In this article:
- Cholesterol is a fat (lipid) produced by the liver. It is needed in limited amounts to make hormones and bile and is a component of cell membranes.
- Cholesterol can be of two types: high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is considered healthy or “good,” and low-density lipoprotein, which is considered unhealthy or “bad.”
- High levels of LDL may go undetected for a long time as they present no symptoms and can silently damage the functioning of your internal organs.
- Excess cholesterol in the blood can clog your arteries and block blood flow to your organs.
- Regular monitoring of your lipid profile is the only way to catch the cholesterol problem in its early stages before it invites more serious health concerns.
- Due to the unhealthy lifestyle prevalent all over the world, a high cholesterol level is affecting not only adults but children as well.
- Adopting a heart-healthy diet and getting regular exercise are some of the most important steps you can take to prevent or control cholesterol problems and heart disease.
Cholesterol is a type of lipid or blood fat that is produced by the liver. Since animals also have livers, eating meats, egg yolks, poultry, cheese, and other non-vegetarian foods can add to your dietary cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol has earned itself a bad name, having been cited as the reason behind a slew of health disorders, but it has some desirable characteristics as well.
Most people are unaware of the important role that cholesterol plays in maintaining various body functions, such as:
- Formation of cell membranes
- Hormone production
- Production of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin D
- Production of bile, which is necessary for digestion
Cholesterol can be found in the blood and blood vessels. High total cholesterol, high LDL cholesterol, and/or low HDL cholesterol is considered a risk factor for heart disease.
Unhealthy dietary habits and lack of physical activity can cause a significant rise in bad cholesterol levels in the blood. This condition that has various names, such as dyslipidemia, hypercholesterolemia, and hyperlipidemia.
The buildup of low-density lipoproteins can adversely affect vascular function. Bad cholesterol can stick to the inner walls of the arteries in the form of a waxy substance known as plaque, which hardens over time.
The continued accumulation of cholesterol on the arterial walls reduces or completely restricts the flow of oxygenated blood. This condition is known as atherosclerosis, and it can cut off blood supply to various organs, causing them to shut down.
This condition can be especially life-threatening when the blood vessels to the brain or heart become affected. When the brain fails to get proper oxygen and nutrients via the blood, stroke or a cardiac arrest can occur, both of which usually have fatal outcomes.
Reduced supply of oxygen because of clogged blood vessels also strains the heart muscles, as they have to work extra hard to draw blood, and this may lead to heart failure.
People may not realize that they have a cholesterol problem until it becomes serious, as this condition does not produce any symptoms until it significantly starts affecting the arteries and veins.
It is, therefore, extremely important to get your lipid profile checked regularly to monitor your blood cholesterol level. Catching the problem early is the best way to prevent any complications later on.
Types of Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a type of lipid that combines with blood proteins and forms a complex known as a lipoprotein, which is then carried via the bloodstream to different body organs. Its concentration in the blood is known as blood cholesterol level.
There are three types of blood cholesterol:
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad cholesterol’’: It is considered the harmful kind of cholesterol and is the root of many health problems.Excessive amounts of LDL form plaques on the arterial walls, which cause narrowing of blood vessels. (1) Atherosclerosis, or the collection of this hardened plaque on the insides of arteries, restricts the passage of blood through them. Since the blood has to push through the clogged space, it exerts greater pressure on the vessel walls, paving the way for hypertension and cardiovascular diseases.The reduced supply of blood to various organs also means a reduced supply of oxygen and nutrients to their tissues, which can severely hamper organ functioning. In the absence of proper treatment and care, the buildup of cholesterol may completely cut off of blood supply to the affected organ, which can be fatal.
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good cholesterol”: It helps counter the ill effects of LDL. Sufficient amounts of HDL can clean the arteries of bad cholesterol by delivering them to the liver from where they are discarded from the body. If your body lacks HDL, bad cholesterol may increase in the blood, which can severely damage your overall health.
