If you’re serious about lowering your cholesterol and taking good care of your heart, these 5 tactics are a great place to start. They’ll also help you shed excess weight, which will also improve heart health.
1. Focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans
Our typical American diet is now abbreviated as SAD (Standard American Diet) by scientists nationwide because it’s full of foods that do sad things to both hearts and waistlines. Hyperprocessed foods like potato chips and French fries. Sugar-saturated drinks. And fatty, artery-clogging meats and full-fat dairy foods like cheese.
We don’t have to become complete vegetarians to get our cholesterol levels into healthy ranges, studies on the Pritikin Program have found, but clearly, the more vegetables, fruits, potatoes, and other naturally-fiber-rich plant foods we eat, the healthier we’ll be.
Plant foods high in soluble fiber are especially beneficial in lowering total and LDL bad cholesterol levels. Good sources include beans (pinto beans, black beans, etc), yams, oats (yes, eat your oatmeal!), barley, and berries.
For simple tips on bringing more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans into your life, here is a 5-day sample healthy meal plan from the doctors and dietitians at Pritikin Longevity Center.
2. Eat far fewer of the following fats…
Foods with a lot of heart-damaging saturated fat include butter, meat, palm oil, coconut oil, and full-fat and low-fat dairy products, such as whole milk, low-fat milk, cheese, and cream.
If you see partially hydrogenated fat in the Ingredient List of a food label, that food has trans fats, which not only raise bad LDL cholesterol, they also lower good HDL cholesterol.
Top sources of dietary cholesterol include egg yolks, organ meats, and shellfish.
One type of fat – omega-3 fatty acids – has been shown to protect against heart disease. Excellent sources are cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel, halibut, trout, herring, and sardines.
But do keep in mind that limiting fat intake, even so-called “good” fats like omega-3 fat or Mediterranean-style fats like olive oil, is a good idea because any fat is dense with calories, which means heavy consumption can easily lead to a heavy body. That’s bad news not just for our weight but our hearts because being overweight adversely affects blood cholesterol levels.
Excess weight is linked not just to heart disease but to a staggering list of other woes, including Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, gout, dementia, and many cancers.
3. Eat more plant sources of protein…
Excellent plant proteins include beans – all beans, like lentils, red beans, pinto beans, and soybeans. Rather than raising blood cholesterol levels, as animal sources of protein do, beans actually help lower cholesterol.
Beans also help reduce blood sugar and insulin levels, and may even lower cancer risk.
When choosing products made from soybeans, stick to:
(available in most grocery store freezer sections, often described as edamame)
vanilla, original, or unsweetened
(unflavored/unmarinated – found in refrigerator cases)
All the above are great choices for your cholesterol profile and overall health.
4. Eat fewer refined grains, such as white flour.
We’re a nation of “white food” eaters – white bread, white rice, white pasta, and white-flour foods like muffins, croissants, bagels, crackers, dried cereals, tortillas, pretzels, and chips. Yes, more than half of many Americans’ typical diets are made up of hyperprocessed refined white flour, often injected with sugar, salt, and/or fat.
That’s a real problem in part because the more white, or refined, grains we eat, the fewer whole grains we tend to take in. Research has found that eating whole grains can help lower both total and LDL cholesterol, and improve heart health.
In Harvard University’s Nurses’ Health Study, for example, women who ate two to three servings of whole-grain products (mostly bread and breakfast cereals) each day were 30% less likely to have a heart attack or die from heart disease over a 10-year period than women who ate less than one serving of whole grains per week.2
When first starting to make the switch from refined to whole grains, many people often feel a bit confused. Where to begin? What’s whole? What isn’t?
The registered dietitians at the Pritikin Longevity Center start with one very simple rule. When looking at products like breads and cereals, they recommend turning the package around and making sure the first word in the Ingredient List is “whole.” If you see the word “whole” at the top of the list, it’s a good bet that what you’re buying is in fact 100% whole grain, or close to it.