Cholesterol readings can be a bummer, to say the least, especially if you’re older or a woman, given cholesterol levels rise as we age and women’s readings tend to be higher.
The bright side: You can eat your way to healthy cholesterol levels—and your journey need not be boring.
Before our nom-noms reveal, a brief primer on your fatty blood draw: Broadly speaking, a cholesterol reading under 200 is good. But that number alone doesn’t damn or free you. What matters more are the components that create your overall cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), along with triglycerides, which are mainly in very low density lipoprotein (VLDL).
“An easy rule of thumb is that HDL are the good guys, designed to bind to excess cholesterol and remove it from your body,” says Dr. Vikki Petersen, a chiropractor certified in clinical nutrition and functional medicine, who co-founded Root Cause Medical Clinic, located in California and Florida. “LDLs and VLDLs are the bad guys, as they are more involved in depositing cholesterol in such places as your arteries.” As cholesterol builds up, it’s harder for blood to flow, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
“Generally, it is felt that as long as your HDLs are on the higher end of the range and your LDLs are on the lower end, you are fairly safe from heart disease,” Petersen says. You can learn about the range thresholds via reputable sources such as Cleveland Clinic and Harvard Health Publishing.
A more detailed test analyzes the particle size of cholesterol molecules, which is helpful if someone is at risk for heart disease based on their history and genetics, for example. “This test will tell you if your bad cholesterol is particularly dangerous due to its small size,” Petersen says. “Larger sized particles are more innocuous because they cannot lodge between the cells lining your arteries, which initiates dangerous plaque and leads to hardening of the arteries.”
Keep in mind that cholesterol, which your body produces on its own, can be your ally. “When balanced and healthy, it is needed to survive,” Petersen notes. It helps cells function properly, absorbs fat from food (via bile, which cholesterol helps your liver produce) and makes cortisol, vitamin D and sex hormones.
Now for the yummy part, aka lowering your cholesterol with food.
How to Lower Your Cholesterol With Food
Eat fat—the help-you-out kind
Saturated and trans fats don’t do your body any favors. Both contribute to high triglycerides (among other health baddies).
But monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and Omega-3 fatty acids do your body good, reducing LDL. Think: salmon, trout, sardines, olive oil and nuts. Another star: avocado. “It has healthy fats and high fiber, making it an excellent choice to lower bad cholesterol,” Petersen says.
Eat carbs—the complex kind
I sound like I’m on repeat: Refined and simple carbs don’t do your body any favors. Your body converts excess calories into fat.
“The facts are that sugar and refined carbohydrates not only raise cholesterol—but they raise the bad kind, LDL, while lowering the good type, HDL,” Petersen stresses.
But the complex carbohydrates you find in whole grains and beans get a green light. They have soluble fiber, which binds to cholesterol to usher it away.
“Oatmeal is another good food,” Petersen says. “Try to eat steel cut oats and pair with a plant-based milk and no sugar.”
Eat fruits, veggies and greens—all kinds
“The beauty of vegetables and fruits—think seasonal, organic if possible, and a good variety—is they are very high in fiber and nutrients that lower bad cholesterol while raising protective good cholesterol,” Petersen says. “A healthy plant-based diet includes food that is as close to its natural state as possible and includes seven to nine servings of vegetables and fruit.”
Journalist Mitra Malek regularly creates and edits content related to wellness.