- Very low-density lipoprotein (VLD): Is a type of cholesterol that contains mostly triglycerides. Measuring blood triglyceride levels is one way to measure VLDL levels.
How Much Cholesterol is Needed
The human body produces its own cholesterol in the liver, and any animal-based foods that you eat daily add to your cholesterol intake.
These foods break down to release saturated and trans fats during digestion, which are then absorbed in the bloodstream and cause a spike in your blood LDL levels.
You do not need to get cholesterol from your diet. Since the liver makes cholesterol, it can match your body’s needs.
When the concentration of bad cholesterol in the blood is high, the bad cholesterol gets deposited on the internal walls of the arteries, shrinking the space for blood flow.
This effect limits the supply of oxygenated blood to vital organs, including the heart and brain, which can put you at an increased risk of a cardiac attack and brain stroke, respectively. Both these potentially fatal outcomes have emerged as the most prominent mortality causes in the USA where one in three persons may suffer from a high cholesterol level. (2)
Hypercholesterolemia is not only a predisposing factor to chronic ailments, such as cardiovascular ailments, strokes, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and obesity, but it is also more common in those suffering from these preconditions. (3)
Thus, if you happen to suffer from any such health problems, it becomes even more necessary to keep tabs on your cholesterol levels to avoid any serious complications.
A high cholesterol level is a health threat for everyone, regardless of their age, sex, or race. However, it has been observed that some people are genetically prone to developing elevated LDL levels, which may or may not be treatable.
Apart from this, unhealthy dietary choices and a sedentary lifestyle may serve as launching pads for a high cholesterol level and its damaging impacts.
It can be difficult to catch high levels of bad cholesterol in the early stages, since this problem rarely causes any noticeable symptoms until it has advanced to a more serious stage.
Thus, it is important that you get a lipid profile done regularly, especially if you have other risk factors for cardiovascular disease. A lipid profile test is a blood test that gives the percentage of each type of cholesterol present in the blood.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a healthy lipid profile should fall within the following ranges: (4)
- Total cholesterol level below 200 mg/dL
- Total LDL level below 100 mg/dL
- Total HDL level 60 mg/dL or higher
- Triglycerides below 150 mg/dL
A high cholesterol level is a widely prevalent health concern, but can be managed with the help of favorable food and lifestyle changes along with proper treatment.
Needless to say, stringent dietary control plays a primary role in improving your overall lipid profile. Experts suggest that switching to a vegetarian diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, etc., may help counter high blood cholesterol levels. (5)
Foods that May Help Lower Your Cholesterol
Adopting healthy food choices is the first step toward managing your cholesterol levels. Oats have been a preferable choice for weight regulation, and they also have cholesterol-lowering effects.
The significant amount of dietary fiber found in oatmeal can help prevent the absorption of excessive amounts of LDL in the blood and thereby keep the total cholesterol levels within a healthy range.
This fiber-rich food can be a satiating meal on its own, which not only makes you full quickly but also keeps you full long after eating. Thus, starting your day with a healthy bowl of oats can sustain you for long.
You can have a bowl of oats in breakfast or even use them to make a healthy variant of baked foods, smoothies, etc.
Research supports the claim that oats can be a favorable addition to your diet if you are struggling with hyperlipidemia and hypercholesterolemia. (6)
This was further corroborated by a 2014 meta-analysis, which suggested that regular consumption of oats can help prevent the buildup of bad cholesterol in the blood by virtue of its high-fiber content. (7)(8)
2. Soybeans and Soya Products
Replacing animal-based protein in your diet with vegetarian proteins, such as soy, can help lower your intake of saturated fat.
Soya products, such as tofu, soya milk, edamame, and soya flour, are good sources of vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats, all of which can contribute to lowering the levels of bad cholesterol.
Remember, any single food item cannot guarantee a solution to hyperlipidemia, an overall healthy, well-balanced diet is needed for any dietary cholesterol-lowering benefit.
