NCH is part of Endeavor Health

Learn more

News  ›  Fitness and Nutrition

Seven Food Strategies to Lower Your Cholesterol

September 14, 2021

Rosemary Weaver, MPH, RDN, LDN, Wellness Center Dietitian

September is National Cholesterol Education Month, an opportunity to learn how changing what you eat can reduce blood cholesterol, improve the types of fats floating around in your bloodstream and reduce your risk of artery-clogging cardiovascular disease.

Here are seven food strategies that will help reduce your risk, starting today:

  1. Slash saturated fat. Decrease animal fats by skipping fatty, processed meats like bologna, salami, pepperoni and hot dogs as well as fatty red meats like ribs and prime cuts of beef, pork, lamb or veal. Take the skin off chicken or turkey. Forgo full fat dairy, such as whole milk, whole milk yogurt and regular cheese. Instead, choose skim or low fat milk, reduced fat cheese and olive oil or heart-healthy spreads in lieu of butter. Choose one whole egg/day and add additional protein with egg whites. Although not animal fat, avoid using coconut oil, a tropical oil that is even more saturated than butterfat.
  2. Pick plant-based. Substitute plant-based protein, such as beans, lentils, tofu or quinoa for animal protein (meat, poultry, eggs or cheese) one or more times a week. Add these plant-based protein foods to salads, soups, stir-fry or a burrito to increase fiber intake and decrease saturated fat. Nuts and seeds in moderation also provide some protein and are a plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for the heart.
  3. Focus on fiber. Learning to like and regularly eat foods high in fiber will help drive down your “bad” cholesterol. Choose: oats, oat bran, low-sugar whole grain oat cereal; beans or legumes; barley, ground flaxseed (no more than two tablespoons a day due to its laxative effect), ground psyllium husk fiber (found in Metamucil; ask your doctor if this is OK to include); and whole fruits, especially apples, grapes, berries, cherries, apricots and citrus fruits, which are high in pectin – a type of soluble fiber.
  4. Vary your veggies. Eat a wide variety of raw and cooked vegetables to provide nutrients and additional fiber. Try adding eggplant or okra on a regular basis which are considered “stars” of the Mediterranean diet and are rich in soluble fiber.
  5. Be choosy about carbs. Emphasizing “good” carbs and cutting out added sugars will help manage weight and can significantly reduce cardiovascular risk factors. Avoid added sugars in drinks, cut out regular desserts and aim for whole grains versus “white” versions of starches. For example, choose brown rice versus white; whole grain or legume pasta versus white; whole grain wheat, rye, pumpernickel or oat bran bread or wraps versus white; quinoa, farro or barley versus regular couscous. Try to include 5-7 servings or more of vegetables and fruit per day. Legumes are also a “good” carb to choose more often.
  6. “Friend” fish. Heart-healthy Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet eating plans encourage 2-3 fish meals per week. Ditch the breaded and fried versions for grilled, baked or broiled. Especially high in omega-3 heart-healthy fatty acids are: salmon, mackerel, herring and tuna, but all fish provide some omega-3 fats.
  7. Cut out certain coffee shop items or add-ins. Lattes, sweetened or coconut milk smoothies, and other blended drinks can be loaded with flavor – as well as sneaky forms of saturated fat, sugar and calories. You might even be consuming more than 400 additional calories in one pumpkin spice latte! Ask for lowfat (or nonfat) milk or dairy substitutes (soy or almond milk) instead of cream, whipped cream or faux-flavored creamers, which are often made with corn syrup solids and hydrogenated oils (trans fats – the worst fat for your heart). For sweetening, consider stevia or just a tiny bit of natural honey or agave to lessen your sugar intake. Select smoothies made with unsweetened fruit and lowfat milk, almond milk, soy milk or lowfat yogurt as additions. Choose filtered coffee, because French press, Turkish coffee and espresso are not filtered and oily compounds called diterpenes seep into the coffee and can raise the bad “LDL” cholesterol component in the blood. Drink no more than one small unfiltered coffee per day.

The more of these strategies you can build into your diet, the greater the impact on your blood fat levels and your overall health. Don’t forget the value of regular, aerobic exercise to increase the “good” HDL cholesterol that helps your heart. Always check with your doctor before beginning or significantly changing your exercise regimen.

Here’s a heart-healthy recipe to enjoy this month courtesy of MINDFUL by Sodexo:

Mediterranean Spinach and Barley Salad

11 oz. red peppers, fresh, diced ½ inch
½ cup white balsamic vinegar
¼ cup pasteurized fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
2½ tablespoons dill weed, fresh
1 tablespoon basil leaves, fresh
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
8 oz. pearl barley, raw
2 cups water
3 oz. jumbo Kalamata olives, pitted, halved
3 oz. red onions, fresh, halved lengthwise, sliced ¼”
12 oz. cannellini beans, canned, rinsed and drained
15 oz. baby spinach, fresh
3 oz. golden raisins
6 oz. orange sections, fresh
3 oz. feta cheese, crumbled

Coat peppers with vegetable oil spray (not listed). Place on baking sheet.

Roast in a preheated 425°F oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown and charred. Cool quickly, diced ½ inch and hold cold for use.

Whisk vinegar, orange juice, olive oil, dill, basil and sugar together until well-combined. Hold refrigerated for use.

Spray baking sheet with vegetable oil spray (not listed). Spread barley on pan, and place in a preheated 375°F oven for 5 minutes, or until barley starts to toast.

Place water and toasted barley in a sauce pot. Bring to a boil.

Reduce heat, and simmer for 40 to 45 minutes, or until bloomed and tender.

Remove from heat, and cover barley. Let stand for 5 to 10 minutes to absorb remaining liquid. Cool quickly and hold cold for use within 48 hours.

As needed, combine ½ cup cooled barley, 2 tablespoons peppers, 8 halves olives, ½ oz. onions, ¼ cup beans, 3 cups spinach, 1 tablespoon raisins, 2 tablespoons orange segments and 2 tablespoons salad dressing. Toss until evenly coated. Plate immediately.

Top with 1 tablespoon feta. Serve immediately.

Nutrition Facts: Calories: 370, Carbs: 67g, Protein: 13g, Fat: 7g, Sat. Fat: 2.5g, Sodium: 330mg, Fiber: 12g