Medically reviewed on June 27, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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If someone in your family has high cholesterol or you yourself have been told that your levels are borderline, you likely know that too much of the bad kind of cholesterol (LDL) can be deadly. However, when you survey the grocery store shelves, you may not be sure what foods you should select to keep your cholesterol levels in line.
Luckily, the amount of excess LDL in your body is largely in your control. This is because most of the cholesterol that causes serious health problems gets into your body through the food you consume—particularly animal products such as red meat and dairy.
If you suffer from high cholesterol, you can work to improve your health by avoiding foods that can increase LDL and replacing them with plant-based alternatives which can help lower cholesterol levels. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the dos and don’ts of heart-healthy eating.
If you’re trying to clean up your diet and improve your cholesterol levels, it can be beneficial to avoid or seriously limit foods that increase LDL. Animal products and foods high in saturated fats top the list.
Some of the most notable LDL-boosting foods include:
Eating too much meat (even if it’s unprocessed) may cause your LDL levels to climb and remain too high. In the past, it was thought that only red meat caused blood cholesterol levels to skyrocket. However, more recent research suggests that consumption of any fatty meat, red or white, can contribute to elevated total cholesterol levels . This includes:
Consuming too much meat can add unnecessary cholesterol to your diet. When you have higher blood cholesterol levels than your body needs, it can build up in your arteries. Eventually, your high cholesterol level can cause serious cardiovascular health problems.
Processed meats can present the same problems as their unprocessed counterparts. This is because the process of curing and preserving meat products adds ingredients that may increase cardiovascular disease risk .
This means you should avoid eating:
Full-fat dairy products are a high cholesterol food that can also contribute to elevated LDL levels when consumed in excess. However, it’s important to note that not all full-fat dairy is bad for you. In fact, consuming full-fat yogurt or yogurt drinks has been linked to lowered LDL levels in some studies . So why does dairy get a bad rap when it comes to dietary cholesterol?
Many full-fat dairy products are also highly processed and contain other ingredients that can contribute to high LDL cholesterol levels and poor heart health. Some of these products include:
Instead of eliminating all dairy products to manage your cholesterol, try enjoying them in moderation and avoiding those that contribute to poor health.
We all like to indulge in a handful of salty potato chips or a few bites of flaky pastry from time to time. However, when these foods become a part of your regular diet, you put yourself at risk for heightened cholesterol levels.
High saturated fat snacks are typically those that have been highly processed and imbued with excess salt or sugar. So, if you’re working toward healthier cholesterol levels, you should avoid the following snacks:
These foods typically contain little or no real nutritional value and they can boost your LDL levels into unhealthy territory.
When you’re trying to monitor your cholesterol intake, these deep-fried foods can sabotage your efforts:
You should also avoid foods fried in coconut, palm, and other tropical oils as these generally have higher saturated fat content than other options. Fast food is also a big no when you’re working on improving your LDL levels. This is because fast food is often fried and contains too much saturated fat, sodium, and sugar.
Now that we’ve discussed some of the foods you shouldn’t eat, let’s talk about some of the substitutions you can make to ensure you’re getting the nutrients you need (and enjoying your meals). As we’ve discussed, animal products can fill your diet with unwanted cholesterol. In contrast, plant-based foods won’t elevate cholesterol levels.
Some of the best food options for cholesterol management, and overall health, include:
According to the CDC, only 10% of American adults eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables daily . When you do consume enough fresh produce, you can reduce your risk of chronic diseases and can help keep your cholesterol levels under control.
Add these nutrient-rich foods to your daily diet for a significant and tasty health boost:
Challenging yourself to eat as many different colors of produce as possible each day can help you meet your health goals.
Whole grains are another potent weapon against unhealthy cholesterol levels. Unlike their refined cousins, whole grains are fully intact. This means they contain the bran, germ, and endosperm that helps them retain nutrients. Whole grains are also packed with fiber and energy-boosting carbohydrates.
Some of the best whole grain options you can include in your diet are:
You can experiment with adding whole grains to your diet by swapping them in for white flour, rice, and pasta.
You might worry about getting enough protein when you limit your meat consumption, but there are plenty of alternative options available. Some of the best choices of protein that won’t harm your heart health include:
In fact, consuming these types of protein sources instead of meat may help lower LDL levels in some individuals. Furthermore, beans and lentils contain significant amounts of fiber—another key component of a healthy diet.
Not all fats are bad. Although we’ve been conditioned to think of “fat” as a catchall term for unhealthy foods, your body does need fat. Dietary fat provides the body with fatty acids it can’t make on its own . Your body uses these fats for cell repair, growth, energy, and vitamin absorption.
Sources of healthy fats that won’t spike bad cholesterol levels include:
Many of these foods are quite calorie-dense, so you don’t want to go overboard. However, in moderation, they can be beneficial to your health.
Your body needs some cholesterol to perform essential functions. However, when you consume too much cholesterol, your cholesterol can climb to an unhealthy level. The culprit of unhealthy cholesterol levels is usually LDL, or low-density lipoprotein.
Two different lipoproteins transport cholesterol through the blood :
The third component that impacts your cholesterol levels is triglycerides or fats in your blood. When you have elevated triglycerides, you may also have dangerously high VLDL. VLDL is lipoprotein that’s responsible for carrying fats to your body tissue, but is problematic in excess. It is important to understand the difference between VLDL vs. LDL cholesterol in order to choose the best foods to eat.
While some cholesterol is a must for good health, too much can be dangerous. Knowing how much cholesterol per day is appropriate for you and your body is incredibly important. When your body cannot use or eliminate excess LDL cholesterol, it can build up in your blood vessels.
High cholesterol has been linked to many serious health problems, including :
The good news is that you can work to improve your health and lower your cholesterol levels by adjusting your eating habits and other lifestyle choices. Taking the steps to acknowledge the consequences of high cholesterol will help you understand how to keep your heart healthy.
Eating more heart healthy foods is the first step to getting your cholesterol levels under control. However, dietary adjustments alone won’t significantly change your health . When paired with these other changes, you’ll typically see a much greater impact:
In some cases, you may also need to take prescription medication to get your cholesterol levels where they need to be.
High LDL cholesterol levels are one of the risk factors for heart disease. Fortunately, by maintaining a diet that limits animal products and incorporates plenty of fresh produce, whole grains, and healthy fats, you can limit your LDL intake and help maintain your heart’s health.
At Everlywell, we believe it’s important to arm yourself with the information you need to understand your health. With our at-home Heart Health Test, you can gain insight into your cholesterol levels so that you know when it’s time to make changes to your lifestyle.
Ready to take action on your longterm health and wellness? Let Everlywell help.
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