A 2015 meta-analysis attributed the LDL-inhibiting effects of soya bean to the soy proteins and isoflavones found in it. Results showed that whole soya foods were more effective in this regard than soya supplements. (9)(10)(11)
Nuts are replete with good fats that can help with cholesterol management when eaten daily in moderation. Since nuts are quite filling, it is best to consume them between meals as a snack – a small handful, to curb your overall appetite.
Unlike trans and saturated fats (which are some of the main instigators of hypercholesterolemia when eaten in excess), the unsaturated fats found in nuts are known to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease when taken as part of a well-balanced diet.
Tree nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, and pistachios, are all good source of:
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA)
- Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA)
These compounds can collectively lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels in the blood.
4. Fruits and Vegetables
It is important to limit your intake of meats and instead build your meal plan around fresh fruits and vegetables.
Not only are fruits and vegetables rich sources of dietary fiber, but they also contain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, which are considered good for your overall health and healthy cholesterol levels.
All fruits are abundant in antioxidants, polyphenols, and flavonoids, which can provide heart health benefits.
Even though avocados have a higher fat content than many other fruits, they mostly contain heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Unlike trans or saturated fats, healthy fats do not elevate your LDL levels. So, there is no harm in adding avocado to your cholesterol-lowering diet. Avocadoes are also a source of plant sterols, which can help lower cholesterol levels. (17)(18)
5. Fatty Fish
Consuming fatty fishes, such as tuna, salmon, or mackerel, can help in lowering your triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are responsible for heart ailments, including arterial blockages and strokes.
Because fatty fishes are high in heart-healthy fats, they may not lower your LDL serum concentration but can increase the amount of HDL in the blood. HDL is known to clear out bad cholesterol from your arteries. (19)(20)
The healthiest way to prepare a fatty fish is by either baking or boiling it. These cooking processes ensure that the fish does not lose out its inherent nutrient content. Try to have two portions of fatty fish weighing 2-3 ounces every week.
People who do not want to eat fish can consider taking fish oil supplements but only after consulting their doctor.
6. Green Tea
All tea leaves contain caffeine, which is a stimulant and catechin, a type of antioxidant. While tea is mainly consumed for its caffeine content, it is the catechins that may help in lowering bad cholesterol.
Of all the different varieties of tea, green tea has the highest content of catechins since it is the least fermented. The fermentation process strips away the catechin content of teas and renders them less effective for combating high cholesterol levels and other health issues.
For this reason, green tea, which hardly undergoes any fermentation, is the most preferred choice for lowering cholesterol levels. Black tea, which is perhaps the most fermented of all teas, is not as helpful.
As healthful as it may be, green tea consumption alone cannot help bring down or manage cholesterol levels. It should be used as a complementary measure to standard treatment and as part of an overall healthy lifestyle and diet. (21)(22)
7. Olive Oil
Olive oil can be a heart-healthy substitute for hydrogenated fats and animal-based fats. You can use olive oil in place of butter, margarine, and other regular cooking oils to whip up heart-friendly salad dressings and bread dips and to cook dishes.
Several varieties of olive oil are available. The oil tends to lose out on its inherent health potential when processed. Thus, a preferable variety is extra-virgin olive oil.
Extra-virgin olive oil is the purest form of olive oil, which means that it is the least adulterated and has most of its health virtues intact.
Unlike the processed varieties, extra-virgin olive oil retains almost all of its disease-fighting antioxidants and flavonoids that are needed for lowering your cholesterol level and keeping your heart healthy.
Note: Do not overdo the amount of olive oil in your daily diet as it has high calories and may lead to undesirable weight gain. The recommended way to use olive oil is as a substitute for other fats already in your diet.
Legumes, such as chickpeas, lima beans, kidney beans, and black-eyed beans, are considered plant-based heart-healthy protein alternatives.
Thus, those with high cholesterol levels may benefit from getting their protein from plant-based sources rather than animal-based ones.
Unlike red meats and other similar animal-based products, legumes can fulfill your protein needs without adding to your caloric load and LDL cholesterol level.
