In this article we list the best foods to eat to keep your cholesterol levels low and also look at the benefits of water in helping prevent the damage cholesterol causes to the body.
Top 10 Foods That Lower Cholesterol
The main foods that we all need to include in our diet to help keep the cholesterol in our bodies at a healthy level include:
- Plant Sterols
- Whole grains
- Fruit and vegetables
- Vegetable, seeds and nut oils
- Lean meat
- Dark chocolate (as a treat!)
Diet impacts our cholesterol levels both negatively and positively. Eating the wrong foods like those high in saturated fat can increase the amount of LDL cholesterol (the bad type) in circulation and increase the risk of developing heart disease.
Equally, there are some foods which can lower your level of bad cholesterol. Eating some of these foods every day can have a real impact on your cholesterol and keep you healthy.
A healthy diet should be one that is low in saturated fat and high in unsaturated fat. This means less cakes, biscuits and chocolates. Less butter, coconut and palm oil and reducing the amount of bacon, sausages, burgers and fatty meats in your diet. Full-fat dairy products should also be reduced including cheese.
Let's take a closer look at each of these foods and why they help keep your heart healthy.
1. Plant Sterols
Plant sterols and stanols are fatty compounds found naturally in plant-based foods and have been shown to have cholesterol-lowering benefits. As a result, there are a wide array of plant sterol-enriched foods available in your local supermarket. These products are believed to have positive effects on bad cholesterol levels.
You should aim to consume up to 3g of plant stanols and sterols per day. There’s no need to eat more because you will see no extra benefit. There are many products and brands available such as Benecol and Flora Pro-Activ, many supermarkets also have their own branded products. Check the labels say they are ‘fortified with plant stanols or sterols’. Some of the products you could try include:
- Fat spread
- Enriched milk
- Yoghurt drinks
- Cereal bars
Oats are an excellent source of soluble fibre called beta-glucan which is renowned for its cholesterol-lowering effects.
It works by making your gastrointestinal tract more viscous. In other words, it attracts cholesterol to a gel it forms and limits the amount of cholesterol absorbed into your bloodstream.
It also binds to the bile acids in your gut which stimulates your body to make more bile acids from cholesterol. Therefore, this also helps to lower your cholesterol levels and reduces the amount of bad cholesterol in circulation.
Adding more fibre to your diet is also good for you in other ways, too. Fibre helps to keep your gastrointestinal tract healthy and aids digestion and motility. An easy way to get more beta-glucan into your diet is to have a bowl of porridge for breakfast in the morning. The healthiest way is to make it with water but if you prefer a creamier taste you can add milk instead, but choose lower fat options.
3. Whole Grains
Oats are a source of whole grain, but there are other whole grains such as barley and bran that can lower cholesterol levels.
When you eat whole grains, that’s exactly what you are eating, the entire grain. Fibre sources like beta-glucan are found in the outer layer of whole grains which is one reason they are so good for you.
White bread and pasta, on the other hand, are called refined grains because they have their outer removed. Therefore, they lose some of the essential nutrients and is part of the reason they’re not so good for you.
As well as oats, other sources of whole grains include:
- Whole wheat e.g. bread, couscous and pasta
- Whole oats porridge
- Brown rice
- Whole rye e.g. bread
- Wild rice
By eating foods which are rich in whole grains means you will feel fuller for longer, so you will be less likely to snack during the day. A positive of this is you will reduce the risk of unnecessary weight gain and reduce the likelihood of reaching for high-fat and high sugar snacks like crisps, cakes and sweets.
4. Fruit and Vegetables
Fruit and veg are also great sources of soluble fibre. There are many benefits of eating lots of fibre including the fact it can help to lower cholesterol. Examples of particularly ‘good’ fruit and vegetables are:
- Legumes such as beans and lentils
- Sweet potato, aubergine, spinach, chard, asparagus and broccoli
- Strawberries, apples, prunes, oranges, cantaloupe melon
You should aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and veg per day. A portion is approximately 80 grams and it doesn’t matter if they are fresh, frozen, dried or tinned. They are also great for snacking because they contain little fat. Plus, they’re packed full of vitamins and minerals as well as antioxidants which help to prevent many diseases including cancer.
