High cholesterol levels especially “bad” LDL and Low “good” HDL cholesterol are the major risk factors for coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. People having other risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, or diabetes, their risk increases even more.
Cholesterol-lowering foods are therefore a great addition to anyone’s diet for optimal health and as a preventative measure.
In this article, we are going to learn what cholesterol is, the types of cholesterol, the causes of high cholesterol levels, cholesterol-free foods, and other remedies to high cholesterol levels.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance present in the blood and cells in your body. Your body uses cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and bile acids that help you digest foods.
Cholesterol comes from the liver and the food we eat (dietary cholesterol), especially from meat, poultry, and full-fat dairy products.
There are two types of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol to and from cells. These include; low-density lipoprotein or LDL and high-density lipoprotein or HDL.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or bad cholesterol
LDL or “bad” cholesterol relates to the fatty build-ups in arteries (atherosclerosis). This narrows the arteries and increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease.
According to the centers for disease control and prevention, the amount of LDL cholesterol in the blood should be less than 100 milligrams per decilitre. Higher than this, one should consider changing their lifestyle especially having a cholesterol-lowering diet.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) or good cholesterol
Having higher levels of HDL cholesterol is actually good. That is why HDL is termed as the “good” cholesterol.
HDL acts as a scavenger in that it carries away LDL (bad) cholesterol from the arteries and back to the liver, where it is broken down and passed out of the body. However, HDL cholesterol cannot completely phase out LDL cholesterol; only one-third to one-fourth of blood cholesterol is carried by HDL.
Higher HDL cholesterol levels may protect against heart attack and stroke while low levels of HDL cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease.
Why is cholesterol bad for you?
Not all cholesterol is bad. In fact, your body uses cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and bile acids that help you digest foods.
The most dangerous type of cholesterol is LDL. When LDL cholesterol is too much in your blood, it combines with other particles in the blood to form a thick, hard deposit (plaque) on the inside of the arteries.
When plaque sticks on the artery walls, the arteries are narrowed and become less flexible. This condition is known as atherosclerosis. In the case of a blood clot that blocks any of the narrowed arteries, a heart attack or stroke is inevitable. It’s therefore important to know your cholesterol levels.
What causes high cholesterol levels?
High cholesterol levels are caused by an unhealthy lifestyle. Factors that can increase your risk of High bad cholesterol include;
Eating saturated fat especially in animal products and trans fats in commercially baked foods like cookies, crackers, and microwave popcorn leads to high cholesterol levels.
Lack of regular body activity
Physical activity can help raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) which is good cholesterol. However, lack of exercise increases your LDL levels.
Smoking damages blood vessel walls, making them liable to the accumulation of fatty deposits (plaque). Also, smoking can lower your level of HDL, or “good,” cholesterol.
Other risk factors include;
Age: as you age, the liver becomes less able to phase out LDL cholesterol due to several chemical changes in the body.
Diabetes: First, high blood sugar damages the lining of your arteries. It also contributes to higher levels of very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) as well as lowering HDL cholesterol.
Obesity: Having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 increases the risk of having high cholesterol.
Genetics: This can play a role in the levels of cholesterol in your blood. If a close relative had high cholesterol levels, you are more likely to have high cholesterol levels.
Other conditions such as liver or kidney disease, polycystic ovary syndrome, an underactive thyroid gland can lead to high LDL cholesterol levels.
What are the best cholesterol-free foods?
Your diet has a very big impact on your cholesterol and other risk factors. Hectic and busy nights compel people to unhealthy food choices because they don’t have time to cook. They rely on grab-and-go processed foods.
However, these foods are often high in fat, salt, and sugar and low in nutrients all of which contribute to high cholesterol levels.
Here are foods to lower cholesterol and improve other risk factors for heart disease.
Oats and barley
These are grains rich in a type of fiber called beta-glucan. Having 3g of beta-glucan a day as part of a healthy diet can help to lower cholesterol. Beta-glucan forms a gel that binds bile acids in the intestines and limits them from being absorbed from the gut into your blood.
Nuts are rich in unsaturated fats and lower in saturated fats. This keeps your cholesterol levels at bay. Also, nuts contain fiber. Fiber blocks cholesterol from being absorbed into the bloodstream.
Nuts such as Almonds, Macadamias, Brazil nuts, Cashew nuts, Hazelnuts, Pistachios, Walnuts, Peanuts, and Pecans can keep your cholesterol in check. Aim at 28-30g of nuts a day. If possible, eat the nuts with their skins still intact for more nutrients.
Fruits and vegetables
Most fruits and vegetables have little or no fat and are low in calories. If you eat more fruits and vegetables, you will have a healthy weight and lower cholesterol.
Fruit and vegetables are also high in fiber which blocks cholesterol from being absorbed from the intestines into the bloodstream.
The fruits and vegetables include; beans, peas, lentils, sweet potato, aubergine, okra (ladies’ fingers), broccoli, apples, strawberries, and prunes. Aim for: at least five portions of fruit and veg a day.
Foods rich in unsaturated fats
Reducing saturated fat is one way of reducing cholesterol and a step to having a better heart. Foods rich in unsaturated fats include;
- Vegetable oils: olive, sunflower, corn, rapeseed, nut, and seed oils
- Avocado, nuts, and seeds
- Fat spreads from vegetable oils like sunflower and olive oil
- Oily fish also have unsaturated fats, specifically omega-3 fats.
Avoid coconut and palm oil because they are exceptionally high in saturated fat.
Foods with added Sterols and stanols
Sterols and stanols are plant chemicals with shape and size similar to that of cholesterol. These block some cholesterol from being absorbed into the bloodstream.
Sterols are present in plant-based foods such as vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, although the quantity may not be enough to lower cholesterol.
Some food companies came up with products with plant sterols or stanols added to them. These include;
- Mini yogurt drinks
- Fat spreads
Soya beans and products made from soya beans are full of protein, vitamins, and minerals, with low saturated fat. Replacing saturated fat with foods low in saturated fat such as soya beans will keep your cholesterol levels in check.
Other remedies to high cholesterol levels
Limit alcohol consumption
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation and if you don’t drink, there are not enough benefits to make you drink. The moderate use of alcohol has been linked to higher levels of HDL cholesterol. Too much alcohol can cause serious health conditions including high blood pressure, heart failure, and strokes
Being overweight or obese contributes to high cholesterol. This is because most of the pounds are fats stored under your skin and different body parts. This contributes to cholesterol in our bodies. Therefore, keep track of your calories if you want to have normal cholesterol levels
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Quitting smoking improves HDL cholesterol levels. Three months of quitting smoking can have your blood circulation and lung function improved, and within a year, of quitting, your risk of heart disease can be reduced to half that of a smoker.
Regular body exercise
Exercise can improve your cholesterol levels. It can raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol. All you need is at least 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week or vigorous aerobic activity for 20 minutes 3 times a week.
High cholesterol levels are a major risk factor for heart disease. The good thing is that we can lower this risk by embracing lifestyle changes like incorporating cholesterol-free foods into our diet, regular body exercise, quitting smoking, and reducing alcohol consumption.