Managing your cholesterol through diet

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Often, cholesterol takes on a negative connotation because it is often associated with increased risk of heart disease. However, did you know that your body needs cholesterol? It is important to understand what role that cholesterol plays in the body and why too much of it can be a risk to your health. Here we will explore what cholesterol is, the types of cholesterol and how to effectively manage your cholesterol through diet. 

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that your body needs for good health, but in the right amounts (1). While most people view cholesterol as inherently “bad”, it is an important building block for the body to help build cells. Your liver makes all the cholesterol you need; the remainder of the cholesterol in your body comes from foods derived from animals such as meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products or some plant-based oils such as palm oil and coconut oil (2). These foods tend to be higher in saturated fats, and foods higher in saturated and trans fats have been suggested to increase the production of cholesterol made by the liver. As the amount of cholesterol in your blood increases above its need, so does the risk to your health. 

“Good” vs. “bad” cholesterol

Cholesterol moves through the bloodstream carried by different types of proteins called lipoproteins. These lipoproteins include low-density lipoprotein (LDL), very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) or high-density lipoprotein (HDL).

LDL and VLDL cholesterol are referred to as “bad” cholesterol because high levels of this cholesterol can raise your risk of heart disease. LDL and VLDL cholesterol can join with other substances to form a thick, hard deposit on the inside of the arteries, which can narrow the arteries and make them less flexible – a condition known as atherosclerosis (3). Buildup in these arteries that are connected to the heart and brain can reduce blood flow throughout the body and in turn can negatively impact health and lead to disease if left untreated.

HDL cholesterol is referred to as “good” cholesterol. Unlike LDL or VLDL, higher levels of HDL can be beneficial to your health. Experts believe that HDL acts as a scavenger, carrying bad cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where the LDL and VLDL are broken down and passed from the body (4). However, HDL cholesterol does not eliminate all LDL and VLDL cholesterol; it is important to be aware of the amount of cholesterol you are consuming through your diet. 

Cholesterol and the food we eat

One of the biggest contributors to high cholesterol levels is an unbalanced diet. It is important to know which foods can raise your “bad” cholesterol, and which can help lower your overall risk of disease.

1. Know your fats. Three types of fats to be aware of in your diet are saturated fats, trans fats and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature and occur naturally in animal products such as meat and full fat dairy. Trans fats are manufactured and commonly listed in the ingredient statement as partially hydrogenated oil. Trans fats are found largely in baked goods and fried foods. Eating a diet that consists largely of foods containing saturated and trans fats can cause your body to produce even more LDL, raising the level of “bad” cholesterol in your blood (5). Unsaturated fats, which consist of both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, are identified as healthier fats. Unsaturated fats are found in fatty fish such as salmon, trout, olive oil, or nuts such as walnuts. These foods provide essential fat the body needs but cannot produce itself and can help to lower “bad” cholesterol. Eaten in moderation, both kinds of unsaturated fats may help to improve your blood cholesterol when used in place of saturated and trans fats (5). Nutrition apps such as Lifesum can make it easy to track foods that are lower in saturated fats and higher in unsaturated fats to help you make healthier choices.

2. Aim to follow a Mediterranean- style diet. A Mediterranean style diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, olive oil, low fat dairy, poultry, fish and eggs. In general, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans provide a variety of essential vitamins and minerals to the body that are vital to healthy development, disease prevention, and overall well being. These foods are also good sources of fiber, both soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber decreases cholesterol absorption and lowers (bad) LDL cholesterol (6), while insoluble fiber helps to promote regularity. A specific type of soluble fiber found in whole grains, oats and bran, called beta-glucan, has been suggested to have a positive impact in lowering cholesterol levels. Checkout the Lifesum app for some great recipes aimed at helping you follow a Mediterranean-style diet.

3. What about eggs? When it comes to cholesterol, eggs have been a concern for the fact that the yolks contain high amounts of dietary cholesterol. While it is true that eggs are a rich source of dietary cholesterol, they are also full of other essential unsaturated fats that can help lower bad cholesterol levels. Additionally, eggs are a great protein source and filled with other nutrients such as vitamin D and selenium. As with all kinds of food, an excessive intake is not recommended, and the same goes for eggs. A moderate intake of eggs can be a healthful part of an overall diet.

4. Monitor your intake of high fat, fried foods, baked goods, and sodium. High fat, fried foods and baked goods are all sources of saturated and trans fat that contribute to LDL and VLDL cholesterol levels. While sodium may not influence cholesterol levels directly, it does influence overall heart health. When there’s extra sodium in your bloodstream, it pulls water into your blood vessels, increasing the total amount (volume) of blood inside them, increasing blood pressure (7). Elevated blood pressure, like elevated “bad” cholesterol levels, can increase the risk of heart disease.  

5. Small things that have a big impact:

  • Exchange saturated fat such as butter to unsaturated fat oils such as olive, canola or avocado 
  • Choose toppings, spreads and sauces that are olive-oil based,nut-based, or are overall lower in saturated and trans fats  
  • Start the day with a fiber-filled breakfast, such as this protein-packed oatmeal recipe from Lifesum
  • Aim for lower fat dairy products to reduce intake of saturated fat

Although cholesterol is an essential part of the body, too much cholesterol can have a negative impact on overall heart health. To manage your cholesterol levels, it is important to understand how a well-balanced diet relates to cholesterol, and steps you can take to prevent high cholesterol. How will you manage your cholesterol levels?

References

  1. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Blood Cholesterol. 2018. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/blood-cholesterol (accessed 06-28-2020)
  2. American Heart Association (AHA). Control Your Cholesterol. 2017. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/about-cholesterol (accessed 6-28-2020)
  3. American Heart Association (AHA). Atherosclerosis. 2017. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/about-cholesterol/atherosclerosis (accessed 06-29-2020)
  4. American Heart Association (AHA). HDL (Good), LDL (Bad) Cholesterol and Triglycerides. 2017. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/hdl-good-ldl-bad-cholesterol-and-triglycerides (accessed 06-29-2020)
  5. American Heart Association (AHA). The Skinny on Fats. 2017. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/prevention-and-treatment-of-high-cholesterol-hyperlipidemia/the-skinny-on-fats (accessed 06-30-2020)
  6. American Heart Association (AHA). A nutritious side dish to grill this Memorial Day. 2020. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2020/05/22/a-nutritious-side-dish-to-grill-this-memorial-day (accessed 06-30-2020)
  7. American Heart Association (AHA). Get the Scoop on Sodium and Salt. 2018 .https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sodium/sodium-and-salt (accessed 07-01-2020)

With Lifesum, tracking your healthy habits (and the not so healthy ones) becomes a breeze. We’ll help you pick the right food, and eat the right portion sizes, to reach your personal health goals.

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