Tree nuts and peanuts are rich in various nutrients. They are high in unsaturated fat, fibre, vegetable protein and plant chemicals.
Eating nuts has been shown to lower circulating levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the bad type. Although the fat content of nuts contributes to their cholesterol-lowering abilities, other ingredients also have an important role. For example, nuts also naturally contain fibre and sterols which have cholesterol-lowering qualities.
Nuts are a perfect snack but try to choose unsalted varieties because salt can negatively affect your blood pressure and contribute to the development of heart disease.
Why not try:
- Brazil nuts
- Cashew nuts
- Macadamia nuts
Soya beans and foods made from them have long been publicised for their cholesterol-lowering effects. They are also packed full of nutrients and a good quality protein source.
Soya beans lower circulating LDL cholesterol levels and in turn, this also reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. It’s easy to incorporate more soya bean products into your diet and by doing so can help to lower your cholesterol.
You should try to incorporate two servings of soy foods into your daily diet. Why not try some of the following products:
- Soya milk
- Soya desserts
- Soya custard
- Edamame beans - also known as soya nuts
- Soya based meat alternatives
Fatty fish has numerous health benefits. It contains high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. These are healthy fats for your heart and may help to reduce the risk of developing diabetes.
It is recommended that we should all try to incorporate 2-3 portions of oily fish into our diet each week. Meat contains saturated fats which increase bad cholesterol. Whereas, the omega-3 fatty acids and other unsaturated fats found in oily fish helps to protect the heart and reduce cholesterol and triglycerides.
8. Vegetable oils
Our bodies need some fats to function properly. For example, we use fats to make energy, absorb vitamins from food as well as keep our brain and immune system healthy. However, some fats are not so good for us.
Saturated fats like those found in butter, ghee, lard, coconut oil and palm oil increase our blood cholesterol levels. However, simple changes to plant-based fats and oils can help to lower cholesterol and keep your heart healthy.
Choose vegetable, nut or seed oils instead, such as:
9. Lean Meat
Meat is a good source of protein and provides essential nutrients such as amino acids, iron, vitamin B12 and zinc.
For a heart healthy diet meat high in saturated fat - such as processed meats, bacon, sausages and burgers - should be replaced with lean meat such as chicken and turkey (with the skin removed).
A good, healthy diet should also include days where meat is replaced by a vegetable or fish based meal. Red meat should also be eaten in moderation as a lot of red meat is associated with a higher risk of developing heart disease.
You can read more about healthy meat on the British Heart Foundation website.
10. Dark Chocolate
Finally, having a healthy heart and low cholesterol doesn't mean you can't treat yourself. It's all about moderation and having a balanced diet.
One thing you can treat yourself to is dark chocolate. The chocolate has to have a high percentage of cocoa, so look for dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa.
Studies have shown that a moderate intake of chocolate may lower the risk of heart disease.
This maybe due to the high levels of flavanols which is a nutrient also found in some fruit, vegetables and tea which help reduce blood pressure and improve heart health.
But the key here is moderation, ensuring you have a healthy, balanced diet.
Benefits Of Drinking Water
Although to many of us water sounds boring, it really is the best beverage to drink. Not least because it contains no calories or fat. However, water can also have a positive effect on your cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol increases the acidity in your body, but by drinking water, the acidity is diluted, preventing the damage cholesterol causes to the body.
Staying hydrated also helps to keep your blood fluid, making it easy to pass through your arteries. It also increases your metabolism. The NHS advises that you drink 6 to 8 glasses of fluid a day.
Heart Healthy Recipes
To get you started on a heart healthy diet, here are a few recipe ideas:
- Porridge recipes
- 7 Heart-Healthy Comfort Recipes
- Baked Biryani Chicken and Rice
- Watermelon and spinach super salad
- Cinnamon rubbed salmon with couscous and harissa yogurt
- Lentil Curry
- Zesty Haddock with Crushed Potatoes
- Chicken and leek crumble pie
- Healthy Banana Bread
- Buckwheat pancakes
For further advice on heart health visit the British Heart Foundation.
These are just some of the foods which can help to keep your cholesterol levels in check. Physical activity also helps to regulate your cholesterol. So, remember to eat a healthy, balanced diet and exercise daily if you can.