According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about two in five American adults have high cholesterol. High cholesterol levels increase the risk of the leading cause of death in America: heart disease. Because high cholesterol does not exhibit any symptoms, most people are unaware that their levels are high. In fact, the CDC estimates that only 55% of adults with high cholesterol are treated for the condition.
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance produced by the liver and circulated within the blood. Cholesterol also exists in meat, animal-based food products, and full-fat dairy products. Additionally, those foods contain saturated fat, which studies have linked to higher cholesterol levels. Because the Standard American Diet includes a lot of those foods, high cholesterol is very common in the United States.
Now, not all cholesterol is bad, according to health experts. In fact, cholesterol is an essential building block for cells in the body. Because the body produces all the cholesterol it needs, avoiding high cholesterol foods, especially foods that are rich in saturated and trans fats, is very important for optimal heart function. If you are unsure of your current levels, consider asking your healthcare provider for a blood test, especially if high cholesterol runs in your family. If your levels are high, the following dietary changes can help you bring them down.
Eat More Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids work to fight inflammation and encourage healthier brain and heart function. The American Heart Association (AHA) notes that inflammation is a suspected cause of heart disease and stroke, so lowering inflammatory markers may reduce your risk of those conditions. Omega-3s exist in both plant- and animal-based foods, including flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout, and sardines. Some of those fish contain mercury, but the risk of mercury poisoning is considered to be outweighed by the health benefits for most people.
Eat The Rainbow
One of the best things that you can do for your overall health is to eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. The keyword there is “colorful,” because the different colors indicate various phytosterols, which work in a similar fashion to soluble fiber. Studies indicate that fiber, especially soluble fiber, works to bind to cholesterol and help the body eliminate it before digesting and absorbing it. These plant sterols can help block the absorption of cholesterol from your meal, but that doesn’t give you an excuse to eat anything you want. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that a diet with two grams of plant sterols per day may lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad, cholesterol levels by about 15%.
Cut Back On Full-Fat Dairy And Meat
Saturated fat exists in pork ground beef, and any fatty cut of meat, in addition to cream, butter, and full-fat dairy. This type of fat is a huge contributor to high levels of LDL cholesterol, according to registered dietitians. LDL cholesterol increases your risk of heart disease, whereas high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol can benefit heart function. Try to limit your calories from saturated fat to about five or six percent of your daily caloric intake. If you eat 2,000 calories per day, no more than 120 calories (13 grams) should come from saturated fat. For reference, one Big Mac from McDonald’s has 11 grams of saturated fat, and that excludes the fries and drink.
Watch Out For Condiments And Dressings
You may not think that dressing your salad in a store bought dressing is unhealthy, but you always have to read ingredient labels to know the truth. Mayonnaise, ketchup, salad dressings (especially cream-based ones), mustard, and more all contain preservatives, added flavors, and saturated or trans fats. Instead of mayo, opt for avocado, which is naturally rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, potassium, fiber, and other heart-healthy nutrients. Hummus is another great condiment to replace traditionally unhealthy ones. When it comes to dressings, you can easily make your own with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, and seasonings. You can check out our salads and dressings page here for more inspiration.
Sync Your Meals With Your Circadian Rhythm
Ideally, you should stop eating at least two to three hours before you go to sleep. Although eating with your body’s natural circadian rhythm (between when the sun rises and sets) hasn’t been proven to lower LDL levels, it can help control your weight. Additionally, syncing your meals with your circadian rhythm may also improve your sleep quality, which may positively impact your heart. Plus, it is always beneficial to avoid late night food choices because they tend to be unhealthy. If you absolutely need a snack late at night, consider a small handful of nuts or dried fruit.
Fill Up With Fiber
As we mentioned earlier, soluble fiber binds to cholesterol and helps excrete it before the body digests and absorbs it. According to a 2021 health study, just 7% of Americans consume the recommended daily amount of fiber. Recent nutrition guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture state that women younger than age 51 should aim to consume 25 grams of fiber per day. Women over age 51 should aim for 21 grams, men under age 51 should aim for 38 grams of fiber per day, and men over age 51 should aim for 30 grams per day. Great sources of fiber include bran, oats, whole grains, beans, lentils, and barley! Plus, eating more fiber helps you remain fuller for longer, so you won’t need to snack unnecessarily.