Supercharge Your Heart Health: Top Cholesterol-Lowering Foods to Include in Your Diet

High cholesterol is a type of fat (lipid) that is present in the bloodstream, and it is an important component of cell membranes and is used by the body to produce hormones and other substances. However, having too much cholesterol in the blood can be dangerous because it can build up in the walls of the arteries, leading to a condition called arteriosclerosis.

Arteriosclerosis is the hardening and narrowing of the arteries, which can reduce or block blood and oxygen flow to the heart, brain, and other body parts. This can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other serious health problems. High cholesterol is often a result of an unhealthy diet high in saturated and trans fats or refined carbohydrates and a lack of physical activity. It can also be caused by certain medical conditions and can be passed down genetically.

It is essential to follow a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and maintain a healthy weight to reduce the risk of high cholesterol and its associated health problems. In some cases, cholesterol-lowering medications may also be recommended to help lower cholesterol levels.

Several foods can help reduce cholesterol levels. In the following paragraphs, I will explore a list of common cholesterol-lowering foods and how to prepare them.

Oats and Barley

oats and barley for heart health

Oats and barley contain a type of soluble fiber called beta-glucan, which has been shown to help lower cholesterol. Beta-glucans are soluble fibers that have been shown to have several health benefits, including lowering cholesterol levels.

When consumed, beta-glucans form a gel-like substance in the digestive tract. This gel-like substance binds to bile acids produced by the liver and is used to digest fats. Beta-glucans bind to bile acids and prevent them from being absorbed by the body. As a result, the liver must produce more bile acids, which it does by breaking down cholesterol. This process results in a lowering of cholesterol levels in the blood.

In addition to their ability to lower cholesterol, beta-glucans have also been shown to have other health benefits, such as improving digestion, reducing the risk of heart disease, and boosting the immune system. They are often included in functional foods, such as oat-based cereals and bars, and are also available as supplements.

Oats and barley are versatile grains that can be used in various dishes. Here are some ideas for using oats and barley in your cooking:

  • Oatmeal: Oats can be cooked into a hot cereal by boiling them with water or milk. You can also try making overnight oats by soaking oats in milk or yogurt overnight in the refrigerator.
  • Oat flour: Oats can be ground into fine flour and used in baked goods such as bread, muffins, and cookies.
  • Oat bran: Oat bran is the outer layer of the oat grain and is high in fiber. It can be used to make hot cereals, added to smoothies, or used as a topping for yogurt or oatmeal.
  • Barley soup: Barley is a hearty grain used to make soups and stews. Try adding it to a vegetable soup or making a soup with legumes, vegetables, and barley.
  • Barley risotto: Barley can be used in place of Arborio rice to make a creamy risotto.
  • Barley flour: Barley flour can be used in place of all-purpose flour in baking recipes. It has a slightly nutty flavor and can be used to make bread, pancakes, and cookies.

Nuts

almonds and walnuts for hearth health

Nuts, particularly almonds and walnuts, are high in heart-healthy unsaturated fats that can lower cholesterol levels. More specifically, walnuts are a good source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered “good” fats because they have been shown to have many health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease, improving brain function, and reducing inflammation.

Almonds are a good source of monounsaturated fats, also considered “good” fats. Monounsaturated fats are believed to be beneficial for heart health because they can help to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. In addition to monounsaturated fats, almonds contain small amounts of polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3 fatty acids.

There are many delicious dishes and snacks that you can prepare with nuts. Here are a few ideas:

  • Nut butter: You can make nut butter by grinding nuts in a food processor or blender. This can be spread on toast or used as a base for dips and sauces.
  • Trail mix: Combine a variety of nuts with dried fruit and seeds for a healthy and convenient snack.
  • Salad: Add chopped nuts to your salads for a crunchy texture and extra protein.
  • Baked goods: Nuts can be used as an ingredient in many baked goods, such as bread or pies.
  • Nut milk: Nuts can be soaked and blended with water to create a non-dairy milk alternative.
  • Nut-crusted chicken or fish: Coat your protein of choice in a mixture of ground nuts, breadcrumbs, and spices for a crunchy and flavorful crust.
  • Nut-based sauces: Nuts can be blended with other ingredients to create sauces and dressings, such as pesto or a peanut sauce for noodles.

Legumes (also known as pulses)

Legumes -Cholesterol-Lowering Foods to Include in Your Diet

Legumes, such as beans, lentils, and peas, are high in fiber and protein and can help lower cholesterol. Fiber, especially soluble fiber, can help lower cholesterol levels in the blood. Soluble fiber forms a gel-like substance in the digestive tract, which can bind to cholesterol and bile acids and help remove them from the body. Legumes are a good source of soluble fiber and other nutrients that may help lower cholesterol levels, such as protein and plant sterols.

Other foods high in soluble fiber include apples, oranges, and barley, also mentioned above as a source of beta-glucans. They can help lower cholesterol by binding to cholesterol in the gut and preventing its absorption.

You can prepare many dishes with beans, lentils, chickpeas, and peanuts, although the latter is considered (erroneously) a nut.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Soups and stews: Legumes can be added to soups and stews to add protein and thickness.
  • Salads: For a protein boost, legumes can be cooked and added to salads.
  • Veggie burgers: Legumes can be mashed and formed into veggie burgers or meatless meatballs.
  • Hummus: Chickpeas can be blended with tahini, garlic, and lemon juice to create a delicious dip.
  • Tacos and burritos: Legumes can be used as a filling for tacos and burritos.
  • Pasta (or barley) dishes: Legumes can be added to pasta dishes for protein and fiber.
  • Dips: Legumes can be mashed and mixed with spices and other ingredients to create dips, such as black bean dip or lentil dip.
  • Curries: Legumes such as chickpeas and lentils can be used as a base for curries.
  • Baked goods: Legumes can be used as an ingredient in baked goods, such as black bean brownies or lentil soup.

