Making smart choices and simple food swaps when it comes to the fat you eat can help you keep your cholesterol levels under control.
One in three Americans has high cholesterol, specifically low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and that’s the bad type. High cholesterol is a major risk factor for atherosclerosis (also called hardening of the arteries), heart attack, and stroke, according to the American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology Guideline on Lifestyle Management to Reduce Cardiovascular Risk.
Simply following a diet to lower cholesterol can reduce cholesterol levels by as much as 10 to 15 percent, says Joseph S. Alpert, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson and editor-in-chief of The American Journal of Medicine.
All Fats Are Not Created Equal
The first step in designing your diet to lower cholesterol: Know where it comes from.
The fats that raise cholesterol come mostly from animal products and processed baked goods, so if you are trying to cut back on cholesterol levels, you should be trying to limit those, says Vandana Sheth, RD, CDE. Sheth is a dietitian in the Los Angeles area and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
That primarily means avoiding red meat and fat-containing dairy products.
The second step: Know the difference between good and bad fats in the diet. The American Heart Association recommends limiting fat intake to 25 to 35 percent of your daily calories overall.
Different types of dietary fats, however, can have very different effects on the body, and especially on heart health.
Saturated fats are fats that are naturally solid at room temperature. “They act the same way in the body and harden in blood vessels,” says Sheth.
Saturated fats include cholesterol-rich animal fats like those found in red meat, cheese, and butter as well as coconut oil and palm oil. Limit these types of fats to less than 7 percent of your total daily calories. That translates, for example, to about 15 grams of saturated fat for the average woman who needs about 2,000 calories a day.
Trans fats are unsaturated fats that have been modified chemically to be solid at room temperature. Also known as partially hydrogenated oils on ingredients lists, trans fats are usually found in products that have long shelf lives. They are also commonly found in commercially prepared baked goods and many types of margarine.
“Trans fats can be more harmful than even saturated fats,” says Sheth. Eating trans fats can raise bad cholesterol levels as well as decrease the good type of cholesterol — HDL, or high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends limiting intake of trans fats most strictly in the diet — to less than 1 percent of daily calories.
Focus on good fats, known as unsaturated fats, for your fat allotment. Unsaturated fats include polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, and are liquid at room temperature.
These good fats include olive oil, canola oil, and various nut oils. One type of unsaturated fat — omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish as well as walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds — is particularly beneficial to heart health and prevention of atherosclerosis. Omega-3s make the environment within the blood vessels more slippery so dangerous plaques can’t attach, explains Sheth.
How to Cut Bad Fat and Cholesterol
An easy way to make your diet heart-healthy, Sheth says, is to visualize every plate according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture MyPlate guidelines and load up on foods low in unhealthy fats. “Have half of the plate filled with colorful, vibrant fruits and vegetables, a quarter with whole grains, and the remaining quarter with protein, focusing on lean protein,” she says.
- Cut cholesterol-raising fats when cooking by steaming, broiling, or poaching rather than frying. If you must fry, try pan-frying or stir-frying to cut back on fat and use healthy unsaturated fats.
- Substitute vegetable broth for oil or butter in your favorite recipes. In creamy dishes, you can still get a rich feel with low- or non-fat Greek yogurt in place of sour cream or cream.
- When baking, substitute some fat or oil with fruit pulp like applesauce or prune puree. You can also switch from whole to low-fat or fat-free milk.
- Swap out butter for a vegetable-oil-based spread that’s low in cholesterol. Look for one with added plant sterols for an added cholesterol-lowering bonus.
What to Expect From a Cholesterol-Lowering Diet
You should see results in about two months, says Neil J. Stone, MD, a professor of medicine in preventive cardiology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and medical director of the Vascular Center at the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
However, the cholesterol-lowering effects of a diet can vary greatly from person to person, depending on weight, genetic factors, family history, and previous eating habits.
“For example, someone with a diet high in saturated fats and trans fats who eliminates fatty parts of meat, dairy, processed meat, and deep-fried foods can sometimes drop cholesterol levels very significantly. But others may see much less,” says Dr. Stone.
After two months, have your cholesterol level re-checked to see how the diet is working for you.
If you’re also cutting back on calories for weight loss, have your cholesterol checked again after your weight stabilizes. Weight loss by itself can cause a drop in cholesterol levels, regardless of what type of diet you choose, says Stone.