Like so many things in life, the key to achieving healthy cholesterol levels is moderation. Our bodies need cholesterol to build healthy cells, but high levels of cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease.
The goal is to increase the levels of “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which picks up excess cholesterol and brings it to your liver where it is “reprocessed.” You want to lower your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or "bad" cholesterol, which is the kind that builds up in the walls of your arteries, making them hard and narrow.
Adopting a heart-healthy diet can drastically improve your good and bad cholesterol levels. This can be accomplished by consuming a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, low-fat dairy products and lean protein sources. Additionally, you want to strive to choose unsaturated fats in place of saturated and trans-fats and limit refined carbohydrates.
Take a look at these foods you should avoid and ways you can replace them to improve your cholesterol levels:
- Fatty cuts of meat
- Whole-milk dairy products including butter, cheese and ice cream.
- Coconut oil, palm oil, and other tropical oils
- Poultry with skin
- Butter and stick margarine
- Stick margarine and shortening
- Some fried foods
- Processed sweets and baked goods
- Packaged foods made with hydrogenated oils such as cookies, pastries, baked goods, biscuits, frozen dinners and microwave popcorn
- Replace fatty cuts of meat with lean protein sources such as chicken, turkey and fish.
- Try to consume more plant-based or vegetarian meals with legumes like lentils and chickpeas as well as soy foods such as tofu and tempeh.
- Consume skim or 1% milk, low-fat cheese, non-fat yogurt and low-fat ice cream.
- Cook or bake with plant-based unsaturated oils such as olive oil, canola oil and soybean oil.
- Remove the skin from chicken and turkey.
- Bake, grill or broil your protein instead of frying.
- Opt for reduced fat, whipped or liquid spreads instead of stick margarine, shortening and butter.
- Avoid foods with the ingredient “partially hydrogenated oil” on the nutrition facts label.
- Incorporate more whole grains, fruits, vegetables and unsaturated fats into your snacks. Try carrots and hummus, Greek yogurt with berries and nuts, whole grain crackers with low-fat cheese, and an apple with peanut butter.
We’ve covered cholesterol, but did you know that refined carbohydrates can also increase your risk of coronary vascular disease? The American Heart Association reports that foods that contain high amounts of simple sugars (carbs that have been refined so that bran, fiber and nutrients are removed) can raise triglyceride levels. High triglyceride levels can be tied to coronary heart disease, diabetes and fatty liver.
The following foods tend to be high in refined carbohydrates:
- Table sugar
- Sugar-sweetened beverages like fruit drinks, soft drinks, sports and energy drinks, and sweetened coffee or tea.
- Candies, syrups, jams and jellies.
- Grain-based desserts like pastries, cakes, doughnuts, cookies and brownies.
- Dairy desserts such as frozen yogurt, flavored yogurt, puddings and ice cream.
Simple ways to limit your intake of refined carbohydrates:
- Drink water, unsweetened tea or coffee, or other calorie-free beverages instead of sodas or other sweetened beverages. Add fresh fruit, mint or cucumbers to water for an extra flavor kick.
- Choose beverages such as low-fat or fat-free milk and 100 percent fruit juice.
- Choose fruit as a naturally sweet dessert or snack in place of foods made with added sugars.
- Make sweet desserts and snacks like cookies, cakes, and ice cream a once-in-a-while treat and choose a small portion when you consume them.
- Look for packaged foods that have less or no added sugars such as plain Greek yogurt, unsweetened cereal, frozen fruit with no added sugar or syrup, unsweetened applesauce, and canned fruit in water as opposed to fruit syrup. Add your own flavor to plain yogurt and dry cereals with fresh fruit, seeds, nuts and spices such as cinnamon.