9. Dark Chocolate
Chocolate, especially one that is dark and low sugar and is made up of at least 60% cocoa, is a rich source of antioxidants and flavonoids.
These organic compounds can help improve blood health by mitigating oxidative damage to blood cells and preventing them from clumping together. (28)
A 2017 study found that consuming almonds with or without dark chocolate had a favorable impact on serum cholesterol levels. (27)
Note: For cholesterol regulation, it is better to have bitter chocolate that is sugar-free or contains a very small amount of sugar. Also, just because dark chocolate is relatively healthy does not mean you can indulge in it mindlessly. It is only healthy when eaten in moderation. Limit your intake to no more than 1-2 ounces of dark chocolate per day to reap potential heart health benefits.
Given that unhealthy food choices can be a factor for high cholesterol, eating a heart-healthy, balanced diet is key for treatment and prevention. The foods shortlisted in this article exhibit cholesterol-lowering effects that have been verified from research studies.
While primary research does support the consumption of these foods, more extensive studies need to be conducted to conclusively establish their efficacy and mechanism for cholesterol control. That said, one must not overestimate the role of such dietary additions, which only serve as complementary tools to standard treatment.
Besides, a single food item cannot make a significant difference unless incorporated in a wholesome, healthy diet and coupled with other treatment efforts.
So, under no circumstances should you consider these dietary additions as a standalone treatment or replacement for medication for reducing a high cholesterol level. It is also important to consume these foods in moderation as most of them are energy-dense and may impact your digestion if eaten in large quantities.
Additional Tips for Lowering Cholesterol
- Try to maintain optimal body weight.
- Give up cigarettes and other forms of smoking.
- Reduce your daily sodium intake to just 2,300 mg (or 1 teaspoon of salt).
- Allocate half an hour every day for exercising and do so for at least 5 days a week if approved by your doctor.
- Alcoholism may be another reason for hypercholesterolemia. It is therefore recommended that you either stop alcohol consumption altogether or cut down its intake.
- Foods like red meat, shrimp, liver, egg yolks, whole milk, and other non-vegetarian items are rich in cholesterol or saturated fat, and their frequent intake may aggravate your dyslipidemia.Therefore, it is better to skip them or have them in moderation and keep your cholesterol intake below 200 mg per day.
- Fried foods are high in saturated and/or trans fats and are primary contributors to raising your LDL levels. These foods should be avoided as much as possible.
- Form a diet plan that has low amounts of processed sugars and carbohydrates.
- Use heart-healthy unsaturated fats, especially those that are obtained from walnuts, almonds, or olive oil, in place of processed and hydrogenated fats such as butter or migraine.One easy trick to identify processed fats is to see whether they solidify when left out for long. If they do, it is better to limit them.
- It might be a good idea to keep a log or journal that is exclusively meant to record your eating habits and preferences. Through such food diaries, you can keep a better track of your daily food consumption and also guess if your dietary choices need a change.
- For better and effective cholesterol management, seek professional help to understand the type of food, exercise, and dietary restrictions you need to follow to bring down your LDL levels and increase your HDL levels.
A high cholesterol level is one of the most common health complaints that are often taken lightly until they acquire a more serious form.
An excess of LDL in the blood can spell major trouble for your vital organs. Bad cholesterol keeps on accumulating in the arteries and greatly hinders blood flow to the organs, which can potentially take a life-threatening turn.
The only way to prevent such undue complications is early diagnosis and treatment. If untreated, high LDL levels can greatly compromise your organ functioning and trigger other more serious ailments, including heart disease.
Timely precautions and a healthy lifestyle can go a long way in reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease. The focus should be on bringing your total cholesterol levels within the healthy range so that your body can sustain its biological functions without clogging the veins.
A well-balanced diet that includes minimal amounts of saturated and trans fat is recommended for those with high cholesterol levels. The diet should ideally be complemented by regular fitness and exercise routine to bear desirable and sustainable results.
Sometimes, hypercholesterolemia may not be treatable through diet and exercise alone. Your doctor may prescribe medications along with other self-care measures.