If you’re trying to reduce your cholesterol, you’ve probably focused on what not to eat—mainly saturated fat, the kind in meats, butter and cheese. That’s great, but if your cholesterol is still high, adding certain foods to your diet can help reduce “bad” LDL and triglycerides and boost good HDL. Research shows that dietary changes can improve your total cholesterol to HDL ratio (the best measure of risk for heart disease) as much as some cholesterol drugs. Here are the foods to focus on.
Oat bran or oatmeal. Both are great sources of a soluble fiber, beta-glucan, proven to help reduce LDL cholesterol without affecting HDL. It absorbs cholesterol-laden bile, which is produced by the liver. Instead of being reabsorbed back into the body, the cholesterol is excreted. Aim for a serving a day (1 cup of oatmeal or 2/3 cup of oat bran).
Barley. Barley also has soluble beta-glucan fiber throughout its kernel, so even pearled barley, which is processed to remove the outside bran, is still a good source of soluble fiber. Have a half-cup serving of barley most days of the week in soups, stews or casseroles, or as a side dish as you would rice.
Beans or lentils. A half-cup serving of almost any kind of cooked dried beans (kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans) has two grams of soluble fiber. In one study, eating just half a cup of beans a day reduced cholesterol by about eight percent. That’s a 16 percent reduction in heart disease risk. Dietary guidelines recommend about 3 cups a week.
Carrots. The USDA suggests that eating two carrots a day may lower cholesterol 10 to 20 percent. That could be enough to bring many people’s levels into the safe range. Cabbage, parsnips and onions also contain the compound thought responsible for carrots’ success (calcium pectate) and may produce similar results.
Blueberries. These sweet berries contain two compounds that can help lower cholesterol: resveratrol, the same compound found in grapes (and red wine) and pterostilbene, which works in much the same manner as the popular anti-cholesterol drug ciprofibrate. It binds to and activates a cell receptor known as PPAR-alpha, a key component in the body’s ability to reduce cholesterol. Red and purpose grapes, cranberries and lignonberries also contain pterostilbene.
Pomegranate juice. This fruit contains unique compounds thought to help reduce cholesterol synthesis in the liver and to inhibit cholesterol synthesis in the “foamy” immune cells that create artery-blocking plaque. Check the label to make sure you’re drinking pure pomegranate juice and not a mixture of juices that contains added sugar. Six ounces a day is recommended. Check with your doctor first if you are taking blood thinners or ACE inhibitors.
Salmon or other fatty fish. The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon and other fatty fish can raise HDL levels and reduce triglyceride levels by 20 to 50 percent. Omega-3 fatty acids also decrease V-LDL and increase the size of LDL particles, making them more buoyant and less likely to stick to blood vessel walls. Enjoy at least three servings per week; fish with high omega-3s include mackerel, sardines, lake trout, herring, halibut. Fried fish doesn’t count.
Olive oil. Instead of butter and other saturated fats, use olive oil, which is mostly monounsaturated fat. This can significantly reduce LDL cholesterol and raise HDL. Extra virgin olive oil can give you additional heart protection, but don’t use it for frying—it’s best added after foods are cooked. Other foods with monounsaturated fats: avocadoes, canola and peanut oil, nuts and sesame seeds.
Nuts. Walnuts, almonds and other nuts can reduce blood cholesterol. Just make sure the nuts you eat aren’t salted or coated with sugar. All nuts are high in calories, so limit yourself to a handful—10 or 12 almonds. To avoid gaining weight, use nuts instead of fatty, high-calorie foods like cheese, meat or croutons.