If you have high cholesterol, you'll want to limit your intake of high-cholesterol foods. But which healthy foods are OK to eat, and which should you avoid? Is yogurt cholesterol friendly? Foods high in fat can increase your cholesterol levels, but low-fat yogurt is a protein-packed, filling snack.
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If you have high cholesterol, a low-fat yogurt without added sugars is a good option.
Read more: 7 Myths About Cholesterol Debunked
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a substance found in your blood. Your body creates cholesterol in the liver and uses the waxy substance in a number of ways, including building cell membranes, making hormones like estrogen and testosterone and making vitamin D.
Your body creates all the cholesterol it needs, and the remainder of the cholesterol in your body comes from food. Dietary cholesterol is found in animal-derived foods that are high in saturated and trans fats, like meat and full-fat dairy products.
There are two main types of cholesterol. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is considered the "bad" cholesterol because too much LDL in your blood can combine with other substances to create a hard plaque deposit inside your arteries. This narrows your arteries and makes them less flexible, increasing your risk of a stroke or heart attack if a blood clot forms and blocks a narrowed artery.
High-density lipoprotein, or HDL cholesterol, is the "good" kind of cholesterol. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), HDL acts as a kind of scavenger, carrying one-third to one-fourth of the "bad" LDL cholesterol particles out of your arteries and back to your liver.
Read more: The 9 Best Cholesterol-Lowering Foods
What Is High Cholesterol?
When people talk about high cholesterol, they're usually referring to the levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood. You can find out your blood cholesterol levels through a lipid panel blood test. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP):
- A "normal" lipid panel total cholesterol is 180 to 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or less.
- A "borderline" lipid panel total cholesterol is between 201 and 240 mg/dL.
- A "high" lipid panel total cholesterol is greater than 240 mg/dL.
In terms of specific cholesterol readings, the AAFP says that you should aim for HDL levels of 40 to 60 mg/dL and LDL levels of 100 mg/dL or less. "Between 100 and 129 mg/dL is near normal, 130 to 159 mg/dL is borderline high, and above 190 mg/dL is considered high," the site says.
A lipid test will also evaluate the level of triglycerides in your blood. Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in your body, and they store any excess energy you get from your diet. According to the AHA, a high triglyceride level combined with a high level of LDL cholesterol or a low level of HDL cholesterol is associated with plaque buildup in your artery walls, thus increasing your risk of a stroke or heart attack.
Because triglycerides are usually highest in your blood right after eating, you should fast for 12 hours before a blood test for your triglyceride levels. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the triglyceride level guidelines for healthy, fasting adults are:
- Normal triglyceride level: Under 150 mg/dL
- Borderline high triglyceride level: 151 to 200 mg/dL
Triglyceride levels higher than 200 mg/dL are linked to increased risk of heart attacks and strokes:
- High triglyceride level: 201 to 499 mg/dL
- Very high triglyceride level: 500 mg/dL or higher
The Cleveland Clinic recommends that adults over the age of 20 get their cholesterol checked at least every five years. However, your ideal cholesterol and triglyceride range will depend on a number of things, including your age, sex and general health.
You can speak to your doctor about your numbers and what counts as "high" for you, which will help you decide whether or not to avoid high-cholesterol foods.
Are Yogurt and Cholesterol Connected?
A January 2013 study published in the journal Nutrition Research evaluated the yogurt consumption, diet and metabolic health of 6,526 adults. Data showed that men and women who ate yogurt had high potassium intakes, lower systolic blood pressure, lower insulin resistance, lower levels of circulating triglycerides and higher levels of HDL.
However, that doesn't mean that yogurt is cholesterol-friendly, but simply that a diet including yogurt is associated with better metabolic health. The study found that people who ate yogurt generally had diets that were lower in refined carbohydrates and processed meat, instead eating more fresh produce, whole grains and fish. Basically, they ate lower amounts of high-cholesterol foods and foods that raise LDL.
If you have high cholesterol, Harvard Health Publishing recommends that you limit your intake of saturated fats and trans fats. Saturated fats can increase your levels of LDL cholesterol, and trans fats both increase your LDL levels and decrease your levels of HDL cholesterol. Instead, focus on healthy fats. Harvard Health Publishing also says that low-fat yogurt is a good choice if you have high cholesterol.
Read more: What to Eat to Lower LDL Cholesterol Quickly
Foods That Lower LDL Cholesterol
If you have high cholesterol, your doctor may prescribe medication to lower those levels. However, they will also likely recommend lifestyle and dietary changes, including cutting out foods that raise LDL.
There are a number of ways that foods can lower your levels of LDL cholesterol. According to Harvard Health Publishing, some foods contain soluble fiber which "binds cholesterol and its precursors in the digestive system and drags them out of the body before they get into circulation."
Read more: 7-Day Low-Cholesterol Diet Menu
Some plants contain sterols and stanols (also called phytosterols) — compounds that occur naturally in plant cell membranes. Phytosterols have a similar structure to cholesterol, meaning they "compete" for absorption in the digestive system and thus lower the amount of cholesterol absorbed into the blood. Other cholesterol-lowering foods contain polyunsaturated fats.
Foods high in soluble fiber include:
- Oatmeal or oat bran
- Black beans
- Lima beans
- Pinto beans
- Sweet potato
- Dried figs
Foods high in plant phytosterols include:
- Cashew nuts
- Macadamia nuts
- Pistachio nuts
- Kidney beans
- Sesame oil
- Pink or red lentils
Foods high in polyunsaturated fats include:
- Soybean oil
- Safflower oil
- Flax oil
- Sunflower seeds
- Harvard Health Publishing: "11 Foods That Lower Cholesterol"
- MedlinePlus: "Cholesterol"
- American Heart Association: "Cholesterol 101: An Introduction"
- American Heart Association: "HDL (Good), LDL (Bad) Cholesterol and Triglycerides"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Blood Test: Lipid Panel"
- Nutrition Research: "Yogurt Consumption Is Associated With Better Diet Quality and Metabolic Profile in American Men and Women"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Triglycerides & Heart Health"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "3 Diet Changes to Help Lower Cholesterol Levels"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Phytosterols: Sterols & Stanols"
- Oregon State University: Linus Pauling Institute: "Phytosterols"