Your body needs cholesterol, but too much of it can build up in your bloodstream and stick to artery walls. This narrows your arteries, reducing the flow of blood to your heart and raising your heart attack risk. Here are some of the ways to keep your cholesterol under control with food.
Ditch unhealthy fat. Saturated fat and trans fat are both to blame for high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), a type of cholesterol linked to clogged arteries. (You’ll often hear it referred to as bad cholesterol.)
Trans fat is even worse than saturated because it also reduces high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is associated with less heart disease. (It’s what’s known as good cholesterol.) Trans fat shows up naturally in small amounts in full-fat dairy foods and fatty meats. Though banned in packaged products, you can still find it in fried restaurant and bakery foods, including fried fish, french fries, and doughnuts. Your body doesn’t need trans fat, and experts suggest eating very little, or none of it.
Fatty meats, full-fat dairy foods, coconut oil, palm kernel, and palm oil are among the foods that supply significant saturated fat. Try to limit it to 10% of total daily calories. That means no more than 22 grams on a 2,000-calorie eating plan. If your blood cholesterol is high, keep saturated fat to 7% of your total daily calories, or about 16 grams or less on a 2,000-calorie diet. Read food labels to find foods lower in saturated fat.
Rethink dietary cholesterol. For most people, there’s no direct link between the cholesterol in food and beverages and their blood cholesterol level. That’s why the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans don’t suggest limiting cholesterol. Experts say eating a diet that include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, seafood, plant proteins, and healthy liquid vegetable oils matters more to your blood cholesterol and heart disease risk than a daily cholesterol limit.
However, many foods rich in cholesterol, including cheese, full-fat milk, and butter, are also high in saturated fat. That means it isn’t a bad idea to choose lower-fat versions and switch to oils such as olive and canola in place of butter. There are exceptions, of course: Eggs and shrimp are relatively high in cholesterol but relatively low in saturated fat.
Manage your weight. Reaching and staying at a healthy weight is good for your overall well-being and heart health. Research shows that people who shed 5% to 10% of their body weight – 10 to 20 pounds for a 200-pound person, for example – reduced blood cholesterol to much healthier levels. However, it’s difficult to say whether weight loss is the only reason for lower cholesterol values because people also change their diets for the better and may exercise more when trying to shed those pounds. We do know that a healthy weight reduces inflammation that can contribute to heart disease and helps control blood pressure. A balanced weight loss approach that includes exercise may also increase the levels of beneficial HDL in your bloodstream.
Fill up on fiber. Fiber plays a part in keeping arteries clear and may help with weight management by keeping you fuller for longer. There are two main types of fiber in food: soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fiber helps prevent constipation by moving material through your digestive system. Soluble fiber is the kind that dissolves in water to form a gel-like material in the gut that binds with cholesterol and prevents you from absorbing it into your bloodstream. Oatmeal and oat bran; fruits, such as apples, bananas, oranges, pears, and prunes; and legumes (garbanzo beans and black beans, for example) have some of the highest soluble fiber levels. Fruits and vegetables also contain plant stanols that may work like soluble fiber to help control cholesterol. The amount of soluble and insoluble fiber varies in plant foods. Aim for 25 to 30 grams of fiber daily, and include at least five servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables.
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