Cholesterol is one of the most confusing compounds in health and nutrition. To begin with, cholesterol can be in the foods you eat, but "high cholesterol levels" tend to refer to cholesterol in your body, which can come from the diet and from your own body's production. To further confuse matters, there is good (HDL) cholesterol and bad (LDL) cholesterol (both referring to cholesterol in your body).
Here is some straight talk on cholesterol: which foods it is in and why (spoiler alert) it is usually okay to eat high cholesterol foods. Keep reading to find out which foods really do raise your cholesterol levels, and what you can eat to lower cholesterol levels naturally.
Who Should Follow a Cholesterol-Lowering Diet?
If you are among the 1 in 8 American adults with high total or LDL cholesterol, it can be worth your while to learn about foods to lower cholesterol. Even if you are on cholesterol-lowering medications, changing what you eat can make them more effective.
A cholesterol-lowering diet may also be valuable if you are likely to develop high cholesterol in the future due to risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, family history, and being overweight. In case you are worried about bang for your buck, you can rest assured that a cholesterol-lowering diet is likely to be good for your blood sugar, too.
High-Cholesterol Foods to Avoid
Since cholesterol can come from the diet, the first inclination may be to avoid high-cholesterol foods. Health experts suggested this for years before mounting evidence showed that a high-cholesterol diet is not the main cause of high cholesterol levels in the body. Instead, the rest of what you eat has a greater impact on cholesterol levels.
Because cholesterol is a substance that is found in cell membranes of animals (including humans) and not in plants, only animal-based foods contain cholesterol. That may be one reason why a vegetarian diet may lower cholesterol . These are some common high-cholesterol foods.
Organ meats, such as liver.
Egg yolks and whole eggs.
Shellfish, such as lobster, oyster, and shrimp.
Beef, chicken, pork.
Salmon and other fish.
Cheese, cream, sour cream, and ice cream.
Bacon, ham, sausage, and other processed meats.
You can see that some are more nutritious than others intuitively, and indeed, some of these foods can help lower cholesterol or raise "good" HDL cholesterol! Others on the above list are likely to contribute to high cholesterol levels due to their other components.
Regardless of their cholesterol levels, some foods are linked to higher cholesterol levels. They may be high in:
Saturated fats: butter, processed meats, fatty red meat, poultry with skin.
Sugars: sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas, coffee with syrup or sugar, and energy drinks, desserts, candy, jam and jelly.
Refined starches: white bread, pasta, and rice, refined breakfast cereals.
Trans fats: processed snack foods, fried foods.
It's also important to realize that weight gain can increase cholesterol. Many of the above foods are high-calorie and may cause weight gain compared to other, more nutritious, foods.
Cholesterol-Raising Foods to Limit
Cholesterol-Lowering Foods to Emphasize
Fatty red meat
Bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and other processed meats
White bread and rice
Salmon, herring, other fatty fish, and other seafood
Nuts, peanuts, and seeds
Beans, split peas, and lentils
Oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, brown rice, and other whole-grain products
If it seems unfair that so many foods raise cholesterol, here is some encouraging news: some foods and nutrients can lower it! Dietary fiber is found only in plant-based foods, which is another reason why a vegetarian diet may help lower cholesterol. Healthy fats can lower "bad" LDL and/or increase "good" HDL cholesterol levels.
Dietary fiber: sources include beans, lentils, whole grains such as oatmeal, brown rice, whole-wheat bread and pasta, and whole-grain cereal, vegetables, and fruit.
Healthy fats: sources include olive oil, avocados, seeds, peanuts, and fatty fish such as salmon.
Some foods do double or triple cholesterol-lowering duty. For example, nuts not only have dietary fiber and healthy fats, but they also contain phytosterols. These are compounds that block cholesterol absorption .
These cholesterol-lowering foods can have other benefits. For example, they tend to be associated with lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar, and better weight control compared to eating foods higher in unhealthy fats, sugars, and starches .
Sample Menu to Lower Cholesterol
It can seem tough to put all this information into practice, but Lark can help. As you log meals with Lark, you can get feedback such as ideas for choosing healthier foods. High cholesterol is a risk factor for prediabetes and diabetes, and if you have it, Lark Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) may be right for you.
In the meantime, here is an example of two menus that may help lower cholesterol. The first is vegan or plant-based, and the second is based on a Mediterranean diet, which is known for being heart healthy and helping with weight loss .
Oatmeal with soy milk and blueberries
Scrambled egg whites with reduced-fat feta cheese, tomatoes, and spinach in a whole-grain tortilla.
Carrots with hummus
Plain Greek yogurt with strawberries
Lentil soup made with low-sodium broth, onions, carrots, and barley
Chicken and white bean stew with carrots and onions
Sliced apple with peanut butter
Cut fruit with almond slivers
Bean burrito with avocado, tomatoes, lettuce or grilled vegetables, salsa, and a whole-wheat tortilla
Salmon stir fry with your favorite vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, bell peppers
If you have high cholesterol or are at risk for it, taking a look at what you eat can be a good first step in lowering it. Lark can be your anytime, anywhere coach for making healthy choices through small, doable changes. Risk for diabetes, high cholesterol, and what you eat go hand in hand, and Lark DPP can help you lose weight, lower cholesterol, and lower blood sugar at the same time. Check with your health insurance or healthcare provider to see if you may be eligible for Lark!
Wang, Fenglei, Jusheng Zheng, Bo Yang, Jiajing Jiang, Yuanqing Fu, and Duo Li. 2015. "Effects of Vegetarian Diets on Blood Lipids: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials." Journal of the American Heart Association 4 (10): e002408.
Hooper, Lee, Nicole Martin, Oluseyi F. Jimoh, Christian Kirk, Eve Foster, and Asmaa S. Abdelhamid. 2020. "Reduction in Saturated Fat Intake for Cardiovascular Disease." Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 8 (August): CD011737.
Bruckert, Eric, and David Rosenbaum. 2011. "Lowering LDL-Cholesterol through Diet: Potential Role in the Statin Era." Current Opinion in Lipidology 22 (1): 43–48.
Graudal, Niels Albert, Thorbjorn Hubeck-Graudal, and Gesche Jurgens. 2011. "Effects of Low Sodium Diet versus High Sodium Diet on Blood Pressure, Renin, Aldosterone, Catecholamines, Cholesterol, and Triglyceride." Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews , no. 11 (November): CD004022.
Rees, Karen, Andrea Takeda, Nicole Martin, Leila Ellis, Dilini Wijesekara, Abhinav Vepa, Archik Das, Louise Hartley, and Saverio Stranges. 2019. "Mediterranean-Style Diet for the Primary and Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease." Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 3 (March): CD009825.
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