There’s no denying that a healthy diet is the first line of defense against rising cholesterol. “If you eat a predominantly plant-based diet—with lots of fruits and vegetables plus some fish—you are on the right track to keeping your cholesterol at a healthy level,” says Lisa Dorfman, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. That said, certain so-called super-foods can actually help lower bad cholesterol and/or increase the good cholesterol. Ideally, you want to shoot for total chcholesterol under 200, with LDL (the bad one) under 100 and HDL (the good one) greater than 40.
Try to incorporate more of these foods into your daily diet:
Almonds: Studies have found that eating just a quarter cup of almonds a day can lower your LDL by 4.4 percent, according to dietitian Leslie Bonci, who is also the director of sports nutrition at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Eating nuts, especially almonds, which are high in good-for-you monounsaturated fat, is better than simply eating a low-fat snack like pretzels,” says Bonci. Of course, they can also be high in calories, so stick with a small serving and choose almonds that are dry roasted without oil.
Oatmeal: You’ve seen the commercials with people proclaiming dramatic drops in their cholesterol numbers thanks to a daily serving of this hot cereal. Those great results are due to the high levels of soluble fiber found in oatmeal. “The soluble fiber binds to the bile acids that are the precursor to the development of cholesterol and help flush it out,” explains Bonci. It doesn’t matter how you get your oats—those instant, just-add-water packets are just as good for you as traditional, slow-cooked versions.
Fish:Omega-3 fatty acids are widely considered to be the best of the “good” fats, and the best place to find them is in fish—especially fatty fishes like salmon, halibut and tuna. According to Dorfman of the ADA, you want to get 1.5 to 3 grams per day of omega-3. A 4-ounce piece of salmon will give you close to 3 grams, and you can also get these fatty acids from walnuts and flaxseed (two tablespoons of flaxseed provides 3.5 grams) and in fish oil supplements.
Red wine: Not everything that’s good for you has to feel virtuous. A glass of red wine, which contains flavanols, has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties that may help lower cholesterol and stave off heart disease. But in this case, more is definitely not better. “For women, the recommendation is one drink a day and for men it’s two,” says Bonci. More than that will, literally, dilute any potential benefits. These flavanols can also be found in red grape juice and dark cocoa.
Soy: Soybeans, soy nuts and edamame, plus any products made from soy (like tofu, soymilk, etc.) may possible help to reduce the production of new cholesterol. A little can go a long way—aim for about 25 grams of soy protein a day (the amount in a cup of edamame). And those who are at an increased risk of breast or prostate cancer may want to skip it since too much of soy’s phyto-estrogens can act similarly to the body’s own estrogen (which has been shown to feed some hormone-dependent tumors).
Now that you know the good stuff to add to your diet, try to reduce—or better yet, eliminate—these bad-for-you foods from your repertoire:
Whole-milk dairy products: Saturated fat, which clogs arteries and increases LDL levels, is the No. 1 cholesterol-boosting culprit. And foods like ice cream and cheese are where you’re likely to find them. Swap out the Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby for a lower-fat frozen yogurt, and skip the brie in favor of something less rich, like a part-skim mozzarella.
Processed meats: Bacon, sausage, liverwurst and the like are also wonderful sources of artery-clogging saturated fat. Look for lower-fat options, like bacon and sausage made from turkey and other lean protein sources.
Fast-food fries: Even worse than saturated fats are the dreaded trans fats. “You might as well take a gun and shoot yourself!” says Dorfman. The main source of trans fats are partially hydrogenated oils, and that’s exactly what most fast-food restaurants are still using to cook their fries. Trans fats hit cholesterol with a double whammy—in addition to raising your LDL, they simultaneously lower your HDL.
Tropical oils: Palm kernel and coconut oils are two of the fattiest of oils—100 percent of the bad-for-you saturated variety. Don’t use them when you cook at home, and try to avoid them when you eat out (most fast-food restaurants have eliminated them, but you can check their Web sites for detailed nutritional information). Use heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, like olive, canola and safflower oil, instead.
Baked goods: Many manufacturers of packaged cookies and cakes have eliminated trans fats from their recipes, but check the nutrition labels to be sure. But all baked goods—even those that are homemade—are high in saturated fats, thanks to the butter and shortening. Since no one wants to give up dessert completely, eat high-fat baked goods only occasionally, opting more often for low-fat sweets like sorbets.
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