Dietary fat is an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet and a vital source of energy. Fats absorb the vitamins A, D & E, keep our hair and skin healthy, protect our organs and help to produce essential hormones.
However, fat must be eaten in moderation as too much fat can lead to serious health complications. This is because fats are high in calories, and the fats that your body doesn't use, as well as unused carbohydrates and proteins, are converted into body fat. This can cause people to become overweight which is a high risk factor for conditions such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
Eating too much fat also causes high cholesterol levels in your blood. Cholesterol is a substance, known as a lipid, made by the liver from the fats that we eat. High cholesterol causes atherosclerosis, where cholesterol builds up in your arteries and narrows them. In turn, this restricts blood flow in your arteries and increases the risk of heart disease, heart attacks and strokes.
However, this can all be avoided by cutting down on foods that are high in saturated fats and substituting them for healthier equivalents, known as unsaturated fats. Whilst changing your diet can be difficult, it’s the key to improving your heart health and overall wellbeing. Keep reading to learn more about the relationship between blood cholesterol and saturated fats as well as discover 10 tasty cholesterol-lowering foods.
There are two types of fats that raise your cholesterol and, if eaten in excess, can be damaging for your health. Saturated fat is a type of dietary fat that is solid at room temperature, hence its other name solid fat. It is present in fatty meats, processed foods, chocolate, cakes, coconut oil and full-fat dairy products like cheese, cream and butter. The other type of harmful fats are known as trans fats. These are oils that have been hydrogenated, causing them to become solid at room temperature. They are manufactured to have a long shelf life, and are commonly found in fried foods, baked goods and other processed items.
These nutrients are linked to high cholesterol and should be eaten in moderation. In particular, it is a high level of ‘bad cholesterol’ that has been linked to health complications. When people refer to types of cholesterol, they are usually referring to the types of lipoproteins. Lipoproteins are cholesterol and proteins combined. They are responsible for carrying cholesterol in the blood and ensuring it is delivered to the cells in your body that need it. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) contains high levels of cholesterol and is hence known as ‘bad cholesterol’. The other main type is high-density lipoprotein (HDL). It is known as ‘good cholesterol’ as it carries cholesterol away from cells and back to the liver, where it can be broken down.
Eating too many foods high in saturated fats affects this process. It specifically affects the LDL receptors in the liver cells that usually monitor cholesterol levels in the blood. Too many saturated fats stop these receptors from functioning as well, which causes more LDL to be released into the blood and cholesterol to build up in the arteries.
The NHS recommends that men should eat no more than 30g of saturated fat a day, whilst women should eat no more than 20g. For trans fats it is even lower and adults should have no more than 5g a day.
The best way is to cut down how much fat you eat, and lower cholesterol levels, by changing your eating habits. However, fats are still an important part of your diet so shouldn’t be cut out completely. The best way to keep balance in your diet is to substitute the saturated fats with healthier fats, known as unsaturated fats.
Unsaturated fats, unlike saturated fats, are liquids at room temperature but can be found in solid foods. There are two types of unsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Both types lower LDL cholesterol levels whilst maintaining good cholesterol and protecting your heart. They are present in many different kinds of foods. Alongside unsaturated fats, there are certain foods that have been clinically proven to lower your cholesterol and improve your overall heart health. Here are 10 foods to get you on track to starting a heart-healthy and low cholesterol diet.
Fish is a good source of unsaturated fats. Oily fish in particular is also a type of omega-3 fats, a polyunsaturated fat. As well as slowing cholesterol (plaque) build up in your blood vessels and reducing levels of other harmful blood-fats (like triglycerides), omega-3 fats also curb inflammation in your blood vessels, joints and across your body. You should aim to have two servings of fish a week, one of which should be a fatty fish such as pilchard, herring, sardines, mackerel, salmon or trout. Other sources of fatty omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseed, linseed and hemp.
Oats, barley and whole grains are all rich in fibre. Fibre in general is great for digestive health and helps us feel fuller after a meal because the body takes longer to digest it. However, these foods are also excellent for heart health. They contain a type of soluble fibre known as beta-glucan. Beta-glucan forms a gel which binds to cholesterol-rich bile acids in the intestines, limiting the amount of cholesterol absorbed into your blood from the gut. You should aim for 3g of beta-glucan a day as a part of a healthy diet. This could be in the form of porridge, oat bran and cereals, as well as many whole wheat alternatives such as pasta and bread. The same health properties can be said for oat milk, the popular dairy-alternative. Drinking oat milk for 5 weeks has been found to reduce total cholesterol levels by 6% so why not try changing your regular milk in your coffee?
