You may be thinking or have even been told, “Cholesterol is a type of lipid, so to lower cholesterol levels you need to cut back on fatty foods.” This is not necessarily the case. In fact, the opposite may be true.
In 2014, a meta-analysis of 72 studies and over 600,000 participants investigated the impact of fatty acid consumption on cardiovascular disease. The investigators concluded that saturated fat intake was not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). However, this was not the case for trans-fat, the most harmful type of fat shown to stimulate abnormal cholesterol levels and promote full-body inflammation.
Another meta-analysis of 20 studies from 2012 examined the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on coronary heart disease. The review calculated an average 10% reduction in death from CHD. As cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and responsible for approximately 31% of deaths worldwide, the impact of nutritional interventions such as described above could be astronomical.
Although trans fats have been shown to harmfully manipulate cholesterol levels, they are not the only offender. The excessive amounts of processed sugar consumed is a major culprit in the obesity epidemic we face today. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that men consume no more than 9 teaspoons and women no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day. However, as one 20 oz. coke contains 15 teaspoons of sugar, and the average American drinks at least one pop per day, this recommendation is far from being met. In fact, the average American consumes around 23 teaspoons per day, and 78 pounds per year! This is problematic because when excess sugar is consumed, especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup, it converts to “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and is stored as belly fat.
Often when a doctor is concerned about a patients cholesterol levels, they prescribe a medication called a statin to help lower them. Although they may at times be necessary, these drugs do not come without consequences. Not only can statins increase your risk of diabetes by about 50%, they are also associated with problems such as muscle weakness and memory issues. They may also lower your cholesterol levels too much, which can negatively impact cell membrane function and lower your testosterone (since cholesterol is involved in cell membrane and hormone production). According to Dr. Mark Hyman, Director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, the following represents optimal cholesterol levels:
- total cholesterol <200
- triglycerides (TG) <100
- high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol >60
- ratio of TG to HDL should be no greater than 4 (higher may indicate insulin resistance)
*Refer to his eBook, Food: The Cholesterol Solution for more details
Below are 5 strategies to help optimize your cholesterol levels.
- Eat healthy fats, especially those high in omega-3 fatty acids, daily.
Food source: avocado, extra-virgin olive oil, wild-caught salmon, tuna and sardines, walnuts, pistachios, macadamia nuts. The AHA recommends eating fatty fish twice per week.
- Avoid ALL trans fat. Trans fat can be identified as hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil on food labels.
Food source: processed foods such as baked goods, peanut butter, powdered creamer, fast-food, and crackers
- Decrease your intake of added sugar. Set a realistic goal for yourself. For example, if you are currently drinking 2 bottles of pop per day, set a goal to drink no more than one. Continue to progress until you are satisfied. Replacing the food item you are cutting out or limiting with a healthier alternative you enjoy will help changes be more sustainable.
- Exercise. Brisk walking, swimming and bicycling for at least 30 minutes most days of the week reduces LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and increases HDL (good) cholesterol.
- Eat more soluble fiber. This type of fiber reduces the absorption of bad cholesterol into the blood stream. As little as 7 to 13 grams per day has shown to reduce LDL cholesterol up to 7%.
Food source: Brussel sprouts, black beans, navy beans, carrots, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, prunes