If you are looking for ways to lower your cholesterol, you need to know that not all cholesterol is bad. In fact it is essential for body functions and to synthesize vitamin D, bile acid, and some hormones. While the LDLs (low-density lipoproteins) are harmful because they tend to stick to the walls of the arteries, the HDLs (high-density lipoproteins) are actually good. HDLs even help flush out excess cholesterol.
But as you age, your cholesterol levels rise naturally. Men above 45 and women above 55, or after menopause, are particularly prone to high cholesterol levels. But if you see your cholesterol levels rising when you are far from that dangerous age, you need to be careful. While a balance between HDLs and LDLs is the most important factor, total cholesterol levels should also be below 200 mg/dL. Your LDLs should be below 100 mg/dL and HDL above 40 mg/dL. Since statins have many side effects, you can lower the bad cholesterol levels naturally through diet and lifestyle changes.
This is because of the 1 g cholesterol you need daily for bodily functions, 200 mg comes from food.1 When you eat high-cholesterol foods or foods that in turn produce more cholesterol in the body, you are looking at increased risk of diseases. But since an HDL-LDL imbalance shows no symptoms, you need to keep checking your cholesterol levels every 5 years after you turn 20.
1. Limit Your Daily Sugar Intake To 6–9 Tsps
You may think that fatty foods are the only culprits in raising your cholesterol levels and subsequent heart disease. But sugar might be even more harmful. As a recent investigative study claims, the sugar industry had manipulated the results of a 1967 study on the risk factors of coronary heart disease, downplaying the role of sugar and shifting the blame entirely to fats.2
[pullquote]Cut down on table sugar. Check labels for “ose,” “syrup,” and “sugar” to find products with added sugar.[/pullquote]
But later, studies found that people who have too much sugar have low levels of HDL and a high level of triglycerides. Triglycerides are another type of fat in your body. A low HDL level and a high triglycerides level are both major risk factors for heart disease.3 Low-calorie sweeteners are also harmful in this regard.4
Moreover, sugar increases inflammation in the body, including in the arteries.5 Directly or through elevated cholesterol levels, inflammation can lead to atherosclerosis, making sugar a risk factor for heart disease.6
Limit your daily sugar intake to just 25 g or 6 tsps (women) and 38 g or 9 tsps (men), as per the American Heart Association. So to stay within limit, avoid not just table sugar but anything that has “syrup” or “ose” in its ingredients list. Sugar-rich foods include sodas, energy drinks, bread, pasta sauce, and salad dressings.
Tip: Instead of opting for low-fat foods with high sugar, opt for higher-fat variants with no trans fats.
2. Avoid Trans Fats Like In Packaged Foods
Undeniably, packaged foods make life easy, and the longer they last the better. But the trans fats or hydrogenated fats that give food a longer shelf life charge a heavy price too. These artificially solidified vegetable oils can disrupt your cholesterol balance by reducing the levels of HDLs.7
[pullquote]Avoid french fries and fried chicken; packaged baked foods like crackers, cookies, doughnuts, and cakes; and hard margarine.[/pullquote]
Avoid foods fried in hydrogenated shortening such as french fries and chicken; packaged baked foods like crackers, cookies, doughnuts, and cakes; hard margarine; and even some dietary supplements.
Limit but don’t avoid natural trans fats found in dairy products and some meats like beef and lamb meat. Eaten in small amounts, they can increase HDL levels in women.10
3. Reduce Saturated Fats Like Red Meat And Whole Milk
When it comes to cholesterol levels, the US Department of Health and Human Services considers saturated fats a bigger threat than trans fats simply because American diets are richer in saturated fats than trans fats.
[pullquote]Cut down on red meat, fatty cuts of meat, poultry with skin, butter, cheese, lard, and whole milk so that only 7% of your daily calories come from these.[/pullquote]
Limit saturated fats like red meat, fatty cuts of meat, poultry with skin, butter, cheese, lard, and whole-milk products. You don’t have to avoid these altogether. But only 7% of your daily calories should come from saturated fats. Having any more than that can increase your LDL levels.11
4. Reduce High-Cholesterol Foods Like Lobsters And Egg Yolk
Foods containing saturated fats and cholesterol generally come from the same animal sources. But dietary cholesterol isn’t as harmful as saturated fats. This is because it increases both HDLs and LDLs, balancing them out. Also, there seems to be no link between dietary cholesterol and heart disease.12
However, if you already have a high LDL and total cholesterol count, cut down on cholesterol-rich foods.
