Understanding Your Cholesterol: What to Eat to Improve Levels

You’d be forgiven if upon reading the word cholesterol the first image to cross your mind is that of a clogged up artery. Though often thought of as something “bad” we need to reduce by avoiding cholesterol-rich foods; in reality, it’s more a case of learning how to improve our body’s relationship to it. Understanding cholesterol can be complicated, but improving and optimizing it is easy with a few simple lifestyle shifts.

Blood cholesterol explained

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in all of your body’s cells and is necessary to produce hormones, vitamin D, and digestive acids that help us break down food. Our body naturally manufactures cholesterol from the liver when needed and can also come from food.

There’s the cholesterol we get from food called dietary cholesterol, and then there’s cholesterol found in our bloodstream called blood cholesterol. Let’s first explore the different types of blood cholesterol, as this will help in understanding cholesterol found in foods better.

The magic of marketing!
Don’t be fooled by clever marketing ploys. If a food doesn’t contain animal-based products, naturally it will be cholesterol free. This marketing phenomenon is called health washing.

What is “bad” cholesterol?

That “bad” cholesterol that the media harps on about is LDL (low-density lipoprotein). Think of it like this: LDL is the “bus driver” driving its “cholesterol” passengers where they need to go, but when there are too many buses on the road (our arteries) a traffic jam ensues (plaque and cholesterol build up). These blockages can lead to heart attacks or strokes.

It’s not just the amount of LDL that we need to pay attention to, but also its size and firmness. Think of it this way: Would you rather have someone throw a handful of small marbles at you or a handful of larger fluffy cotton balls? The larger softer particles would result in less impact and therefore less damage to your arteries. Those smaller and denser LDL particles have been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

What is “good” cholesterol?

Now we come to HDL (high-density lipoprotein), known as “healthy” cholesterol. HDL is the cholesterol cleaning crew. It comes in and sweeps up all the extra cholesterol from the bloodstream and artery walls, then deposits in the liver where it’s then flushed out. Higher levels of HDL are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. So the more of this type you have, the better off you’ll be.

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So, what is normal cholesterol?

Now that we’ve established what’s good and bad cholesterol, let’s look at your blood cholesterol — also called a lipid panel — as a whole. It’s important to note that the answer to What is normal cholesterol? differs from person to person as do the recommended levels. Differing cholesterol level ranges may vary for a variety of reasons such as age or medical condition. We encourage you to speak with a physician to get your lipid panel and an in-depth explanation of what your levels mean.

  • Total cholesterol (125 to 200 mg/dL): A measure of the total amount of cholesterol in the blood, including LDL and HDL
  • Non-HDL (less than 130mg/dL): The total cholesterol minus HDL. Includes LDL and VLDL (very low-density lipoprotein)
  • Triglycerides: A form of fat in the blood, converted from extra calories. When high, can make you more susceptible to heart disease
  • LDL (less than 100mg/dL): “Bad” cholesterol
  • HDL (40mg/dL or higher for men, 50mg/dL for women): “Good” or “Healthy” cholesterol
  • Cholesterol ratio (aim for below 5, the ideal is 3.5): A ratio of total cholesterol to HDL. To find this value, divide the total cholesterol by HDL

Not all lipid panels include those small-dense LDL particles (harmful marbles). If you’re curious to learn more, speak with your physician.

What foods cause high cholesterol?

Remember that cholesterol can be found in both our food as well as manufactured by our bodies. Just because a food contains cholesterol, doesn’t mean it will increase your blood cholesterol levels. In fact, recent findings have shown that cholesterol in food isn’t as great a concern as previously thought.

If your body is healthy, it will most likely automatically regulate the amount of cholesterol it manufactures — meaning if you eat more, it won’t produce as much. The problem lies in types of foods we consume and unhealthy lifestyle habits that influence our natural system and throws homeostasis out of whack.

