There's no magical food to keep your heart healthy, but there are a lot of foods that can help—including these foods that help lower your cholesterol. In addition to cutting back on foods that can raise total cholesterol and getting enough exercise, make sure to eat more of these foods that improve your cholesterol profile by raising "good" HDL and/or lowering "bad" LDL cholesterol. These foods include some old standbys, such as oatmeal and fruit, plus a few surprising foods that can help lower cholesterol to reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Trans fats increase your LDL cholesterol, reduce your HDL levels and raise your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other chronic conditions. Trans fats lurk in fried foods, stick margarine, cookies, crackers, cakes, pie crusts and frozen pizza. Today, some food manufacturers are removing them from their products, but the only way to tell if a product is trans fat-free is to read labels while you’re shopping. Avoid products that list “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients, since this is just a sneaky name for trans fats.
Could one of your current prescriptions be a cause of your low HDL levels? Possibly! Medications such as anabolic steroids, beta blockers, benzodiazepines and progestins can depress HDL levels. If you take any of these medications, I suggest talking to your doctor and considering if there is anything you can do that could take the place of your current prescription.
How much do you know about your cholesterol? You probably know that there are two different kinds – high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is the “good” cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as the “bad” cholesterol. High HDL levels help carry cholesterol from your arteries to your liver and also possess antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, which are linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.
Once you control your protein and starch portions, you can fill the rest of your plate with heart-healthy fruits and vegetables. Aim for four to five servings of vegetables and four to five servings of fruits every day. Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals and are great sources of fiber, which helps fill you up, control your weight, and improve cholesterol levels.
Avoid trans-fatty acids. These heart-damaging fats can reduce HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels and raise levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. The tip-off that trans-fatty acids are present in foods is the listing of “partially hydrogenated oil” on a food’s ingredient list. Trans-fats are found in many brands of margarine and in most heavily processed foods, as well as in snack foods such as chips, crackers and cookies, and in the oils used to cook fast-food French fries, doughnuts and movie popcorn.
A desirable level of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol is less than 100 mg/dL – the lower your LDL, the better in terms of heart disease risk. Levels between 139 and 150 mg/dL are borderline high and those between 160 to 189 mg/dL are considered high, while LDL levels above 190 mg/dL are classed as very high. According to the American Heart Association, the mean level of LDL cholesterol for American adults age 20 and older is 115.0 mg/dL.
Fish can be fatty or lean, but it’s still low in saturated fat. Eat at least 8 ounces of non-fried fish each week, which may be divided over two 3.5- to 4-ounce servings. Choose oily fish such as salmon, trout and herring, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Prepare fish baked, broiled, grilled or boiled rather than breaded and fried, and without added salt, saturated fat or trans fat. Non-fried fish and shellfish, such as shrimp, crab and lobster, are low in saturated fat and are a healthy alternative to many cuts of meat and poultry.
Chocolate fans rejoice! You might have heard that chocolate is good for you, and it's true. Dark chocolate and cocoa powder contain powerful antioxidant compounds called flavonoids, which help lower cholesterol. Milk chocolate has less cocoa solids, and thus lower flavonoid levels, and white chocolate is even lower in the good stuff. Reach for small portions of dark chocolate, preferably with a high cocoa content. Or try a sprinkle of cocoa powder in your smoothie or on yogurt to reap chocolate's cholesterol-lowering benefits.
Paying close attention to what you eat can help you reduce your risk of developing atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the narrowing of arteries caused by plaque build-up inside the arteries. As the arteries narrow, blood can't flow properly through the arteries. Theis can lead to a heart attack or stroke. If the artery-clogging process has already begun, you may be able to slow it down by making changes in your lifestyle, including your diet.
Heart-healthy eating. A heart-healthy eating plan limits the amount of saturated and trans fats that you eat. It recommends that you eat and drink only enough calories to stay at a healthy weight and avoid weight gain. It encourages you to choose a variety of nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. Examples of eating plans that can lower your cholesterol include the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes diet and the DASH eating plan.
Fatty fish is not the only source of heart-healthy omega-3s! In fact, flaxseed is one of the richest sources of the anti-inflammatory fat. In animal models supplementation of flaxseed has shown to increase HDL levels which is why cardiologists and dietitians recommend it be incorporated into a balanced diet. Consumers beware though—in order for the gut to fully absorb the vitamins, minerals this seed provides, the ground version needs to be purchased.
