Cholesterol has a bad reputation. But our bodies need it to make hormones and to digest fatty food. Too much cholesterol can turn dangerous, though. It can build up inside our arteries, causing blockages that can lead to heart disease and stroke.
Our livers make the cholesterol our bodies need, and we get additional cholesterol from animal foods, Julia Denison, clinical nutrition coordinator at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Magee-Womens Hospital, told TODAY.
The problem is a lot of us have too much cholesterol. Almost 1 in 3 adults in the U.S., and 7% of children age 6 to 19, have high cholesterol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What should I watch for?
You’ve probably heard that there are two types of cholesterol — LDL, which is considered unhealthy, and HDL, which is considered healthy. What are healthy cholesterol levels?
Desirable cholesterol levels, according to the CDC, are:
- Total cholesterol: Below 200 mg/dL
- LDL cholesterol: Below 100 mg/dL
- HDL cholesterol: 60 mg/dL or higher
You won’t notice any symptoms if your cholesterol is high, so it’s important to have it checked. Adults should have their levels tested every four to six years, and children should be tested between ages 9 and 11 and again between ages 17 and 21. People with heart disease, diabetes or a family history of high cholesterol should be tested more often.
What does a low-cholesterol diet look like?
Samantha Cassetty, a nutrition and weight-loss expert with a virtual nutrition counseling practice in New York City, said that in terms of what you eat, you have more control over your LDL level than your HDL level. (Exercise and quitting smoking can help raise the levels of your good HDL.)
To make food choices that help lower your cholesterol, you can focus on two things: what you don’t eat and what you do eat.
What to limit: Foods that are high in saturated fats drive your cholesterol levels up. “You want to limit foods found in animal products — red meat, whole milk dairy products, fried foods and oils that are solid at room temperature,” Denison said.
Some foods, like eggs and shrimp, get a bad rap because they contain a lot of cholesterol. But they don’t impact your cholesterol levels that much, added Cassetty.
What to choose: “Certain foods actually work to help lower cholesterol levels,” Cassetty said. High-fiber foods are good choices, because fiber binds to cholesterol, preventing it from getting into circulation in your bloodstream.
High-fiber foods that can help lower cholesterol include:
- Fruit, such as apples, grapes, strawberries, oranges and grapefruit
To build the foundation for a cholesterol-lowering diet, Cassetty suggests filling 75% of your plate with plant-based foods, such as pulses, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
“When you pick healthier foods over less helpful options, you’re improving your heart health in two ways,” Cassetty said. For example, if you pick seafood over red meat, you’re getting more of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids from the seafood and you’re reducing the saturated fat that would come from the meat.
What should I eat to lower cholesterol?
Cassetty shared a Mediterranean-style menu that she said would be great for lowering cholesterol. “It includes pulses, whole grains, healthy fats, fruits and veggies,” she said. Plus, it has 34 grams of fiber.
A delicious sample menu for lowering cholesterol:
Breakfast: Apple crisp yogurt bowl
In a saucepan sprayed with avocado oil, heat 1 chopped apple, 1/2 cup oats, 1 teaspoon maple syrup and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon over medium heat for about 5 to 8 minutes, stirring often. Spoon the cooked mixture over 3/4 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt.
Lunch: Chickpea power salad
Finely chop ½ cucumber, 1/4 tomato, 1/4 green pepper and 1 cup kale leaves and combine with 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, the juice of 1/4 lemon and 1/4 teaspoon of Italian or Greek seasoning. Add 1/2 cup canned chickpeas (drained and rinsed) and 2 tablespoons of feta cheese.
Dinner: Mediterranean pasta with tomatoes, olives and tuna
Mix 1 cup cooked whole grain pasta with 1 1/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, 2 tablespoons each sliced green olives and sun-dried tomatoes and 1/2 can drained canned tuna. Serve on top of 2 cups of arugula.
- Grapes with 1/4 cup walnuts
- 1/2 ounce dark chocolate with 2 tablespoons shelled pistachios