[pullquote]Have no more than 1 egg yolk a day, and limit total cholesterol from food to 200 mg.[/pullquote]
Limit intake of cholesterol to 200 mg a day. Cut down on foods like red meat, liver and other organ meats, egg yolks, shrimp, lobster, and whole-milk dairy products including butter, cream, and cheese. While you can have as many egg whites as you like, have the yolk of only 1 medium-sized egg a day.
5. Eat Unsaturated Fats Like Avocado And Fatty Fishes
Not all fats are bad. Unsaturated fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in fact help reduce blood cholesterol levels.13 The TLC diet program by the US Department of Health and Human Services suggests that 25–35% of your daily calories can come from fat, with the majority from unsaturated fats and only 7% from saturated ones.
Omega-3s, a type of polyunsaturated fat abundant in fatty fish like salmon, may help prevent inflammation in arteries and subsequent clotting of blood, reducing the risk of heart disease. If you are looking for a vegetarian option, choose nuts and avocados. Avocados can lower cholesterol naturally, thanks to their monounsaturated fats that lower LDLs and triglycerides and increase HDLs.
Foods to eat
- Monounsaturated fats: Olive oil (about 77% monounsaturated fats), canola oil, soybean oil, peanut oil, avocados, flax seeds, and most nuts (especially walnuts)
- Polyunsaturated fats: Fatty fish like wild salmon, herring, trout, tuna, and mackerel; plant-based oils like safflower, olive, canola, grape seed, sunflower, and peanut oils; tofu; soybeans; nuts like walnuts; and seeds like sunflower seeds
Tip: Eat at least 2 fish meals each week. But if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, avoid fishes like king mackerel, swordfish, and shark which are likely to have high levels of mercury poisoning.
Bad: Trans fat found in packaged foods | solid at room temperature
Not so bad: Saturated fat found in red meat and dairy are bad if consumed in excess | usually solid at room temperature
Good: Unsaturated fat found in extra virgin olive oil, fatty fish, avocados, and plant-derived oils | liquid at room temperature
6. Eat More Soluble Fiber: Oats, Fruits, And Seeds
Though soluble fibers, derived from plants, don’t add any nutritional value to your diet, they help lower blood cholesterol.14 15 Most fibrous veggies you eat will also have insoluble fiber, which gives the added benefit of keeping your bowels clean.
[pullquote]Eat whole grains like oatmeal and barley, fruits like apples and berries, leafy greens, beans and peas, and flax and chia seeds. Don’t have too much fiber at once.[/pullquote]
Soluble fibers dissolve into a gel-like substance and coat the intestinal walls, preventing absorption of fat and cholesterol into the bloodstream. They also promote the growth of helpful bacteria in the gut and help in intestinal cleansing, added perks for your digestive system. Fiber-rich foods also keep you satiated for longer, reducing your appetite and your calorie intake. Have 10–25 g soluble fiber every day.
Eat whole-grain foods like barley, oatmeal, and oatbran; fruits with the skin, like berries, bananas, and apples; leafy and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts; legumes like dry beans and peas; and flax and chia seeds.
Tip: Increase your fiber intake gradually to allow your body to adjust. If you shock your body with an overdose of fiber, it may reciprocate with abdominal cramps or bloating.
7. Eat Plant Stanols And Sterols Like Carrots And Blueberries
Plants have certain cholesterol-like substances called sterols and stanols. Because of their structural similarity, they are often absorbed in the intestines in place of real cholesterol. They also inhibit the absorption of bile. To make more bile, the extra cholesterol is used up, thus lowering cholesterol levels in the blood.16 17
These compounds also help lower the LDL levels without affecting the HDL levels.18 Studies have shown that having 2 g plant sterols and stanols could reduce LDL levels by 8–10%.19 The plant sterols also have an antioxidant activity, which keeps LDL from being oxidized and raising the risk of atherosclerosis.