Fatty fish

Fatty fish for heart health

Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines, are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help lower cholesterol levels in several ways.

First, omega-3s can help to reduce the production of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, also known as “bad” cholesterol, in the liver. LDL cholesterol is the primary source of cholesterol buildup and blockages in the arteries, which can lead to heart disease. By reducing the production of LDL cholesterol, omega-3s can help to lower overall cholesterol levels.

Omega-3s can also help to increase the production of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, also known as “good” cholesterol. HDL cholesterol helps to remove excess cholesterol from the body, including LDL cholesterol. By increasing the production of HDL cholesterol, omega-3s contribute to improving blood cholesterol levels, thus reducing the risk of heart disease.

In addition, omega-3s can help to reduce inflammation in the body, which is a pivotal contributor to the development of heart disease. By reducing inflammation, omega-3s can help to lower the risk of heart disease and other health problems.

Omega 3-rich fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines, are versatile ingredients used in various dishes. Here are a few ideas for cooking with omega 3-rich fish:

  • Grilled or pan-seared, served with a variety of side dishes.
  • Fish tacos: Flake cooked fish and mix it with diced vegetables and a flavorful sauce for a delicious fish taco filling.
  • Fish curry with coconut milk and your choice of spices.
  • Fish cakes: Mix cooked, flaked fish with mashed potatoes and shape them into patties. Coat in breadcrumbs and pan-fry until golden brown.
  • Fish chowder: Use omega 3-rich fish in creamy chowder with vegetables and potatoes.
  • Fish pie: Combine cooked, flaked fish with a creamy sauce and vegetables, and top with mashed potatoes or puff pastry.
  • Fish sandwiches: Use flaked, cooked fish in sandwiches or wraps with your choice of toppings.
  • Fish en papillote: Place the fish in a parchment paper pouch with vegetables and herbs and bake until cooked.
  • Sushi: Use omega-3 rich fish in sushi rolls with rice and your fillings of choice.

Avocado, Olives, and Olive Oil

Cholesterol-Lowering Foods to Add in your Diet

Avocado, olive (and, consequently, olive oil) are high in monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), which can help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. MUFAs are a category of dietary fat that can help lower cholesterol levels in the blood. High cholesterol is a significant risk factor for heart disease and stroke, so finding ways to lower it can benefit overall health.

MUFAs have been shown to lower cholesterol levels in several ways. First, they can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels, also known as “bad” cholesterol, in the blood. LDL cholesterol can build up in the artery walls and increase the risk of heart disease. MUFAs can also increase HDL cholesterol levels, or “good” cholesterol, in the blood. HDL cholesterol helps to remove LDL cholesterol from the blood and can reduce the risk of heart disease.

In addition, MUFAs can also lower the levels of triglycerides in the blood. Triglycerides are blood lipids that increase the risk of heart disease if they are present at high levels in the blood.

Here are a few ideas for delicious dishes you can prepare with avocado, olives, and olive oil:

  • Guacamole: Mash avocado with diced tomatoes, onions, and spices to make a delicious dip.
  • Avocado toast: Spread mashed avocado on toast and top with your choice of toppings, such as sliced tomatoes, crumbled feta, or fried eggs.
  • Salad: Add sliced avocado and olives to your salads for a creamy and savory flavor.
  • Sandwiches: Use avocado and olives as toppings for sandwiches and wraps.
  • Pasta: Toss pasta with a sauce made from mashed avocado, olives, and olive oil.
  • Soups: Add avocado and olives for a creamy and flavorful twist.
  • Omelet: Add sliced avocado and olives to an omelet or frittata.

Grilled vegetables: Brush sliced vegetables with olive oil and grill until tender. Top with sliced avocado and olives.

Foods rich in Plant Sterols and Stanols

Plant sterols and stanols are compounds found in plants that have been shown to help lower cholesterol levels in the body. They work by blocking cholesterol absorption from the small intestine into the bloodstream.

When you eat foods that contain plant sterols or stanols, they bind to the cholesterol in the small intestine and prevent it from being absorbed into the body. As a result, less cholesterol is available to circulate in the bloodstream, which can help to lower overall cholesterol levels.

Plant sterols and stanols are found in various foods, including vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and grains, which I have already described above in relation to other cholesterol-lowering nutrients that they contain. Plant sterols and stanols can also be found in fortified foods and supplements. Consuming foods or supplements that contain plant sterols or stanols regularly has been shown to reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels by as much as 10-15%.

In addition to their cholesterol-lowering effects, plant sterols and stanols have also been shown to have other potential health benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer. However, more research is needed to understand their effects on health fully.

In conclusion

It’s important to note that diet is just one factor that can affect cholesterol levels and prevent atherosclerosis. Other lifestyle factors, such as regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking, are also important in reducing cholesterol levels and preventing atherosclerosis. Feel free to contact me if you need help planning a balanced meal plan for you and your family, including delicious recipes based on the cholesterol-lowering ingredients described in this article.

Picture of Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon is an Italian nutrition coach, speaker, entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. He started his career as a biologist and spent 15 years working both in Italy and then in Sweden. He has been involved in several EU research projects and has extensively worked and published on the association between diet, longevity and cardiovascular risk across the lifespan, also studying potential interactions between diet and genes. His work about the Mediterranean diet in Sweden has been cited by many newspapers worldwide including the Washington Post and The Telegraph among others. As a speaker, he has been invited by Harvard University and the Italian multi-national food company Barilla.

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