What Foods Can Affect Your Cholesterol Levels?
Although cholesterol often gets a negative press, this fatty substance isn’t exactly bad for you. Whether cholesterol is a friend or foe to your health depends a lot on the type and amount of cholesterol in your body.
Cholesterol is a type of fat that circulates in your bloodstream. Your body produces some of the cholesterol and the rest comes from the foods you eat. You need cholesterol to make the hormones and substances your body uses to digest food. However, too much cholesterol can build up in your arteries and cause a heart attack or stroke.
The type of cholesterol you have is also important. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is called “bad cholesterol” because it can clog your arteries. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol carries cholesterol to the liver and out of the bloodstream. It acts like a cleanser for the arteries.
The ideal equation is high HDL cholesterol and low LDL cholesterol. Knowing which foods are high in fat and cholesterol can help you make more heart-healthy food choices.
Sources of cholesterol
The cholesterol in your body comes from two main sources: your liver and what you eat.
About 75 percent of the cholesterol in your blood is made in your liver, other organs and other cells in your body.
The remaining 25% of cholesterol in the body is influenced by the foods we eat. When you consume large amounts of cholesterol, your liver compensates by reducing its own cholesterol production and removing the excess.
Not everyone is equally efficient at producing and eliminating cholesterol. Some people have genes that tell the liver to produce more cholesterol or slow down the process of removing cholesterol from the body. If you inherit these genes, you may have high cholesterol even if you don’t eat high-fat or high-cholesterol foods.
Foods that raise LDL cholesterol
Cholesterol is found in foods and animal products, but it’s actually the type of fat in foods that can have a huge impact on blood cholesterol levels. Decades of research have shown that saturated fats raise LDL levels and increase the risk of heart disease. Recent studies by credible sources have shown a less clear link between saturated fat intake and heart disease risk. However, a comprehensive meta-analysis called Trusted Sources showed that replacing saturated fats with carbohydrate-free polyunsaturated fats reduces the risk of heart disease.
Foods high in saturated fat encourage the liver to produce more LDL. It is best to limit these foods.
- Full-fat milk
- Ice cream
- Red meats
- Prepared foods, sausages, bacon and hot dogs.
Foods high in trans fats can also raise LDL cholesterol. These foods include the following
- Confectionary pastries
- Fried foods
- Microwave popcorn
Foods that Raise HDL Cholesterol Levels
Other foods can raise cholesterol levels. These foods can lower LDL cholesterol while increasing healthy HDL cholesterol.
- Oily fish such as salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, sea bass, etc.
- Soy foods such as tofu
- Nuts and other nut-based foods
- Green vegetables
- Foods high in water-soluble fiber such as oats, fruits, vegetables, and beans
Cholesterol and fats in the body
When you eat, cholesterol and fats from food are broken down in the small intestine. They are combined with bile salts, then with lipase, and finally readjusted with other components before entering the bloodstream as lipoproteins.
Some of the cholesterol components are stored in the liver and gallbladder, but the excess lipoproteins are mainly stored in fat cells called adipocytes. Excess cholesterol can cause these cells to swell and increase body weight. High cholesterol can be caused by eating too much fat and carbohydrates.
Your body also uses some cholesterol to make bile, a greenish-brown liquid produced by the liver to help digest food. Bile is stored in the gallbladder.
What does cholesterol do to my body?
Cholesterol isn’t exactly bad for you. In fact, your body uses it to make certain essential hormones and other substances.
- These include sex hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone for women and testosterone for men, which promote the development of sexual organs and help with reproduction.
- Cortisol to help the body cope with stress.
- Aldosterone, which balances the amount of minerals in the body
- Vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium and build strong bones.
Cholesterol, also a component of bile, which is needed for the body to digest food. It is also used to make the membranes that surround cells.
Cholesterol becomes a problem when there is too much LDL cholesterol and not enough HDL cholesterol; LDL cholesterol builds up in the arteries and forms a sticky substance called plaque. Over time, plaque can harden the blood vessels, making them stiff and making blood flow difficult. This is called atherosclerosis.
When the arteries harden, the heart must work harder to get blood through. Over time, the heart can become overworked and damaged. Plaque can also break down and form sticky lumps called clots.
When a clot breaks down, it can enter the arteries that supply blood to the heart. A clot stuck in a blood vessel can block the blood supply to the heart and cause a heart attack. On the other hand, if the clot blocks the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain, it can lead to a stroke.
How much cholesterol should I take?
The 2013 update to the cholesterol guidelines recommends that health care providers look at more than just cholesterol levels. The update recommends considering other risk factors to more effectively treat and manage the risk of heart disease. The previously recommended ideal cholesterol range was .
Your doctor may still check your HDL, LDL and total cholesterol levels with a blood test called a lipoprotein test. If your cholesterol levels are high, you can begin taking steps to lower them through diet, exercise, and perhaps medication.
Tips for keeping your LDL cholesterol levels from getting too high
If your cholesterol levels are high, you can take better control of your cholesterol by making some lifestyle changes
- Limit or eliminate foods that are high in saturated and trans fats. Don’t consume more than 7 percent of your daily calories from foods such as red meat, margarine, cookies, cakes and fried foods.
- Replace unhealthy fats with heart-healthy plant-based fats. Avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil are all sources of heart-healthy fats.
- Get less than 200 mg of cholesterol per day by limiting high-cholesterol foods such as whole milk, cheese, ice cream and eggs.
- Reduce your intake of refined carbohydrates, such as white flour and added sugar. Studies show that too much sugar increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and metabolic disorders.
- Eat more whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes and increase your intake of fiber and plant-based fats. These foods will reduce the amount of LDL cholesterol in the blood.
- Increase the amount of fish in your diet. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish help protect the heart.
- Do exercise every day. Try to get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week.
- If you smoke, talk to your doctor about a smoking cessation program to help you quit. Quitting smoking can greatly improve your heart health.
- Diet and exercise help you lose weight when you are overweight.
If diet and exercise are not enough to try to lower your cholesterol, you may need to take medications. Cholesterol-lowering medications include statins, bile salts, niacin, and fibrates.