[pullquote]Eat colorful fruits and veggies like berries and carrots and vegetable oils like canola oil.[/pullquote]
Do remember that these will work only if you are already at a high risk of heart disease or your cholesterol levels are high. The recommended quantity is 1.5 g to 2.4 g plant sterols.
Eat colorful fruits and vegetables like yellow squashes, carrots, tomatoes, strawberries, plums, and blueberries; wheat germ, wheat bran, peanuts, Brussels sprouts, vegetable oils like corn, sesame, canola, and olive oil; and nuts like almonds
Caution: Plant stanols and sterols should be avoided by pregnant and breastfeeding women. As they also lower intestinal absorption of vitamins and beta-carotene, compensate by eating lots of fruits and vegetables, including at least one rich in beta-carotene like carrot, broccoli, and apricot.
8. Try Natural Remedies Like Apple Cider Vinegar And Ashwagandha
You may not believe that the answer to lowering your cholesterol can lie in your salad dressing, but studies have found that apple cider vinegar has cholesterol-lowering effects. This vinegar made by fermenting apple cider has potent antioxidants that can reduce LDLs and triglycerides and increase HDLs.20 Mix 1–2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar in a cup of water and drink before a meal or use it as salad dressing or vinaigrette.
[pullquote]Mix 1–2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar in a cup of water and drink it before a meal. You can also use apple cider vinegar as salad dressing or vinaigrette.[/pullquote]
The traditional Ayurvedic rejuvenating herb ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) or Indian ginseng also has the ability to lower cholesterol. It has shown a reduction in LDL levels and total cholesterol along with an increase in muscle activity. Its antioxidant flavonoids are said to prevent the oxidization of LDLs and thereby prevent plaque formation. Moreover, ashwagandha has not shown any side effects in clinical studies.21 22
The standard dosage is 3–6 g ashwagandha root powder daily, but you should speak to an Ayurvedic practitioner to find out what dosage works best for you.
9. Stop Worrying And Reduce Stress
High cholesterol may be an indicator of stress, which itself is a risk factor for heart disease. Stress promotes cholesterol production in the liver because cholesterol is needed for the synthesis of the stress hormone cortisol.23
[pullquote]Exercise, meditate, and relax yourself doing whatever activity you like.[/pullquote]
Take out some time for relaxation in your day. A detox bath at night with lavender essential oil and Epsom salts can help calm your mind and reduce your body’s need to increase cholesterol production. Try out these simple yoga poses for stress relief.
10. Exercise Regularly And Count Calories
No healthy practices list is complete without exercise. From ensuring your heart remains healthy through increased blood circulation to allowing you to blow off some steam, regular exercise can help reduce your risks of high cholesterol and heart disease.24
Because being overweight or obese is a risk factor for high cholesterol, exercise will also help you manage your weight – lowering your LDL levels while raising HDL levels. Limiting your daily calorie intake will further help you manage your weight.
Tip: Perform at least a total of 30 minutes of a moderate-intensity activity like brisk walking on most, if not all, days of the week.
Caution: If you have a medical condition like a heart disease, high blood pressure, or arthritis, or if you are above 40 years of age, consult your health practitioner before starting any exercise routine.
11. Quit Smoking
Chemicals in tobacco can irritate the walls of your arteries, promoting inflammation and plaque formation.25 To make matters worse, they also increase LDLs and lower HDLs – the perfect recipe for heart disease. Conquer your addiction and quit smoking. This will help you increase and normalize your HDL levels.26
More HDL means lesser availability of LDL in tissues, lowering the chances of clogged arteries. What’s more, this increase occurs rapidly after quitting, likely within 3 weeks.
Some Extra Advice
- Instead of using salt, sugar, or fat to make foods tastier, use spices (turmeric, basil, and rosemary) and herbs. While adding flavor, they also suppress inflammation.
- Get a lipoprotein profile blood test done after a 9–12 hour fast to know your cholesterol levels – total cholesterol, HDL, and LDL. Those aged 20 and above should get this test done at least once every 5 years.
