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Can you eat your way to lower cholesterol?

As a preventive cardiologist, many patients ask me about how dietary and lifestyle changes can lower cholesterol. This is a complicated question. There are multiple components of our diet that effect cholesterol and recent research has changed the view on what makes up a healthy diet. 

Not all fats are bad

For years, we have been telling patients to eat a diet low in fat and in cholesterol as a way to keep bad cholesterol (causing plaque build-up in the blood vessels) levels low. However, thanks to research, it is now pretty clear that this isn’t the best approach. In fact, a well-balanced diet includes healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados, which leads to the best cholesterol levels. For instance, cooking with olive oil will increase good cholesterol, which prevents plaque buildup. Eating healthy fats also decrease triglycerides, which is what the body uses to transport fat. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in seafood such as salmon and tuna, have a similar effect. 

Lower your carb consumption

Recent research has also found a connection between inflammation and heart disease, arthritis and other chronic diseases. Inflammation is your body’s response to defend itself from bacteria, viruses, injury and unhealthy things like smoking, a diet high in fat lack, and lack of exercise. A diet high in simple carbohydrates, such as white bread, white rice, table sugar, syrups, regular soda, and desserts promotes inflammation. Also, too many carbohydrates in your diet can result in excess calories that could lead to weight gain and additional burden for the heart.

Eat for your health

I think the most important thing to remember is that the point of eating healthy is not to change cholesterol. We should eat healthy to improve our quality of life and to decrease our risk of diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. The nice thing about recent research findings is that there is a lot of overlap. Whether your goal is to aimed at maintaining a healthy weight, reducing your cholesterol, reducing your risk of diabetes, reducing your risk of cancer, or reducing your risk of heart disease – the scientific evidence would suggest that the dietary recommendations would be the same for each of those situations.

The optimal diet:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables. Aim for five servings per day and do not drink more than ½ cup of fruit juice daily.
  • Non-processed proteins. Think fish, legumes (beans), chicken, pork, and even reasonable portions of red meat.
  • Whole grains. Oats, quinoa, brown and wild rice just to name a few.
  • Healthy fats. This includes polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as nuts, seeds, canola oil, olive oil and avocadoes.

Avoid these:

  • Processed foods. These are frequently high in salt and sugar and include many breakfast cereals and microwave ready meals.
  • Simple carbohydrates. As I mentioned above these are table sugars, syrups, white bread, etc.
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages. This not only includes soft drinks, but can include some fruit juices and tea and coffee drinks.
  • Excess calories. Make sure you are paying attention to portion sizes.


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