We’ve recently explained that the dietary cholesterol coming from eggs shouldn’t worry us, since it doesn’t have that significant an impact on our blood cholesterol.
In this article, we’re about to see what, then, does affect our cholesterol.
The first step: understanding what it is in the first place.
Cholesterol is a specific type of fat molecule (which comes in the ‘packaged forms’, LDL and HDL) that actually serves a bunch of functions! It helps our body build cell structures, produces hormones (like testosterone, oestrogen and cortisol), produces vitamin D when we’re in sunlight, helps with wound-healing after surgery (which is why you may have heard that our LDL levels rise after surgery), fights infection (by mopping up free radicals at the site of infection) and even gets rid of dangerous toxins – to name only a few!
One of its more renowned tasks is also making bile for the body, which is the digestive liquid that breaks down the fat content of foods and helps absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E and K) from our foods and supplements.
If you’re now wondering why cholesterol got itself such a bad reputation considering everything it does for us, here’s the reason:
Having excess amounts of LDL in our blood can gradually create cholesterol-filled blockages within the arteries. These blockages are responsible for angina (chest pain due to exertion or stress), heart attacks and most types of stroke. That’s why LDL is generally referred to as the ‘bad cholesterol’.
There are several factors that contribute towards the skyrocketing of our LDL levels, but a diet rich in trans-fats and refined carbs, combined with a sedentary lifestyle, is predominantly responsible for elevating LDL.
So, focusing on our nutrition and simple lifestyle changes can help bring it down to a normal range.
There are 4 main things to keep in mind:
1] Eat Fibre-rich Food
We know that LDL is used to make bile for our body. Eating fibre-rich food actually makes the body produce more bile, which means it then uses additional LDL from the blood, thus lowering its level.
The reason this happens is because when we eat soluble-fibre rich foods, the soluble fibre travels to our digestive tract and forms a thick gel around it, essentially trapping its contents. Now, the bile that’s inside the tract can’t be reabsorbed by the rest of the body to use later – which means that new bile will now have to be produced using LDL from the blood.
Beta-glucan, a soluble fibre found in oats, is particularly good at lowering cholesterol. A daily dose of 3 grams of beta-glucan can reduce the blood’s total and LDL cholesterol levels by 5–10 % in about 4 weeks!2
Eating one cup of oats will give you about 3 grams of beta-glucan. It’s a good idea to add other sources of soluble fibre to your meal as well, which will give you their other benefits and help you cut the calories from carbs. Sources of soluble fibre that have been shown to reduce LDL are pectin from fruits and vegetables, psyllium (isabgol) from many seeds, and guar gum found in a bunch of beans and seeds.3, 4
Other foods rich in fibre include whole grains, seeds (especially fenugreek seeds), legumes, fruits and vegetables. If you decide to supplement with fibre, build up the quantity slowly to avoid gas and bloating.
2] Replace “Bad Fats” with “Good Fats”
Artificial trans-fats, known as “bad fats”, are added to numerous processed foods and are also formed when refined vegetables oils are heated beyond their resistance point (as in most fried and fast food).
Even small amounts of trans-fats can add up, so it’s best to avoid processed foods that have “partially hydrogenated oils” in their ingredients list, and choose oils with a high resistance point while cooking.
To make sure you’re still getting healthy fats in your diet, you could instead eat fish with omega-3 fatty acids (like salmon, trout and mackerel) and walnuts, which are loaded with nutrients and good fats. In fact, a study proved that eating walnuts significantly lowers LDL levels. 5 Just a handful a day could be a great start to a healthier lifestyle!
3] Exercise Regularly
Being overweight tends to increase the blood’s LDL levels, so losing weight itself makes a difference, especially when accompanied by dietary changes. Moreover, exercising regularly alone helps relax blood vessels, lowers blood pressure and even boosts our HDL levels, improving our cholesterol profile. Some studies show that exercising also increases our LDL particles to a larger form, which isn’t associated with heart disease. 6, 7
The American Heart Association recommends 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic activity 3 or 4 times per week. Some evidence suggests that endurance exercise, too, helps with managing cholesterol levels.8
4] Get Plenty of Protein
A study showed that having 54 grams a day of whey protein reduced the total and LDL cholesterol levels of overweight people in 12 weeks!9
Keep in mind, though, that this may be because of the weight-lowering benefits of having an adequate amount of protein, rather than being a direct result of its consumption.
People with diabetes would also do well to supplement with whey protein, because they are more likely to have unhealthy levels of LDL than those who aren’t diabetic; whey protein has been found to be effective at moderating the blood sugar levels of diabetic people, which indirectly helps lower their cholesterol.10
Exactly how protein helps lower cholesterol may not be very clear at the moment, but the fact is – it does. This alone makes it important for those who are trying to lower their cholesterol profile to have sufficient protein; specifically, 0.8 to 1.2 grams of one’s body weight, daily.
When you look at these changes, they really aren’t more than simple steps, but each can go a long way – especially in combination with the rest – in helping one reach an overall healthier lifestyle. All one has to do is start moving in the right direction.
1. Brehm BA. Nutrition: Science, Issues, and Applications [2 volumes]: Science, Issues, and Applications. ABC-CLIO, 2015.
2. Othman RA, et al. Nutr Rev 2011, 69(6): 299-309.
3. Fuller S, et al. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition 2016: 1-12.
4. van der Kamp JW. Dietary Fibre: New Frontiers for Food and Health. Wageningen Academic Publishers, 2010.
5. Njike VY, et al. BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care 2015, 3(1).
6. Ryder JR, et al. Pediatric obesity 2013, 8(5): e59-e63.
7. Brown AJ, et al. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 2009, 41(3): 497-504.
8. Halverstadt A, et al. Metabolism 2007, 56(4): 444-450.
9. Pal S, Ellis V. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2010, 18(7): 1354-1359.
10. Frid AH, et al. Am J Clin Nutr 2005, 82(1): 69-75.