- To reduce risks of atherosclerosis and heart diseases in general, limit sodium, alcohol, and caffeine intake.
|↑1||How it’s made: Cholesterol production in your body. Harvard Medical School.|
|↑2||Kearns, Cristin E., Laura A. Schmidt, and Stanton A. Glantz. “Sugar industry and coronary heart disease research: a historical analysis of internal industry documents.” JAMA internal medicine 176, no. 11 (2016): 1680-1685.|
|↑3||Yudkin, John, S. S. Kang, and K. R. Bruckdorfer. “Effects of high dietary sugar.” British medical journal 281, no. 6252 (1980): 1396.|
|↑4||Yang, Quanhe, Zefeng Zhang, Edward W. Gregg, W. Dana Flanders, Robert Merritt, and Frank B. Hu. “Added sugar intake and cardiovascular diseases mortality among US adults.” JAMA internal medicine 174, no. 4 (2014): 516-524.|
|↑5||Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice K. “Stress, food, and inflammation: psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition at the cutting edge.” Psychosomatic Medicine 72, no. 4 (2010): 365.|
|↑6||Siri, Patty W., and Ronald M. Krauss. “Influence of dietary carbohydrate and fat on LDL and HDL particle distributions.” Current atherosclerosis reports 7, no. 6 (2005): 455-459.|
|↑7||Huang, Zhiliang, Baowu Wang, Ralphenia D. Pace, and Seokjoo Yoon. “Trans fat intake lowers total cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels without changing insulin sensitivity index in Wistar rats.” Nutrition research 29, no. 3 (2009): 206-212.|
|↑8, ↑14, ↑18, ↑24||Your Guide To Lowering Your Cholesterol With TLC. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑9, ↑15||How to lower your cholesterol without drugs. Harvard Medical School.|
|↑10||“Natural” trans fat less harmful than artificial version. Harvard Medical School.|
|↑11, ↑13||Your Guide To Lowering Your Cholesterol With TLC. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑12||Fernandez, Maria L. “Rethinking dietary cholesterol.” Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care 15, no. 2 (2012): 117-121.|
|↑16||Stanols and Sterols. The Association of UK Dietitians.|
|↑17||Plant sterols and stanols (phytosterols). Heart UK.|
|↑19||Gylling, Helena, Jogchum Plat, Stephen Turley, Henry N. Ginsberg, Lars Ellegård, Wendy Jessup, Peter J. Jones et al. “Plant sterols and plant stanols in the management of dyslipidaemia and prevention of cardiovascular disease.” Atherosclerosis 232, no. 2 (2014): 346-360.|
|↑20||Beheshti, Zahra, Y. Huak Chan, H. Sharif Nia, Fatemeh Hajihosseini, Rogheyeh Nazari, and Mohammad Shaabani. “Influence of apple cider vinegar on blood lipids.” Life Sci J 9, no. 4 (2012): 2431-40.|
|↑21||Raut, Ashwinikumar, Nirmala Rege, Firoz Tadvi, Punita Solanki, Kirti Kene, Sudatta Shirolkar, Shefali Pandey, Rama Vaidya, and Ashok Vaidya. “Exploratory study to evaluate tolerability, safety, and activity of Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) in healthy volunteers.” Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine 3, no. 3 (2012): 111.|
|↑22||Andallu, B., and B. Radhika. “Hypoglycemic, diuretic and hypocholesterolemic effect of winter cherry (Withania somnifera, Dunal) root.” Indian Journal of Experimental Biology 38, no. 6 (2000): 607-609.|
|↑23||Grebe, Alena, and Eicke Latz. “Cholesterol crystals and inflammation.” Current rheumatology reports 15, no. 3 (2013): 313.|
|↑25||What Are the Risks of Smoking? National Institutes of Heath.|
|↑26||Forey, Barbara A., John S. Fry, Peter N. Lee, Alison J. Thornton, and Katharine J. Coombs. “The effect of quitting smoking on HDL-cholesterol-a review based on within-subject changes.” Biomarker research 1, no. 1 (2013): 26.|