What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced mainly in the liver, and is essential for various functions in our body, for example building and repairing cells and creating hormones and vitamins. While the human body needs cholesterol, too much cholesterol (particularly LDL cholesterol) can pose a risk to our health, and increase our risk of heart disease and stroke ().
Cholesterol travels throughout the blood in the form of lipoproteins – tiny molecules of fat that are wrapped in protein () There are two major types of cholesterol including:
LDL (Low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol – it’s often referred to as ‘bad’ or ‘lousy’ as it deposits and sticks to artery walls, causing a fatty build-up called plaque. As plaque continues to grow, it can cause narrowing of the blood vessels and increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke (,).
HDL (High-density lipoprotein) cholesterol – it’s often referred to as ‘good’ or ‘helpful’ as it moves LDL cholesterol out of the blood and back to the liver, where it can be broken down and eliminated from the body. In doing this, it helps to prevent the build up of LDL cholesterol in the artery walls and decreases the risk of heart disease (,).
Learn more about LDL vs HDL cholesterol here.
How to reduce cholesterol levels
The lower your LDL cholesterol and the higher your HDL cholesterol, the better your chances are at reducing your risk of heart disease. Here are our top tips on how to lower cholesterol naturally with diet and lifestyle changes:
1. Adopt a nutritious diet and maintain a healthy fat mass
Adopting a heart-healthy eating plan containing a variety of nutritious foods like fruit, vegetables and legumes, wholegrains, lean proteins and reduced fat dairy products is one of the best ways to lower cholesterol. Not only are these foods packed with a variety of vitamins, minerals and fibre for good health, they also help you to maintain a healthy fat mass, which is also known to help lower cholesterol levels ().
2. Eat more healthy fats, and limit saturated fat
Unsaturated fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are considered “healthy fats”. That’s because they not only decrease cholesterol levels, but also boost HDL cholesterol ().
Therefore, a great way to lower cholesterol is to eat more healthy fats in your eating plan from foods such as:
Avocado, nuts and seeds including walnuts, almonds, cashews, flaxseeds and linseeds
Olive, canola and peanut oils
Oily fish e.g. salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines
On the other hand, saturated fat found mainly in animal foods has been found to increase cholesterol levels, particularly LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol (). To lower your cholesterol, aim to limit these foods in your diet and keep them to special occasions:
Fatty meat cuts and processed meats e.g. salami and sausages
Full fat dairy products including milk, cheese and cream
Coconut oil and coconut milk products
Palm oil, butter, ghee, copha
Discretionary foods like cakes, pastries, biscuits, chocolates and sweets
3. Eat more soluble fibre
Dietary fibre is the indigestible part of plant foods that offers several health benefits, for example, keeps our bowels regular, lowers blood sugar levels, supports a healthy microbiome and even reduces the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, certain cancers and heart disease ().
It’s also been found to lower cholesterol, with research showing that consuming fibre – especially soluble fibre – can lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels. How? Soluble fibre forms a thick gel-like substance in the intestines which not only slows digestion, but also traps cholesterol. This prevents it from being reabsorbed into the bloodstream and is instead eliminated from the body in the stools ().
While current nutrition guidelines recommend adults consume 25-30g fibre each day, most Aussies don’t come close to meeting this. To lower your cholesterol, slowly increase your intake of soluble fibre by incorporating more oats, legumes, fruits (especially apples), vegetables, seeds, barley and psyllium in your eating plan ().
4. Incorporate plant sterol-enriched foods in your eating plan
Plant sterols (also known as phytosterols) are compounds that occur naturally in plant foods. While they are mainly found in vegetable oils, small amounts are also found in nuts, legumes and grains and cereals. As plant sterols have a similar chemical structure to cholesterol, they compete with cholesterol for absorption and can lower cholesterol, particularly LDL levels in our body ().
According to the Heart Foundation, consuming just 2-3g of plant sterols from sterol-enriched foods each day can help to lower LDL cholesterol by 10-15% without affecting HDL cholesterol (). There are various products on the market that have been enriched with plant sterols such as margarine and butter spreads, breakfast cereal including weetbix and oats, in addition to milk and yoghurts (). Additionally, you can also choose to take a plant sterol supplement, such as Blackmores Cholesterol Health.
5. Limit alcohol consumption
Drinking alcohol can lower your HDL “helpful” and increase levels of triglycerides in the blood. How? Put simply, when you drink alcohol, your body breaks it down and rebuilds it into cholesterol and triglycerides in your liver. Over time, these triglycerides can start to build up in the liver contributing to fatty liver disease, which impairs its ability to remove cholesterol from the blood and contributes to high cholesterol levels and heart disease ().
As per the Alcohol Guidelines, reduce your consumption and opt for no more than 10 standard drinks per week, and no more than 4 per day to reduce cholesterol. Remember, the less you drink, the better ().
Non-diet approaches on how to reduce cholesterol
6. Get moving
Regular physical activity is one of the best ways to improve your health and wellbeing, so it comes as no surprise that it positively affects cholesterol too. According to research, regular movement (~150 minutes per week) not only lowers LDL cholesterol, but it also boosts HDL – aka “helpful” – cholesterol” and lowers triglycerides in the blood (). While cardiovascular and resistance exercise are found to be the most beneficial for lowering your cholesterol, consistent movement in the long term is the key to success.
Here are our top tips on how to lower cholesterol naturally by increasing physical activity:
Start with movement you enjoy for example walking, playing golf, or taking a pilates or resistance class. This way, you’re more likely to be consistent with it, and create healthy habits that are sustainable for the long term.
If you struggle to remain motivated, an exercise buddy or playing a team sport can be a great way to keep yourself accountable whilst having fun
If finding time in your routine for exercise is a barrier, start with small changes in your work day like:
Choosing the stairs instead of the elevator
Going for a walk on your lunch break. This is a great way to stretch the legs and get some Vitamin D too!
Get off the bus or train two spots earlier and walk the rest of the way
7. Quit Smoking
Smoking impacts more than just your lung health. In fact, research shows that the chemicals in cigarettes can thicken your blood, damage blood vessels and increase cholesterol levels, all which increase the risk of cardiovascular disease ().However, whilst smoking damages our heart and vessels quickly, the damage can be repaired if you choose to stop.
Speak to your General Practitioner to get advice on how you can quit smoking today.
The take home message
In summary, there are several ways to lower cholesterol by making changes to your diet and lifestyle. Visiting your GP for regular check ups is also important to know your risk, and to assess whether medication may also be required to manage your cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease.
If you’re struggling to lower your cholesterol levels on your own, then personalised support from an Accredited Practising Dietitian may be a great option for you. At Heart Smart Australia, we offer individualised programs which include 1-on-1 sessions with an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Health Coach to help you make small, sustainable lifestyle changes to lower your cholesterol and improve your heart health. If you’re interested to gain insights into the experiences of our valued clients, we encourage you to read Heart Smart Australia reviews.
To learn more about what our programs can offer you, book your free assessment to speak to one of our friendly staff today.