Often when we talk about a diet to try and lower cholesterol, the first thing people say is ‘no more eggs’. It’s true that dietary cholesterol is found in things like eggs, shellfish and liver.
This type of cholesterol however is only responsible for a very small portion of your overall blood cholesterol. If you have been recently told you have high cholesterol and need to completely change your diet, don’t panic.
You have probably been given a long list of foods that you have been told to never eat again. Instead of focusing on the negative and the problem, lets focus more on the solution. It’s not about cutting things out, it’s about making smart swaps so you can still enjoy your food, while looking after your heart health.
Let’s go through 12 foods that can help to lower your cholesterol levels.
12 Foods That Help To Lower Cholesterol Levels
2. Oily fish
5. Lean mince meat
7. Fruit and vegetables
8. Low fat cheese and dairy
9. Low fat spreads
10. Cooking oils made from vegetables and seeds
11. Tomato based dishes
12. Plant stanols/sterols
You have heard it before, but a bowl of oatmeal really is the best way to start your day! Oats contain soluble fibre. Soluble fibre is a type of dietary fibre which dissolves in water in the gut to form a gel. This in turn soaks up cholesterol like a sponge and carries it out of the body where it cannot do any damage. Trying to incorporate oats into your breakfast any way you can, is a great start in actively trying to reduce your cholesterol levels. If you don’t like oatmeal, try adding dry oats to a breakfast cereal, or to a yoghurt and fruit.
In sum: Oatmeal is one of the best breakfasts for lowering cholesterol through it's ability to absorb and transport cholesterol out of the body.
2. Oily fish
Salmon, mackerel, herring and trout are all a type of oily fish. Consuming oily fish will not directly reduce your cholesterol, however it is rich in omega 3 which may protect the heart. Oily fish should therefore be eaten twice a week, as it has been shown in some studies to reduce the chance of heart attacks. Tinned varieties are just as good as fresh, but make sure you are choosing the healthier variety eg. in spring water or brine. If you opt for frozen, just make sure that you are choosing the plain kind. Avoid breadcrumbs and batters which are high in saturated fat.
In sum: Oily fish that is rich in omega 3 fatty acids has been shown to slow down the production of triglycerides in the liver which can help to lower and control cholesterol levels.
Turkey meat is low in saturated fat, and therefore makes a great substitute for red meat.
When making a chili con carne, give turkey mince a go. Homemade turkey burgers with red onion and chives make for a delicious Friday night dinner.
Be smart when ordering a sandwich and swap your ham or beef for sliced turkey. If you like a fried breakfast on a Saturday, then opt for turkey rashers and turkey sausages over conventional high saturated fat produce.
In sum: Aim to eat lean cuts of white meat as they make a satisfying replacement for meat sources that contain a high volume of saturated fat.
Chicken has always been a versatile, and healthy option at mealtimes. It is low in saturated fat, so again it makes a great substitute at dinner time for replacement red meat. When cooking, try and grill and bake as much as possible. If frying the chicken for a stir fry, use a minimal amount of healthy oil. Aim for one teaspoon of oil per portion of meat. Be sure to always remove all the skin of the chicken, as most of the fat in chicken is just under the skin.
In sum: Chicken, like turkey is a good choice if you’re a meat lover but you’re trying to lower your cholesterol levels. When cooking chicken, try to limit the amount of oil you use in the pan.
5. Lean mince meat
For generations, mincemeat has been a staple weekly dinner in many households. Spaghetti bolognaise, chili con carne, meat loaf are all family favourites.
When shopping, look at the price of the meat, often the cheaper it is, the higher in saturated fat it will be. Learn how to understand food labelling. Always go for the lean ‘less than 5%’ per 100grams option. When cooking, bulk up the dinner with diced vegetables, as this will reduce the calories and saturated fat content of each portion.
In sum: Choose lean mincemeat if you are trying to lower your cholesterol levels. Add half mincemeat and half vegetables when cooking with mincemeat to reduce the volume of saturated fat you’re eating yet remain satisfied.
For those of you who wonder what is the difference between pulses and legumes, I can confirm that they are the same thing! A pulse is a seed that grows in a pod, examples include: chickpeas, split peas, cannellini beans, baked beans and lentils.
Pulses are high in soluble fibre, which as already mentioned, has great cholesterol lowering properties. Pulses are also high in protein, so are a great substitute for a meat free dinner. Swapping your meat for a vegetarian dish 1-2 a week, will massively reduce the overall saturated fat content of your meal, and help lower your cholesterol.
In sum: Pulses are a great source of low fat protein. Aim to incorporate pulses into a few meals each week.
7. Fruit and vegetables
If you have high cholesterol, you should use fruit and vegetables to your advantage.
As discussed, soluble fibre may help in lowering your unhealthy cholesterol levels, by collecting the fat as it moves along your digestive system. Aim to meet your 5+ portions a day, to help lower your HDL cholesterol levels.
