Keeping your heart healthy might not seem like a priority when you're younger, but that's the best time to start looking after it. Controlling risk factors, like high LDL cholesterol levels, will help you avoid the dangers of heart disease. Eating foods that are lower in cholesterol and certain types of fat can help you stay healthy.
Foods that contain trans fat, saturated fat and cholesterol can raise LDL levels.
Cholesterol and Heart Health
Cholesterol is found in every cell in your body, according to an article from MedLinePlus. It helps your body produce hormones and vitamin D. Even though it's important, you don't need any extra cholesterol through your diet. Your body makes enough.
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If you have too much cholesterol floating around your bloodstream, it can combine with other elements like fat and calcium to create plaque, explains an article from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Plaque can stick to the sides of your arteries, where it will calcify and harden. A little bit of plaque isn't dangerous, but over time plaque builds up. Eventually, it can block the artery and prevent blood flow. This process is called atherosclerosis, according to the National Heart, Lunge and Blood Institute.
If this happens in the small arteries that send blood to the heart, called the coronary arteries, it can block blood flow to the heart. This is called coronary artery disease, and it's the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, according to an article from MedLinePlus.
Read more: 9 Foods That Do Not Raise Cholesterol
It's important to keep your cholesterol levels under control to prevent plaque from building up. Atherosclerosis is a long-term process, so that sooner you start the better.
The tricky thing about cholesterol is that there are three different types. All forms of cholesterol are called lipoproteins, which means that they're made of both fat and protein, according to an article from MedLinePlus.
LDL cholesterol, which stands for low-density lipoprotein, is considered to be the bad kind of cholesterol because it can clog your arteries if there's too much. Very-low-density lipoprotein is considered neither bad nor good. It carries triglycerides, which are derived from fat.
HDL cholesterol is considered the good kind because it helps regulate your LDL levels. It can pick up LDL cholesterol and bring it back to the liver where it's processed and removed from the body, according to MedLinePlus.
To be safe, you generally want your LDL levels to go down and HDL levels to go up. A guide from MedLinePlus shows that men above age 20 should have:
- 125 to 200 milligrams of total cholesterol per deciliter of blood
- Less than 130 milligrams of non-HDL cholesterol
- Less than 100 milligrams of LDL cholesterol
- More than 40 milligrams of HDL cholesterol per deciliter of blood
The only difference for women over age 20 is that they're only recommended 50 milligrams of HDL per deciliter of blood or higher.
If you go to a doctor and they tell you that your LDL levels are too high, they'll ask you to modify your diet or prescribe medication.
Foods That Raise LDL Cholesterol
Modifying your diet to lower LDL means steering clear of foods that raise LDL cholesterol. There are a few types of food that you should look out for. A November 2016 study published in Current Atherosclerosis Reports recommends avoiding foods that are high in cholesterol, saturated fat and trans fat. The study also recommends eating more fiber and monitoring overall calorie intake.
According to an article from the Food and Drug Administration, animal products tend to be high in cholesterol. These high-cholesterol foods include:
- Beef, chicken and pork fat
- Cream and whole milk
- Dairy products like butter, cheese, cream cheese and ice cream
- Egg yolks but not egg whites
- Meats and poultry
- Processed meats like bacon, lunch meat and hot dogs
- Shellfish like lobster and shrimp
The daily value of dietary cholesterol, based on a 2,000 calorie diet, is 300 milligrams according to the Food and Drug Administration. You should try to avoid going over that amount and preferably stay under it.
Many foods high in cholesterol are also high in saturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends limiting your saturated fat intake to 5 or 6 percent of your total calorie intake. That means if you're eating a 2,000 calorie diet, you should only consume about 13 grams or less of saturated fat per day.
Similar to cholesterol, animal products tend to be higher in saturated fat, including:
- Fatty beef, lamb and pork
- Poultry with skin
- Cream and lard
- Butter, cheese and dairy products made with whole or 2 percent milk
- Oils like palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil
- Some baked or fried foods
Trans fats are also dangerous for your heart. There are two kinds, according to an article from the American Heart Association: naturally occurring and artificial trans fats. The primary source of trans fats is from partially hydrogenated oils, which are artificial trans fats. You can check the nutrition facts on food to look for them, or check to make sure the label says 0 grams of trans fat.
Unlike saturated fat there's no recommendation for trans fat intake, you should simply consume as little as possible. In addition to oil, you can get trans fats from:
- Doughnuts, cakes, pie crust and biscuits
- Frozen pizza
- Cookies and crackers
- Margarine and other spreads
Read more: 7 Myths About Cholesterol Debunked
Lowering LDL Cholesterol
As you cut back on cholesterol-raising foods, you might notice that there are some gaps in your diet. If you're wondering what to replace cholesterol-raising foods with, there are options that are healthier and higher in fiber.
An article from Harvard Health Publishing lists some foods that can help lower cholesterol:
- Oats, barley and other whole grains
- Eggplant and okra
- Vegetable oils
- Apples, grapes, strawberries and citrus fruit
- Food fortified with stanols and sterols
- Soy and soy products
- Fatty fish
- Fiber supplements
In addition to watching your diet, the American Heart Association has two recommendations for leading a healthy lifestyle and lowering cholesterol. The first recommendation is to quit smoking, to improve your HDL cholesterol (smoking lowers your HDL).
The second recommendation is to lose weight. Being overweight can lower your HDL cholesterol and raise your LDL cholesterol. According to the American Heart Association, losing 10 percent of your bodyweight is enough to see improvements in your cholesterol.
Replacing fatty, cholesterol-containing foods should help reduce your calorie intake, further helping you lose weight. Adding exercise will also help. Shoot for 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week and two days of resistance training to burn more calories, according to Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition"
- American Heart Association: "Prevention and Treatment of High Cholesterol (Hyperlipidemia)"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "11 Foods That Lower Cholesterol"
- American Heart Association: "Trans Fats"
- American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat"
- Food and Drug Administration: "Cholesterol"
- Food and Drug Administration: "Cholesterol"
- Current Atherosclerosis Reports: "Does Dietary Cholesterol Matter?"
- MedlinePlus: "Cholesterol Levels: What You Need to Know"
- MedlinePlus: "Cholesterol"
- MedLinePlus: "Coronary Artery Disease"
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "Atherosclerosis"