Cholesterol might seem like a dirty word from all the bad “buzz” it gets, but in truth, your body needs some levels of cholesterol to help maintain function of cells, nerves and hormones. Problems start to arise when the balance between the two types of lipoproteins, the substances responsible for transporting cholesterol throughout the body, become unbalanced in the bloodstream. Low-density lipoproteins, or LDLs, transport cholesterol from the liver, where it’s made, to the rest of the body while high-density lipoproteins, or HDLs, transport excess cholesterol that cells don’t need back to the liver for removal from the body. When the body produces too much cholesterol, the HDLs can’t return all of it back to the liver for break down, so the cholesterol remains in the bloodstream where it can oxidize, attach to artery walls and eventually lead to inflammation and plaque buildup in the arteries. This can lead to arteriosclerosis—the narrowing and hardening of arteries that characterizes the first stage of heart disease and can lead to heart attack and stroke.
Diet is often one of the biggest factors associated with high cholesterol, so changing your diet is one way to help lower cholesterol naturally. Generally, it’s best to avoid saturated, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats and eat lots of soluble fiber, essential fatty acids and unsaturated fats. For more specifics, check out the list below of six foods to lower cholesterol naturally.
Oatmeal often tops the list of heart-healthy, cholesterol-lowing foods. Oatmeal is high in soluble fiber, which helps prevent the body from absorbing excess cholesterol. Oatmeal, along with other whole grains such as barley, contains a type of soluble fiber known as beta-glucan that is particularly efficient at lowering cholesterol. Adding just 5 to 10 grams of soluble fiber can reduce LDL cholesterol by about five percent, and eating 11 grams a day of beta-glucan from oats can lower cholesterol by up to 14.5 percent. (Learn more about the health benefits of oatmeal.)
Avocados are packed with oleic acid, a type of healthy monounsaturated fat that studies have shown can decrease levels of bad cholesterol while improving levels of good cholesterol. Avocados work best as a cholesterol-lowering food when used as a substitute for an unhealthy fat. (Learn more about the health benefits of avocados.)
Nuts: Like avocados, nuts such as walnuts, almonds and pecans are a good source of healthy unsaturated fats. Walnuts are also a good source of omega-3 essential fatty acids, which have many heart-health benefits, including lowering high cholesterol. Because nuts are high in calories, it’s a good idea to eat them in moderation and to eat them as a substitute for foods high in saturated fat. The Mayo Clinic recommends, as an example, replacing cheese and meat on your salad with a handful of walnuts or almonds. (Learn more about the health benefits of walnuts.)
Olive oil contains high levels of polyunsaturated fats and antioxidants that can lower levels of bad cholesterol. When cooking, substitute olive oil for butter, margarine and vegetable shortening, which contain high levels of saturated and hydrogenated fats that can raise cholesterol levels. Because it has been less processed and retains more of its antioxidants, extra-virgin olive oil is a better heart-healthy choice than light olive oils. (Discover 15 more uses for olive oil.)
Cold-water fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, halibut and sardines are high in omega-3 essential fatty acids that are good for your heart. Try incorporating them into your diet several times a week. (Learn more about the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.)
Apples are high in pectin, a type of soluble fiber known to reduce levels of LDL cholesterol. According to one recent study, women who ate dried apples every day for six months experienced a 23 percent decrease in levels of LDL cholesterol and a four percent increase in levels of good cholesterol. (Learn more about the health benefits of apples.)
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