Cholesterol is one of those words that carries with it a lot of preconceived notions. While many of these thoughts and ideas are not far from the truth there are some that have given this compound a bad reputation. With such a bad reputation it often surprises people to learn that not only is cholesterol not all bad, but it even necessary.
Not all cholesterol is present due to food choices, the body produces cholesterol naturally through the liver. When it comes to dietary cholesterol it is interesting to note that this sticky substance can only be taken in through animal sources such as meat and dairy. For this reason, people with largely plant-based diets contribute to lower levels of blood cholesterol.
Why is cholesterol even a conversation that needs to be had? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 95 million American adults over 20 years old have a total cholesterol level higher than the recommended amount, 200mg/dL. Nearly 30 million of those individuals have a total cholesterol level higher than 240mg/dL.
These numbers have major implications and insights into the standard American’s health and dietary patterns. While these numbers are incredibly high there is hope for control and reduction by following a few simple guidelines and eating many of the foods listed below.
A quick lesson on cholesterol will help build a useful foundation for understanding the rest of this article. First, there are two types of cholesterol referred to as “good” and “bad.” Bad cholesterol is low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) and good cholesterol is high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL). One is called “bad” because it results in blocked arteries and other negative side effects while HDL is good because it acts as a remover of the bad cholesterol. Therefore, it is beneficial to have high HDL cholesterol and low LDL cholesterol.
What Does Cholesterol Do?
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that every cell in the body contains to an extent. It is made in the liver but also taken in through the diet. Cholesterol is essential to overall health and plays many vital roles in the body. Cholesterol’s purpose in the body can be categories into three primary roles:
Assists in bile production in the liver
This essentially means that cholesterol is necessary for proper digestion. It does this by producing bile and other substances necessary to breakdown the food that is eaten and then absorbs it in the intestines
Acts as a building block for tissues
As a part of this role in the body, cholesterol is a protective sheath around nerve fibers and on the outer membranes of cells
Aids in producing sex hormones
Estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol are hormones that require cholesterol for their production.
High Cholesterol Risk Factors
It is no secret that some people are predisposed to having high cholesterol levels while other people can eat whatever they want and never have issues with their cholesterol levels. So the question has to be asked; what are the risk factors for high cholesterol? When it comes to risk factors for many chronic and acute illnesses there are two types; controllable and uncontrollable.
Uncontrollable Risk Factors
Uncontrollable risk factors for high cholesterol include factors like age, gender, and family history. These are things that put you at risk for having high cholesterol that you are not able to control through external means. These factors are important because opposed to popular belief or knowledge, dietary cholesterol only plays a part of a person’s cholesterol levels.
People with a family history of high cholesterol are more prone to struggling with this condition as well. The body processes cholesterol and usually expels the extra through bile, however, some people inherit the inability to process this fatty substance as efficiently as others. This results in higher cholesterol levels, especially when dietary cholesterol intake is high.
Age and gender have a great impact on a person’s risk for high cholesterol and the news isn’t good for older women. As you age, male or female, your risk for having issues with cholesterol increases. For men over the age of 45 and women over the age of 55, this is especially true.
The body becomes less efficient in processes the substance and as a woman’s estrogen levels decrease cholesterol increases as the body uses cholesterol to make estrogen and as it is needed in fewer amounts as a woman reaches menopause the excess is stored in the blood.
Controllable Risk Factors
This category of risk factors refers to exactly what it sounds like, those factors that we have nearly full control over. The primary controllable risk factors include diet, physical activity, and body weight. These three legs all have a significant impact on both increasing and decreasing a person’s cholesterol levels. Even if the person with high cholesterol, or at risk for developing it, focus on just one of these elements they can improve their blood cholesterol levels in a dramatic way.
A person’s weight and physical activity are largely controllable, though some health conditions can create issues with weight gain or inability to be physically active. Having excess weight and being overweight or obese can cause the body to have high levels of blood cholesterol putting these individuals at greater risk.
It is worth being pointed out that some people with healthy body weight can have high cholesterol due to genetics. Physical activity improves blood cholesterol levels in two ways; by increasing good cholesterol and decreasing bad cholesterol along with decreasing body weight which is another risk factor.
Diet has a great impact on a person’s cholesterol levels. This is because not only is cholesterol produced in the body but can also be consumed through the diet from animal food sources. When excess dietary cholesterol is consumed it increases the level of cholesterol in the blood and when there is just too much to be processed efficiently these levels stay high and put the individual at risk for heart disease and stroke.
The Double-Edged Sword of Food
Food and diet are not only effective in raising cholesterol, but certain foods can also decrease cholesterol levels. This is why food has a double edge approach when it comes to this substance. In this way, food can have a positive or negative impact on cholesterol depending on the types and sources.
As a health industry, we spend enough time discussing all the foods that should be avoided to prevent disease and illness. So let’s take the opportunity to look at the foods that we should eat and the ways they will reduce our blood cholesterol levels.