Another source of saturated fats in your diet is what you cook with. Cooking with butter, ghee or coconut oil can significantly increase your saturated fat intake. Thankfully, vegetable oils are a much healthier alternative. Whilst they still should be used in moderation, vegetable oils are a type of monounsaturated fat which contributes to good cholesterol levels. The name is misleading as they are not always made from vegetables. They can also be made from fruits, seeds, grains and nuts. Try cooking with olive oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil or any other oil that has a lower fat content.
Legumes is a class of vegetables that are a great source of fibre, vitamins and minerals. They are also a great source of protein for vegetarians or anyone looking to healthily cut meat out of their diet. However, they are another food that has been found to lower cholesterol and are linked to low levels of LDL cholesterol. Research has found that a daily serving of legumes was associated with a 5% decrease in total cholesterol levels. Whilst cause and effect is always difficult to pinpoint in research, it is a promising association and adds to the multitude of health benefits from eating legumes. Lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, butter beans or even baked beans all count as legumes and one portion a day can significantly improve your heart health.
Soybeans are one of the best sources of plant-based protein. They are also a great food for your overall health as they are low in carbohydrates and high in fibre. There have been mixed results on whether soy products directly reduce your cholesterol, however they are an unsaturated fat. This means they are an excellent substitute for fatty meats or processed meats that will indirectly lower cholesterol. Soy is present in several foods such as edamame beans and tofu. It is also a great dairy alternative and can be found in soy milk and yoghurt.
Nuts are a good source of unsaturated fats, as well as soluble fibre that both directly lower your cholesterol and make you feel fuller. They have a multitude of other health benefits as they are high in protein, vitamin E, magnesium, potassium as well as natural plant sterols and plant nutrients. Almonds and walnuts are the most nutrient-dense, a handful of any kind of nuts including hazelnuts, pistachios, macadamias or brazil nuts are a much healthier snack than most fatty alternatives.
Fruit and vegetables are another staple for a balanced diet, especially for weight loss. Not only are they high in fibre and low in fat, but they are also rich in antioxidants. These are all factors that play a huge role in improving heart health and reducing the risk of other diseases. As well as pulses and legumes, vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots, aubergine, okra and broccoli are all good for a healthy diet. Researchers have also found that dark leafy greens, such as spinach and kale, lower cholesterol levels by improving bile acid binding capacity. This forces the body to produce more bile acid, meaning more cholesterol is converted to bile thereby lowering cholesterol levels in the blood.
In addition, garlic is a vegetable renowned for its health properties due to its powerful plant compounds. Studies have found it lowers blood pressure and bad cholesterol levels. Not many people eat enough garlic for it to have these effects, so it is often recommended to take it in supplement form.
Fruits such as berries, avocados and grapes are rich in bioactive compounds that reduce the risk of heart disease due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These particular fruits have also been directly linked to an increase in good cholesterol and reduce bad cholesterol. Apples, citrus fruits and strawberries contain high levels of pectin (a soluble fibre) and have been found to reduce cholesterol by up to 10%.
Green tea, white tea and black tea have plenty of health benefits. One of the main plant compounds are catechins. These help to activate nitric oxide, which is important to maintain healthy blood pressure, inhibit cholesterol build up in the blood vessels and prevent blood clotting. Tea also contains quercetin, another key plant compound which studies have linked to improved blood vessel function and reduced inflammation.
One cholesterol-lowering food that will probably surprise you is cocoa, the main ingredient of dark chocolate. Research has shown that it reduces bad cholesterol whilst increasing the good. In particular, it prevents the ‘bad’ cholesterol oxidising, due to its antioxidant properties, which significantly reduces the risk of heart disease. However, chocolate is often high in sugar which has adverse effects for heart health. Therefore, to see the benefits of cocoa on your cholesterol, you should eat dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 75-85% or higher.
Plant sterols and stanols are naturally occurring compounds that are absorbed by the intestines to block cholesterol absorption into the blood. These compounds exist naturally in many of the foods we have already talked about, such as vegetable oils, nuts, fruits and vegetables. However, those alone are not always enough to fully reduce cholesterol. Therefore, companies have made foods that have additional sterols and stanols in them in the form of yoghurt drinks, spreads and milk. They are designed to gradually lower your cholesterol, and are often recommended to those who have been diagnosed with high cholesterol and/or take statins.
If you’re struggling to manage your high cholesterol, there is more information and clinically proven treatments available here at euroClinix.
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