The outer skin of fruit and vegetables are high in insoluble fibres. The insoluble fibre, is what adds bulk to our stool and keeps our bowels regular. It also keeps us fuller for longer, which can in turn decrease the amount of fatty snacks that slip in during the day, and raise our cholesterol levels.
In sum: Fruit and vegetables are a quick and easy way to get your daily dose of plant sterols that play an active role in lowering cholesterol levels, and helping you to look and feel good.
8. Low fat cheese and dairy
Cheese and other dairy products are high in saturated fat. It is always advisable to go for low or reduced fat options When eating cheese, it can be very easy to have much more than you realise.
Your daily portion of cheese should be no more than 30grams. This is about the size of a small match box. Go for low fat options, or stronger flavoured cheeses meaning you need a smaller amount to get the taste! Try grating the cheese rather than slicing, as this will make it go a little bit further.
If you are feeling adventurous, why not give cottage cheese a go. It may not look that appealing but try it on a cracker with cherry tomatoes for a tasty, cholesterol friendly snack!
In sum: Choosing low fat dairy options is one of the best ways to lower your cholesterol levels without compromising on taste. Monitor your portion sizes of cheese in particular and you won’t have to worry about cholesterol.
9. Low fat spreads
Saturated fats, are usually hard at room temperature. Butter is very high in saturated fat, and very bad for our cholesterol levels. The small swap from full fat butter, to a mono or polyunsaturated reduced fat spreads, can make a real difference in lowering your cholesterol levels.
They contain omega-3 fats, which when used to replace saturated fat in butter, can lower unhealthy LDL cholesterol levels . Examples include spreads made from soybean, sunflower and canola oils. Portion sizes are important. Portion packs found in cafes and delis can guide the amount you should use. One portion pack of a low fat spread, should be enough for two slices of toast.
In sum: Use low fat spreads when you’re trying to lower your cholesterol levels but remain aware that there is still fat in low fat spreads.
10. Cooking oils from vegetables and seeds
When cooking, opt for oils from vegetables such as sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, and olive oil which are high in heart healthy unsaturated fats. Although coconut oil gets a lot of hype in the media, it is very high in saturated fat. Those in support of its use, argue that the saturated fat in coconut oil, acts differently to typical saturated fats, as it boosts good cholesterol levels (HDL).
Research surrounding this is inconclusive as yet, so if you are using coconut oil, do so sparingly, or opt for olive oil or rapeseed oils, that can help to increase good cholesterol and lower the bad.
In sum: Use pure organic oils and in small amounts to lower your cholesterol levels.
11. Tomato based sauces
Just because you are watching your cholesterol levels, does not mean you need to stop enjoying your food. Again, it’s all about making smarter choices which will help your overall health. Knowing saturated fat and where it comes from, will help when trying to reduce the overall amount in your diet. Cream based sauces will have a much higher saturated fat content than a tomato based alternative. If you have high cholesterol, but still want to go out and enjoy a nice meal, choose a tomato based curry over a creamy korma. Instead of a cheesy white pasta dish, choose a tasty tomato option instead. At lunch, opt for a vegetable or tomato based soup. If picking the salad, ask for the dressing on the side, and go for a balsamic vinegar, rather than a creamy caesar or ranch dressing.
In sum: You can still enjoy your meals if you have high cholesterol or you’re trying to lower your cholesterol, just make sure to always go for fruit or plant based options like tomato sauces instead of a cream-based sauce and fruit purees instead of a syrup.
12. Plant stanols and sterols
Plant sterols/stanols are natural substances found in some foods – such as almonds, soybean oil and sesame seeds.
These compounds have been proven to lower cholesterol levels. They work by blocking the amount of bad cholesterol absorbed from the food in our diets. It is very hard to reach the necessary levels needed to see the beneficial effects on our cholesterol, through diet alone.
This is why plant stanols or sterols are added to yoghurts, yoghurt drinks, and spreads. If you have high cholesterol, it is useful to aim for about 2g per day to get the best effect. One plant sterol yoghurt drink a day is the best way to go. Although the spreads are as effective, it can be difficult to make sure you are having an adequate amount to get the beneficial effects.
In sum: Aim to get enough plant sterols each day, either in the form of fortified foods or fruit and vegetables. Plant sterols are a great way to naturally decrease your cholesterol levels.
Learning how to read food labels and understand what foods are high and low in saturated fats, will help in making smart decisions when trying to lower your overall cholesterol levels
High saturated fat is more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g of the food
Low saturated fat is less than 1.5g of saturated fat per 100g of the food
It's also important to know that there is no one magic food that will lower your cholesterol. When it comes to achieving a healthy cholesterol, it is important that we look at our diet as a whole. Our body is complex, and needs nutrients from a wide range of sources.
Our time and efforts are best spent enjoying a varied diet, full of whole foods. A diet which is plentiful in fruit, vegetables and pulses, lean meats and oily fish, and incorporating mono and polyunsaturated fats where we can.
Prevention is always better than the cure. The best way to prevent cardiovascular disease, is to keep your cholesterol at a healthy level, and diet is one of the best ways to do so!
Written by Niamh Brosnon R.D. | Edited by Hannah Kingston