have skins on, are unsalted and unroasted.
6. Soy products
Soy products include tofu, soy milk, soy beans and edamame beans. Some evidence shows that regularly eating soy products can help to slightly reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
Tip: Choose soy products that are close to how they are found in nature, like soy beans, plain unsweetened soy milk and unflavoured tofu.
7. Plant sterols
Low levels of plant sterols are found in in fruits, vegetables, nuts and cereals. However, some foods (like margarine) have plant sterols added. Eating foods that contain plant sterols as part of a balanced diet can reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. This is because they reduce your absorption of cholesterol.
Tip: Foods with plant sterols added are only effective if you eat them regularly. Remember that these foods are usually much more expensive than everyday foods and your overall diet matters most.