September is National Cholesterol Awareness Month. Understanding how to adjust cholesterol and fat in our diet can help to reduce the risks associated with heart disease.
What is Cholesterol? Cholesterol is a waxy type of fat found in all animal cells. This means both the animal-based foods we eat and our own bodies contain cholesterol. Cholesterol is essential for many processes in our bodies, including hormones and vitamin D production. However, we only need a certain amount, and too much can cause problems. Diet and exercise play a key role in keeping our cholesterol levels “in-check.”
Good vs Bad Cholesterol
Cholesterol is often broken down into good and bad cholesterol categories.
- HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein and is considered the good. Higher amounts of HDL can help bring fatty components in your blood back to your liver. The liver helps clear these fatty deposits from your body and can reduce the risk of developing heart disease. You can think of HDL as the helpful cholesterol. HDL can be increased by eating more heart-healthy fats. These are fats low in saturated fat, high in omega-3 and include olive oil, nuts, avocados, and fish.
- LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein and is considered bad. LDL cholesterol does the opposite of HDL. It deposits these fatty deposits to your arteries. You can think of LDL as the lousy cholesterol. LDL can be lowered by reducing the amount of trans fats and saturated fats from the diet. We can also reduce LDL cholesterol by increasing the amount of fiber in our diet.
- According to the CDC, desirable cholesterol values include:
Total cholesterol: less than 200 mg/dL
LDL cholesterol: less than 100 mg/dL
HDL cholesterol: greater than or equal to 60 mg/dL
Cholesterol in Foods
Animal-based foods not only contain cholesterol, but are also high in saturated fat. Our bodies use saturated fats to make cholesterol, which can increase our LDL cholesterol. Limit your intake of these high-saturated fat foods:
- High-fat dairy, such as cheese, whole-milk
- Egg yolks
- Fatty cuts of meat, hot dogs, bacon, and high-fat cold cuts
- Animal fat, such as lard, tallow, duck fat
- Fried foods
- Baked goods and snack foods made with lard, butter, palm kernel, coconut oils, or trans-fat
How to Lower Your Cholesterol Intake
- Opt for plant-based fats
- Plant-oils have NO cholesterol!
- They are a great substitution for cholesterol-containing fats such as butter. Not only do they replace cholesterol in your diet but they can also help lessen the absorption of cholesterol from other foods.
- Healthy plant oils include olive, safflower, canola, flaxseed, and sesame oils
- Avocados, walnuts, peanut butter, and other nut-butters are great options!
- Select lean protein foods
- Swap out ground beef for ground turkey or chicken
- Replace grilled steak with grilled chicken or fish
- Remove the extra fat cap on large cuts of meat
- Opt for skinless options of poultry. Skin contains a significant amount of fat.
- Choose low-fat dairy options
- Reach for the low-fat or fat-free options for cheese, yogurt, milk, and cottage cheese.
- This will reduce the amount of cholesterol you eat but still allow you to enjoy these foods.
- Step-up your fiber game!
- Just like plant-based oils, fiber can help reduce the amount of cholesterol you absorb from foods. Fiber creates a gel-like substance in your stomach and can whisk away cholesterol from being taken up into your blood.
- Fiber is in so many delicious foods! High-fiber foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, beans, and nuts.
- To incorporate more fiber into your diet, try:
- Going for a plant-based dinner once a week by including beans, tofu, or lentils instead of meat.
- Making ½ your plate fruits and vegetables at mealtimes.
- Swap refined grains for whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta, faro, oatmeal, popcorn.
Replacing foods high in saturated fats with heart-healthy fats can be an effective way to improve your cholesterol levels. This can be as easy as using olive oil in place of butter. Try swapping whole milk in your cereal with 1% or skim milk. Never underestimate how even the smallest changes can make a big difference!
Guest contributor: Stephanie Hill, Master’s student and Dietetic Intern from Florida State University’s Department of Nutrition & Integrative Physiology.
4 ways to eat your way to lower cholesterol. Harvard Health. (2021, February 3). https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/4-ways-to-eat-your-way-to-lower-cholesterol
What is cholesterol? Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. https://www.eatright.org/health/wellness/heart-and-cardiovascular-health/what-is-cholesterol
Heart Healthy Eating to Help Lower Cholesterol Levels. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17281-heart-healthy-eating-to-help-lower-cholesterol-levels
Nutrition and Healthy Eating. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fat/art-20045550
LDL & HDL: Good & Bad Cholesterol. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31 Jan. 2020, www.cdc.gov/cholesterol/ldl_hdl.htm.