When it comes to lowering high cholesterol levels through diet, experts are in agreement: A Mediterranean-style diet along with increased consumption of soluble fiber and the avoidance of fad diets are keys to success.
Cholesterol is carried throughout the blood on a structure called a lipoprotein, which is a combination of cholesterol particles and proteins, explains the Mayo Clinic. The type of protein being combined with the cholesterol particles determines whether it is one of two types of lipoproteins.
The first type is called low-density lipoprotein (LDL). This is often referred to as the "bad" cholesterol because too much of it will build up plaque, a waxy substance, inside the artery walls, which in turn makes the arteries narrow and restricts blood flow.
This artery-clogging buildup, known as atherosclerosis, can limit the ability of the body to transport oxygen through the blood to other organs, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). It can lead to serious health problems, including a stroke or heart attack,.
The second type of lipoprotein is called high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Often noted as the "good" cholesterol, these proteins pick up the excess cholesterol in the blood and transport it back to the liver to be metabolized, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Diet Can Be Key
"Mediterranean eating is key for those with cholesterol issues who do not want to give up meat and go vegan," says Nicole Schillinger-Vogler, RD, LDN, a dietitian and certified personal trainer at the Functional Health Center in Philadelphia. "Eating more wild-caught fish, more fresh veggies and fruits, emphasis on healthy fats like olives, olive oil and nuts can help."
Schillinger-Vogler also recommends foods high in soluble fiber because they bind to cholesterol and help excrete it out of the body. High soluble-fiber foods she recommends include:
- Oats, oat bran
- Wheat bran
- Pinto beans
- Flax seeds
What Raises Your Cholesterol?
People often think of cholesterol as a bad substance, when in fact your body needs cholesterol to build cells. It's made by your liver, and that amount is all you need. However, your body gets more from foods that you eat.
"Animal products — whether it is chicken, beef, eggs, milk, cheese or butter — these all contain cholesterol naturally," says Schillinger-Vogler. As the American Heart Association explains, high-cholesterol foods are also generally high in saturated fats and trans fats, substances that can cause the liver to increase the amount of cholesterol it makes to an unhealthy level.
Most often, "our daily source in America of saturated fats comes from cheese," Schillinger-Vogler says. "People add it to all three meals plus snack on it. A one-ounce piece of cheese equals approximately six grams of saturated fats -— most people need only 12 to 18 grams of saturated fat per day — so this one piece of cheese gives half the day's need in one shot."
According to Heather Carrera, DCN, CNS, health and wellness manager at SUNY Geneseo, a university in Geneseo, New York, cholesterol levels are most impacted by refined carbohydrates, sugars, trans fats and certain types of saturated fats.
By reducing or avoiding added sugars, processed foods, refined carbohydrates such as white breads and pastas, trans fats found in processed and fast foods, saturated fats from cream, full-fat cheese and fatty cuts of meat, she says, you can lower cholesterol levels significantly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fad diets (such as the potato diet or cabbage diet) are problematic because they set people up for failure in the long run. Even a fad diet that limits cholesterol can be unhealthy by limiting nutritional intake, especially if it excludes a large amount of nutrient-rich foods.
Conversely, according to the Cleveland Clinic, the food groups that are permitted in certain fad diets may encourage an over-consumption of that type of food, to the point that it exceeds what is recommended by major health organizations such as the American Heart Association, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and even the U.S. Surgeon General.
What to do? First, accept that there's no quick-fix diet that will lower your cholesterol. Then, remember the adage: "Variety is the spice of life." Make a grocery list that includes an assortment of colorful fruits and veggies, lean proteins, fibrous grains and plant-based fats to enjoy. Limit the high-fat, animal-based, processed and fried foods — and you'll be well on your way to making a dent in that LDL.
- Mayo Clinic: “High cholesterol”
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “Atherosclerosis”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Healthy Weight”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Fad Diets”
- Heather Carrera, DCN, CNS, nutrition and wellness coordinator, SUNY Geneseo, Geneseo, New York
- Nicole Schillinger-Vogler, RD, LDN, dietitian, personal trainer, Functional Health Center, Philadelphia
- American Heart Association: "Control Your Cholesterol"
- Cleveland Clinic: "HDL: Is It Possible to Raise Your ‘Good’ Cholesterol?"