Trans fats

Trans fats are one of the few ingredients we at 8fit adamantly recommend you avoid at all costs. They’re manufactured in a way that both raises your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lowers your HDL (“good”) cholesterol. You’ll find it in packaged foods such as pastries, doughnuts, cookies, crackers, fast food, and some kinds of margarine. Check a product’s ingredient list and steer clear of them as well as partially or fully hydrogenated ingredients.

Sugar

You may be asking yourself, why list sugar, that’s not fat or oil, what’s that have to do with cholesterol? Simple and processed sugar such as cakes, cookies, soda, candy, and packaged foods cause a spike in blood sugar. As a result, when insulin increases, LDL goes up and HDL goes down. If there is still excess sugar circulating, insulin will also help turn the sugar into fat, and triglyceride levels increase.

Saturated fat

We’ve been told for decades that saturated fats (meat, eggs, coconut, dairy) increase the risk of heart disease. It was thought that saturated fat raises the unhealthy cholesterol LDL. However, scientists have discovered that there is no clear link between saturated fat and an increase in LDL; in fact, some show that saturated fats can help shift the LDL cholesterol from the small dense really unhealthy ones to the large LDL. Just to be cautious, its best to aim for the recommended less than 10% of our daily calories, particularly if you are at high risk for heart disease and focus on those whole food versions.

For decades we were told that saturated fats, i.e. meat, eggs, coconut, and dairy,  increase the risk of heart disease. The thinking was that saturated fat raised the level of unhealthy cholesterol LDL. However, now scientists have discovered that there’s no clear link between saturated fat and an increase in LDL; in fact, some studies show that saturated fats can help shift the LDL cholesterol from the small unhealthy ones to the larger LDL. Stay on the safe side and aim to have saturated fats account for 10% of your daily caloric intake and focus on whole food variants. This is especially important if you’re at high risk for heart disease.

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Foods that lower cholesterol fast

If you’re wondering how to raise your good cholesterol (HDL) and decrease the bad cholesterol (LDL), then direct your attention to the food you eat. Add the following to your daily meals:

  • Colorful fruits and vegetables: Berries, oranges, broccoli, spinach, bell pepper
  • Whole grains: Oats, whole grain wheat, quinoa, barley
  • Beans/legumes: Black beans, edamame, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, lentils
  • Nuts and seeds: Almonds, cashews, walnuts, flax seeds, sesame seeds
  • Healthy plant-based oils: Olive oil, avocado oil, walnut oil
  • Omega-3 rich foods: Fish (salmon, tuna, halibut), walnuts, and flaxseed

As a general rule of thumb substitute saturated and trans fats for healthy fats:

  • More unsaturated fats such as fish, seeds, nuts, olive oil, avocados
  • Less saturated fats such as animal products, processed foods

How to improve cholesterol levels

Now that you’ve got a basic understanding of cholesterol and what foods impact your levels let’s finish your cholesterol 101 class and explore how to raise good cholesterol through lifestyle changes.

Exercise

Lack of activity is a risk factor when it comes to heart disease. Regular activity can help lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol levels. Focus on aerobic exercise and aim to be active for at least 30 minutes per day. If you need a nudge in the right direction and some added support as well as nutritional help then sign up for 8fit.

Weight management

Being overweight is another risk factor in heart disease, often correlating to higher cholesterol levels. Healthy, sustainable weight loss, will result in lower LDL, total cholesterol, and triglycerides. It can also raise healthy HDL cholesterol.

Ditch the cigarettes

Smoking cigarettes lower the healthy and helpful HDL cholesterol particles as well as damages the lining of the arteries, increasing the risk of blood clots and stroke. It also stimulates adrenaline which makes your heart beat faster and can compound stress, which we all know isn’t great for the old ticker.

It’s also worth noting that some things are out of our control, and high cholesterol levels can simply be related to age, genetics, or race. If lifestyle changes alone don’t lower your cholesterol, your doctor may recommend medication. Talk to your healthcare provider about what route is right for you.