For a healthy cholesterol level, you don’t have to buy expensive pills or to abide to a specific treatment. In most cases, it is enough to pay attention to a more conscious diet – and to include certain cholesterol-lowering foods in your diet to see considerable improvements.
Increased cholesterol levels are a health risk that affects millions of people around the world. According to the journal Nutrition Review, nearly 75 percent of all 40- to 50-year-olds and even 90 percent of women aged 50 to 60 have an increased total cholesterol level, which consequently result in an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. The probability of vascular diseases also increases significantly in women after menopause. But to counteract this situation without resorting to cholesterol-lowering tablets is not always obvious to most.
What is cholesterol – and why is elevated cholesterol dangerous?
Cholesterol in itself is not harmful to health. On the contrary, the body forms the fat-like substance in the liver, intestines and adrenal gland, among other things, and transports it from there via the blood to the cells. Cholesterol is needed for the construction of cell walls and serves as a starting material for the production of vitamin D, certain hormones and bile acids. In addition to the body’s own production, cholesterol is also fed to the organism from the outside via the foods we eat.
The decisive factor here is whether it is “good” HDL cholesterol or “bad” LDL cholesterol. If we consistently intake too much LDL cholesterol (“low density lipoprotein”), the excess cholesterol is deposited on the walls of the blood vessels. The consequence of this vascular change is medically referred to as atherosclerosis, a narrowing of the blood vessels, which can become more easily clogged. This also poses a the risk of heart attack, stroke and other vascular diseases.
Furthermore, a persistent excess of LDL cholesterol reduces the proportion of “good” HDL cholesterol (high density lipoprotein) in the blood. HDL contributes to vascular health by absorbing the excess of bad cholesterol from the blood and body cells and transporting it back to the liver. In addition, HDL cholesterol can dissolve BAD cholesterol already deposited on the vessel walls and thus counteract vascular calcification. Thus, a lower level of HDL is bad news.
What are the causes of elevated cholesterol levels?
Increased cholesterol levels can be attributed to various factors. On the one hand, a hereditary fat metabolism disorder (primary or familial hypercholesterolemia) may be the reason for this. On the other hand, certain diseases, for example thyroid disease (hypothyroidism), the autoimmune disease Hashimoto-Thyroiditis, diabetes or kidney disease can be the root cause.
In most cases, however, an unhealthy diet is the trigger for elevated cholesterol levels. Unhealthy in this case means: permanently too many foods that are rich in saturated fats and contain too few polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids and fiber. On the “red list” of a cholesterol-conscious diet are animal fats, which can be found in meat, sausages, butter and other dairy products, as well as trans fatty acids, which are found in ready-made meals, puff pastry, biscuits, chips, fries and other fried foods.
If your cholesterol levels are outside the healthy normal range, it might be worth taking a look at your daily eating habits. Those who avoid “cholesterol traps” and rely on a fresh, high-fiber diet promote the excretion of excess cholesterol and support a healthy digestion.
In addition, there are certain foods that have cholesterol-lowering effect – and can be easily integrated into your diet:
The pectins contained in apples bind the harmful LDL cholesterol in the intestine and thus effectively lower cholesterol levels. British scientists found that an apple a day can protect against a heart attack. Pears and blueberries are also among the fruit varieties that naturally improve blood lipid levels.
The green butter fruit is full of monounsaturated fatty acids. According to a Pennsylvania State University study of obese adults, eating one avocado a day is enough to positively affect cholesterol levels. The reason: The fats contained in avocados support the “good” HDL cholesterol in transporting the “bad” LDL cholesterol out of the arteries.
In addition to cell-protecting antioxidants, green tea contains saponins that bind cholesterol and inhibit the absorption of fat from the diet. Scientific studies show that the consumption of about four cups of green tea per day or the regular intake of capsules with green tea extract can lower both total cholesterol and the “evil” LDL cholesterol.