Foods That Lower Cholesterol x 5
Not all foods are created equal, this is a well-known fact. When it comes to cholesterol this is a true statement as well. Even when it comes to “healthy” foods there are some foods that just have a greater impact on lowering cholesterol than others. So what foods should you integrate into your diet if you wish to prevent or lower high cholesterol?
But aren’t these loaded with fat? Yes, but good fats. Avocados have a two-step approach to lowering cholesterol levels. In one way they replace saturated fats and higher cholesterol foods such as mayonnaise and fatty spreads. In a second way, they are full of monounsaturated fat which is effective in both lowering LDL cholesterol and raising HDL cholesterol.
This food type has been used for a long time as an alternative to animal products. Because animal products have cholesterol naturally occurring in them replacing these with soy can reduce a person’s dietary intake of cholesterol. This will inevitably result in lower blood cholesterol levels.
Replacing cow’s milk for soy in cereal and oatmeal can improve cholesterol intake. Edamame can easily replace a cholesterol-laden snack such as buttery popcorn.
This food type is incredibly effective at raising HDL cholesterol. There are few food items that will have this type of impact on HDL cholesterol, generally only physical activity will raise this good cholesterol which is beneficial to overall health. This result occurs due to nut’s unsaturated fat content.
Oats & Whole Grains
This is the first food type that is beneficial in lowering cholesterol due to its fiber content. Fiber works to reduce cholesterol levels by binding to the fatty substance and eliminating it through the intestines. Diets high in fiber have been proven to substantially lower cholesterol and a person’s risk for heart disease. Switching your morning eggs and bacon to oatmeal can have a drastic impact on your blood cholesterol.
Fruits and Vegetables
The list of cholesterol-lowering foods wouldn’t be complete without including fruits and vegetables. The benefits of fruits and vegetables go well beyond their cholesterol-lowering ability. They contain vitamins and minerals which add to a balanced diet, their antioxidant content makes them ideal for protecting again disease, even cancer, and the low fat and calorie content make them ideal for a heart-healthy diet.
The good news for high cholesterol sufferers is many delicious fruits and vegetables contribute to the cholesterol-lowering arsenal of foods. Fruits and vegetables that are high in fiber work much the same as oats and whole wheat foods.
Sweet potatoes, okra, broccoli, peas, Brussel sprouts, and artichokes are vegetables with high fiber content. Many berries like blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries have this same cholesterol-lowering fiber. Other fruits with cholesterol-lowering abilities include pears, pomegranates, oranges, and grapefruit. These fruits make excellent natural juice that can be easily added to any meal or snack.
Reducing Cholesterol… What Else Works?
While diet is very effective in lowering cholesterol, there are two other approaches that are commonly taken to lower this lipid and prevent the need for pharmaceutical intervention. Physical activity and supplements, along with dietary changes, are often prescribed as an initial intervention to reduce blood cholesterol levels.
Physical activity works to reduce cholesterol by increasing HDL cholesterol levels. As mentioned previously, HDL works to reduce LDL levels, therefore, the higher HDL is the lower LDL may be. Supplements are great additions to a health regimen to aid in lowering blood lipids.
Many supplements are made from nutrients and compounds from specific foods that promote cholesterol-lowering activity. These compounds work in foods to bring about many health benefits in the body. Many act as antioxidants which reduce the impact of free radicals and oxidative stress, which includes the effects of cholesterol.
Cholesterol Rates and Risks
With all the talk about cholesterol and lowering it there are two questions that have gone unanswered. First, what is the recommended cholesterol level? Second, what is the big deal with having high cholesterol?
Cholesterol is reported as Total Cholesterol, HDL Cholesterol, and LDL Cholesterol readings. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends keeping your Total Cholesterol at 200mg/dL for total cholesterol, LDL Cholesterol under 100mg/dL, and HDL Cholesterol over 60mg/dL. Having your blood lipids checked regularly, especially for those with many risk factors, is highly recommended and requires a simple blood draw from your primary care physician.
High cholesterol levels significantly increase a person’s risk of heart disease and stroke. This is because cholesterol is a sticky, fatty substance having excess will cause blockages in arteries. These blockages reduce the amount of blood and oxygen that travel through the body causing strain on the heart and other organs. This strain, if allowed to persist, will increase a person’s risk for heart attack or stroke.
Simply put, cholesterol is both essential and dangerous. It is necessary for overall health, but excess levels circulating in the blood can create serious health complications and repercussions. A diet rich in high fiber and antioxidant foods can significantly reduce a person’s cholesterol or risk of having high cholesterol. By adding soy products, increasing fruit and vegetable intake, and making your grain sources whole grains you will begin to quickly see improvements in these lipids. The benefits of eating according to this dietary pattern exceed just reducing cholesterol levels making it more beneficial to begin following this diet.
Trista Best is a Registered Dietitian and Content Writer. She has been writing in the areas of health, wellness, and nutrition for over three years and enjoys the opportunity it provides for creative outlet. Trista graduated with two Bachelor’s degrees, one from the University of Alabama in Dietetics, and a Master’s Degree in Public Health Nutrition. When she is not writing or working in the Paediatric Nutrition office she enjoys being active with her family, husband Brett and daughter Emma Grace.