The conversations around the connection between diet and high cholesterol and the best eating habits for cholesterol maintenance seem to always shift, and it can be quite difficult to keep up with changing scientific discoveries. Research published over the last five years suggests that your diet is one of the most important factors in preventing conditions like heart disease and high cholesterol.
While people may have once held the belief that all that’s needed to keep high cholesterol at bay was lower cholesterol-heavy foods and abstaining from red meat, the discussion around monitoring high cholesterol has since evolved in a way to better underscore the importance of nutritious foods and our daily eating patterns as a whole. According to a study published by the American Heart Association, it’s more beneficial to focus on improving your eating patterns and the overall quality of your diet rather than just individual foods.
So when it comes to making important changes to your daily eating habits, what does the most recent research say? Read on to learn more, and for more healthy eating tips, check out 11 Low-Calorie Superfoods to Eat Every Day.
It’s not about the cholesterol in your food
A common misconception about having high cholesterol is that the main way to lower it is by consuming less cholesterol in your food. However, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Your body creates much more cholesterol on its own compared to the cholesterol you would consume through food, according to the Cleveland Clinic. So, eating foods high in cholesterol may affect your levels somewhat, but the impact is likely not as much as you might assume. Instead, researchers have concluded that it’s more about the foods and eating patterns that raise your body’s LDL cholesterol—aka “bad cholesterol”—and lower your HDL cholesterol, or the “good” kind.
The CDC and the American Heart Association agree that foods heavy in both saturated and trans fats can have a significant impact on your cholesterol levels, but the issue can be a bit more complex than that.
What to know about saturated fats
Arguably one of the biggest debates when it comes to food and cholesterol is whether or not you should eliminate saturated fats from your diet.
The CDC claims that saturated fat can raise your cholesterol levels, so limiting foods high in saturated fat, like red meat and certain dairy products, can help keep your cholesterol in a healthy range. Although there is truth to this point, there are other perspectives to consider, as well.
For instance, a 2020 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that avoiding all saturated fats may cause you to miss out on some healthier sources of saturated fats. Their research argues that people who avoid saturated fats altogether may miss beneficial nutrients found in things like unprocessed red meat, whole-fat dairy, and even dark chocolate. As a result, they may end up consuming more empty sugars or refined carbs from other food sources.
A review published in a 2021 issue of Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases found that consuming red meat, which is often higher in saturated fat, may have a much lower effect on cholesterol than previously believed. However, they also concluded that replacing some red meat with plant-based meat can help to decrease cholesterol in some individuals.
Because of the prevalence of these varying, complex viewpoints, the American College of Cardiology believes that even though saturated fat can affect a person’s cholesterol levels, a greater focus on overall diet quality and the consistent inclusion of more nutrient-dense foods with every meal will likely prove more advantageous moving forward.
Eat plenty of vegetables
One point that is not up for debate is the benefit of regularly consuming fruits, vegetables, and whole grains as part of a healthy, balanced diet and a means to ultimately manage cholesterol and mitigate the possibility of elevating it.
For instance, a 2020 study published by the Environmental Research and Public Health found that consuming vegetables daily rather than just once or twice a week had a positive effect on lowering LDL cholesterol. In the aforementioned review in Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, researchers also concluded that high-fiber foods, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains all had a positive effect on reducing cholesterol levels in the body.
Fibrous foods can help manage cholesterol in the body, but most Americans are not consuming nearly enough fiber on a daily basis, according to a study published by Nutrients in 2019. However, eating multiple servings of vegetables a day can be a good place to start.
As you can see, the topic of eating patterns and cholesterol can get a bit complicated, especially as more new developments continue to emerge. Although it’s important to stay up to date on the latest scientific research, remember you can also raise any questions you have about cholesterol maintenance to your doctor. Not only can your doctor help you cut through the complexities of any scientific studies, but also they can suggest healthy eating strategies that support quality cholesterol levels based on your unique needs.
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