If you want to increase the benefits of the fats you eat, work out before you chow down. A study at the University of Missouri found that regular exercise prior to high-fat meals produces a large hike in HDL. I’m not suggesting that your excuse for indulging in high-fat meals ought to be a pre-meal workout, merely that exercise before a meal works to your heart’s advantage.
Nordestgaard BG, Langsted A, Mora S, et al. Fasting is not routinely required for determination of a lipid profile: clinical and laboratory implications including flagging at desirable concentration cut-points-a joint consensus statement from the European Atherosclerosis Society and European Federation of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine. Eur Heart J. 2016 Jul 1. 37 (25):1944-58. [Medline]. [Full Text].
While diet and exercise should be your two main options for fighting off LDL cholesterol, you can also look into the various dietary supplements that are on the market today. Consider omega-3 fish oils, artichoke extract, and green tea extract. Keep in mind that these natural products have not been fully proven to reduce your level of LDL cholesterol, but they may be able to help along the way.
Beans and legumes of all kinds are known to be an asset to a heart-healthy diet pattern because they’re rich in a type of fiber—soluble fiber—which helps to block cholesterol from being absorbed through the intestines into the blood stream. By increasing your intake of beans, like chickpeas, you can decrease LDL levels, which results in a higher percentage of HDL cholesterol. You can blend chickpeas with garlic, tahini, and lemon juice to make the perfect homemade hummus, or mix them with peanut butter and dark chocolate to make a decadent, high protein, edible cookie dough! Blogger Chocolate Covered Kate has a great recipe.
Furthermore, in epidemiological studies involving over 100,000 individuals, people whose HDL cholesterol levels are below about 40 mg/dL had a substantially higher cardiac risk than those with higher HDL levels. This is the case even when LDL cholesterol ("bad" cholesterol) levels are low. Higher HDL levels have also been associated with a reduced risk of breast, colon and lung cancer.
Research shows that there isn't really a link between how much fat you eat and your risk of disease. The biggest influence on your risk is the type of fat you eat. Two unhealthy fats, including saturated and trans fats, increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood cholesterol and increase your risk of developing heart disease. However, two very different types of fat — monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — do just the opposite. In fact, research shows that cutting back on saturated fat and replacing it with mono and polyunsaturated fats can help lower the level of LDL cholesterol in your blood.
A study of over 1 million US veterans showed a U-shaped relationship between HDL and total mortality, with 50mg/dL as the level associated with the lowest mortality. [7, 2] In addition, an analysis of the Framingham study demonstrated that LDL and triglyceride levels modify HDL’s predictive value; CHD risk was found to be higher when low HDL was combined with high LDL and/or triglycerides as compared with the presence of low HDL levels alone. [8, 2] The relationship between HDL and CHD risk is also confounded by the presence of pro-atherogenic and inflammatory markers. 
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An easy way to make the switch from trans fats is by replacing them with unsaturated fats, which don’t increase your LDL cholesterol, according to WebMD. Unsaturated fats are found in olive oil, canola oil, vegetable and sunflower oils, as well as fish, nuts, seeds and avocados. Just as unsaturated fats are healthy choices, unsaturated fats are not. Be sure to limit your intake of unsaturated fats, which are found in fatty meats, cold cuts, whole milk, whole-milk cheeses and many store-bought baked goods and snacks. Instead, enjoy lean cuts of meat, skim milk, low-fat cheeses and yogurt, and wholesome snacks to trim down your cholesterol levels.
Remember, some of the best ways to raise HDL cholesterol levels while simultaneously lowering LDL cholesterol include not smoking, exercising more, decreasing body weight, eating healthier fats, reducing refined carb intake, keeping alcohol consumption moderate, increasing niacin intake and watching your prescription drug use. Do these things and watch your HDL go up while your risk for heart disease and stroke goes down.
Coronary heart disease: What you need to know The coronary arteries supply oxygen and blood to the heart. They can narrow, often because cholesterol accumulates on the arteries’ walls. This results in coronary heart disease, the most common type of heart disease in the U.S. Here, learn about risk factors, early warning signs, means of prevention, and treatments. Read now