No wonder people in the Mediterranean, where there is plenty of olive oil on their diet, are less likely to suffer from heart disease: the aromatic vegetable oil contains a particularly large number of monounsaturated fatty acids, which reduce LDL cholesterol. Cold-pressed rapeseed oil, linseed oil, hemp oil or walnut oil are also recommended as vascular protectors.
Walnuts contain a particularly large number of unsaturated fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids, which protect the cardiovascular system. Even a handful a day can significantly reduce LDL cholesterol levels. You can alternatively use almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds or flaxseeds.
The dye lycopene not only ensures the rich red of the tomato, but also prevents cholesterol from depositing on the walls of the blood vessels – and thus regulates blood lipid levels. Instead of making tomato salad, however, you should rely on a homemade tomato soup or pasta sauce: the body can only absorb lycopene well once the tomatoes have been heated.
Tomatoes can become even more cholesterol-friendly if you combine them with plenty of garlic: the aromatic tuber contains sulfur compounds that have a blood-thinning effect. It can widen blood vessels and thus prevent atherosclerosis. Garlic also contains the active substance alliin, which inhibits important enzymes in cholesterol synthesis and can thus improve cholesterol levels. The same cholesterol-lowering effect also exists in wild garlic, leeks and red onions.
Read more on garlic: Why you should eat more garlic.
Good news if you like chocolate: Dark chocolate helps to reduce increased cholesterol levels. However not all types of chocolate are created equal: The higher the cocoa content, the more cholesterol-friendly the chocolate. Only after a cocoa content of at least 70 percent does the chocolate contain enough polyphenols to positively influence blood lipid levels and increase the proportion of the “good” HDL cholesterol.
Ginger is really good against cholesterol by promoting its conversion into bile acid, lowering the concentration of cholesterol in the blood. The cholesterol-lowering effect from two grams of ginger per day is detectable – whether you use the tuber for the preparation of tea or you eat it in an Asian dish does not matter.
Wild salmon, as well as other high-fat cold water fish such as tuna or mackerel, contain many omega-3 fatty acids, which lower cholesterol. Salmon is even more cholesterol-friendly if you do not fry it in plenty of fat, but instead grill it, steam it or cook it in the oven.
Chickpeas provide a lot of fiber, which promote satiety and lowers cholesterol levels. In addition, they are rich in saponins, which bind cholesterol and prevent deposition on the vessel walls. Green peas, beans, lentils and other legumes also help the body keep the “bad” LDL cholesterol at bay.
What else can be done to lower cholesterol levels?
A balanced diet with many fresh products is only half of the steps to take to lower cholesterol levels. In addition, blood lipid levels can also be regulated with the following measures:
Regular endurance sports increase the concentration of the “good” HDL cholesterol in the blood, protects the heart and keeps the vessels elastic. In order to benefit from these effects, however, it is unfortunately not enough to just jog around one in a blue moon: Only those who regularly and consistently exercise at least three times a week for around 30 minutes can lower LDL cholesterol levels in the long term and avoid obesity, which also adversely affects fat metabolism. Don’t fancy jogging? Then try Nordic walking, swimming, dancing, cycling or other cardio workouts with regular movements that keep pulse and breathing at a constant level. These have a particularly positive effect on fat metabolism.
Chronic stress has been shown to raise cholesterol levels. Therefore, take regular breaks from the hectic everyday life – for example with yoga, breathing exercises or relaxation techniques such as autogenous training. Sufficient time to “come down” and focus on yourself is also important with regard to a healthy cholesterol metabolism.
Regular health checks
Make sure to do the recommended check-ups for your age and have your blood checked at regular intervals by your GP or other specialist – even if you have no specific health problems. The control of blood lipid levels is recommended for men aged 35 and over, and every two years for women aged 40 and over.
A southern gentleman at heart, Stephan is a man you’ll find mudding, off-roading, and fishing on a typical weekend. However, a nutritionist by profession, he is also passionate about fitness and health through natural means. He writes mostly health-related content for the Scientific Origin.