Cholesterol is one of those subjects that we hear a lot about but the advice seems to be dominated by one thing – don’t eat fats. Sure, this is a big part of working to beat high cholesterol but there are other tactics to employ in the battle – namely by looking at the foods you eat and ensuring they are top cholesterol fighting candidates.
Cholesterol is a natural part of our bodies but the problem comes when we have high levels as this can lead to heart disease and strokes. People aged 40 to 64 can automatically get their cholesterol checked through the NHS and doctors often describe medication to prevent the condition, usually from a group of drugs called statins.
One of the top reasons that cholesterol levels rise is due to too much saturated fats in the diet, although recent research has shown that perhaps this relationship isn’t as clear cut as once thought (read more http://www.nhs.uk/news/2016/06June/Pages/Study-say-theres-no-link-between-cholesterol-and-heart-disease.aspx).
Saturated fats are the thing that cause those red lights on food packaging and are common in things like butter, cream, hard cheese, cakes, sausages and fatty cuts of meat. The general advice is to try to control your intake of saturated fats by substituting foods high in saturated fats with those that aren’t.
Cooking methods can also have an impact on fat levels with roasting and frying being the two methods said to be the highest in fats. Therefore, swapping these methods for grilling, steaming, boiling or poaching can help offset some of the fats.
Sometimes your family history, other medical conditions or even medication can lead to high cholesterol. Age and gender have an impact, as do weight and activity levels.
Foods that can help
There are foods, on the other hand, that naturally work against cholesterol and help lower levels. These offer simplistic ways to reduce cholesterol or to prevent it from building up in the first place and many of them have lots of other benefits too.
Almonds may be high in calories but they make a great snack from a cholesterol perspective. They contain unsaturated fats that raise good cholesterol while lowering bad versions. They also make bad cholesterol less likely to oxidise and it’s this process that allows them to enter the blood stream.
Apples are on the list because they contain a specific type of carbohydrate called pectin. Why is this relevant? Because we can’t digest pectin and it bonds with cholesterol, meaning that both pass out of the system. This stops the cholesterol from clogging arteries and blood vessels and leading to heart problems.
Avocado used to be blacklisted because it has more fats than other fruit (I know, it’s considered a fruit even though it just doesn’t seem like one!). But there’s been a realisation that these fats are monounsaturated fats and therefore aren’t a bad thing at all. They also contain fibre that raises good cholesterol levels and pushes down bad levels.
When I started considering smoothie ingredients, I first encountered chia seeds and discovered that there’s a reason people like to add them to smoothies – they add an extra hit of healthy to anything they are added to. Chia seeds have plenty of soluble fibre in them which is another substance that binds to cholesterol and stops us absorbing it. They also contain those good fats, Omega-3 fats that are a big help to overall health.
Dark chocolate makes it to the list because it contains an antioxidant that builds good cholesterol – one study back in 2007 saw a 24% increase in levels over a 12-week period compared to a 5% increase in the other group. Dark or bittersweet varieties are best and have around three times more of the antioxidant.
Green tea and other varieties of tea all help lower bad cholesterol levels because they contain an antioxidant called EGCG (well, the name is much longer but that’s more manageable!) which has been shown to lower levels in the blood. Green tea helps the most and loose leaves are better than tea bags if you can manage it.
My mum has always made her own lentil soup because it was ‘good for us’ and she wasn’t wrong. Lentils contain 18 grams of protein and 16 grams of fibre per cup and they are also a brilliant way to fill up the stomach. The fibre is also a great way to replace saturated fats in the system and help beat high cholesterol.
That staple of breakfast is great to make into oatmeal and in granola, offering a substantial start to the day. And it is also another substance that contains loads of fibre that binds to the cholesterol and stops it being absorbed into the blood stream.
The benefits of Mediterranean style diets have become well publicised in recent years and the basis for these is olive oi. It is full of healthy monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) that lower cholesterol and also help reduce belly fat.
Here’s a nice addition to the list of food and drink that can help beat high cholesterol – red wine. Specifically, Tempranillo red grapes so wines such as Rioja because these have a significantly lower cholesterol level than others. A study by Universidad Complutense de Madrid in Spain found that people taking the same grape supplement as in these wines, their cholesterol level went down by 9%. And in the same study, people with high cholesterol saw their levels drop by 12%. So it seems a glass of red wine isn’t a bad thing after all.
Spinach contains something called lutein, a yellow pigment that is found in egg yolks and other green vegetables. It is great to help prevent macular degeneration, the top cause of blindness and can also help prevent high cholesterol by making artery walls harder to adhere to.
Always be aware of the combination of foods and any medication you take and don’t go too heavy on any type of food or drink – too much of anything can be bad for you! But if you have high cholesterol or worry about it, then including some of these foods into your diet might be a natural way to beat the problem.