What Should I Eat If I Have High Cholesterol? Cholesterol is a type of fat created by the body. Although it’s necessary for survival, cholesterol also clogs the arteries and can harden into plaque that keeps blood from circulating freely throughout the body. If you have high cholesterol, eating right will help you lower it.
High cholesterol is a serious problem that goes undiagnosed a lot even today. A high cholesterol level can cause significant damage to your heart and lead to medical conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or heart diseases.
Cholesterol and fats
There are two types of cholesterol that differ depending on the type of protein that transports them through the bloodstream. They are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
LDLs deposit one type of cholesterol throughout the body. This kind of cholesterol can build up in blood vessels and lead to serious complications. People often refer to this as “bad” cholesterol.
HDLs, on the other hand, collect LDL cholesterol from the arteries and bring it back to the liver for disposal. For this reason, people often refer to HDL cholesterol as “good” cholesterol.
It is worth noting that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015–2020 removed the recommendation to limit dietary cholesterol intake to 300 milligrams per day. The most recent understanding is that the cholesterol content of different foods has little to no impact on blood cholesterol levels.
Although avoiding foods with high cholesterol content may still be beneficial for some people, it may not be practical for everyone.
Instead, the American Heart Association (AHA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest prioritizing unsaturated fats over saturated and trans fats as the most effective dietary approach to cutting blood cholesterol.
Types of fat
In general, people should aim to eat a diet that promotes low levels of LDL cholesterol and high levels of HDL cholesterol. However, fat intake affects this balance because fatty acids bind to liver cells and regulate the production of cholesterol.
People should pay attention not only to the overall quantity of fat in their diet but also to where this fat is coming from.
- Saturated fats: These mostly occur in meat and dairy products. They instruct the liver to produce more LDL cholesterol.
- Unsaturated fats: These are more common in fish, plants, nuts, seeds, beans, and vegetable oils. Certain unsaturated fats can help increase the rate at which the liver reabsorbs and breaks down LDL cholesterol.
- Trans fats: These are solid vegetable oils. Manufacturers normally use an artificial process called hydrogenation to produce them. Fried foods, baked goods, and packaged foods often contain trans fats.
Trans fats increase levels of LDL cholesterol and decrease levels of HDL cholesterol. For this reason, a high trans fat intake is also a risk factor for a range of health complications.
A 2015 literature review found that a 2% increase in energy intake from trans fats is associated with a 25% increased risk of coronary heart disease and a 31% increased risk of death from the condition.
Researchers have also found links between increased trans fat intakes and increased all-cause mortality in the United States and China.
Bans on trans fat content in foods have proven positive. A 2017 study revealed a 6.2% reduction in hospital admissions for heart attack and stroke in the New York counties with a ban on trans fats.
Foods to include
It is important to note that following a completely fat-free diet may have harmful effects. For example, excluding fats can impair childhood development and brain function, according to one older study.
Choosing healthy fats can help a person lower their LDL cholesterol levels while managing their HDL cholesterol levels.
Fiber is important for a healthy heart and is present in two main forms: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber.
Insoluble fiber is essential for digestive health. Soluble fiber binds to cholesterol in the bloodstream and helps remove it through stool. This type of fiber has the added benefit of helping control blood sugar levels.
Some cholesterol-friendly fiber options to consider include:
- nuts, seeds, and legumes
- oats and oat bran
- chia and ground flaxseeds
- Brussels sprouts
Nontropical natural vegetable oils are also cholesterol-friendly due to their unsaturated fatty acid content. These oils include olive oil, avocado oil, canola oil, and safflower oil.
People may also find it beneficial to choose leaner cuts of meat, opt for smaller portions, and choose low fat or fat-free milk and yogurts.
Eating Meat When You Have High Cholesterol
If you have high cholesterol, you should talk with your doctor about what you eat, including meat.
There are good, lean choices. For example, you can consider chicken or turkey breasts without skin; pork tenderloin; or beef round, sirloin, or tenderloin. Avoid highly processed meats (bacon, ham, lunchmeat, etc.).
Check the nutrition label on the package to determine portion size. Also, limit your serving size according to your doctor’s instructions. Or follow the TLC diet recommendations of no more than 5 ounces total per day of lean meat, poultry, or fish.
The American Heart Association recommends eating fish with omega-3 fatty acids at least twice a week. Doing so can lower your risk of dying from coronary artery disease. Fish higher in omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, and herring.
Other healthy protein alternatives include dried beans and peas, nuts and seeds, low-fat dairy products, and soy products. Protein does not have to come from meat.
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.
Healthy Choices When Eating Out
Many restaurants offer delicious, heart-healthy meals. These tips will help you make eating out healthy and enjoyable.
Before You Order
- If you are familiar with the menu, decide what to order before entering the restaurant. This tactic will help you avoid any tempting foods that may not be as healthy.
- If you are trying a new restaurant, take time to study the menu so you can make the best choices.
- Have the waiter remove temptations (such as the bread basket) from the table.
- Drink two full glasses of water before your food arrives.
- Avoid foods described as buttery, buttered, fried, pan-fried, creamed, escalloped, au gratin (with cheese), or a la mode (with ice cream).
- If you do eat bread before your meal, choose melba toast or whole-grain rolls without butter or margarine.
When You Order
- Order foods that are steamed, broiled, grilled, stir-fried, or roasted.
- Order potatoes baked, boiled, or roasted instead of fried. Ask the server to leave off the butter and sour cream.
- Order first so that you will not be influenced by others’ choices.
- For appetizers, order broth-based soups such as minestrone or gazpacho instead of creamy soups or fried finger foods.
- Choose seafood, chicken, or lean red meat rather than fatty or processed meats. Remove all visible fat from any meat.
- Ask for steamed vegetables instead of fries.
- Ask for the sauces and dressings on the side so you can control how much you eat.
- Ask the server about ingredients or preparation methods for the dishes you’re not familiar with.
- For dessert, order sorbet or fresh, seasonal fruit without whipped cream or a topping.
Foods to Avoid
Some nutritionists recommend avoiding certain aisles in the supermarket. Bypass rows with bakery items, crackers, cookies, and other foods high in saturated fat.
In general, avoid items if any of these things appear high on the food label’s ingredient list:
Trans fats: These are bad for you and can be found in packaged snacks such as pastries, cookies, crackers, and some types of margarine. Read the nutrition facts to see all the fats in the product.
Other foods that are often filled with trans fats: biscuits, breakfast sandwiches, microwave popcorn, cream-filled candy, doughnuts, fried fast foods, and frozen pizza.
Salt: Too much sodium can help raise your blood pressure. You probably already know not to have too much canned soup and salty snack foods. Did you know it can also lurk in breads and rolls, cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, some chicken, and some fast-food sandwiches?
You might be surprised how often it’s found in frozen foods, too. When in doubt, read labels. Try not to get more than 2,300 to 2,400 milligrams per day.
Sugar: Yes, it tastes so good. But too much might cause problems with weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes as well as cholesterol. Easier said than done, but try to limit how much of this you eat and drink.
You probably know many of the “usual suspects”: soda, sweet tea, candy, cakes, cookies, and ice cream, among others.
But did you know sugar is added to things you might not even think about — from spaghetti sauce to fast food? That also includes many tomato ketchups, breakfast bars, and even tonic water.
The lesson: Read labels. And here are common added sugars to check for:
- Brown sugar
- Corn sweeteners and syrup
- Dextrose and fructose
- Fruit juice concentrates
- High fructose corn syrup
Foods that have one or more of those things listed high on the ingredient list may have a lot of sugar.
More Shopping Tips
Cruise the perimeter of the store: This is where you’ll usually find produce, nuts and seeds in bulk, lean meats, and low-fat dairy.
Shop when you’re full: You’ll be less tempted by sweets and salty snacks if you’re not hungry.
Read food labels: Ingredients are listed by weight, from most to least, so it’s helpful to focus on the first three to five ingredients. Beware of prepared foods promoting one particular ingredient — look at the whole package instead.