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Conquering Cholesterol: Tips for a Heart-Healthy Diet

You may have a lot of goals when you eat. You may tailor your diet to lose or gain weight, put on muscle, fuel up for a workout, avoid an allergy, limit your risk for certain diseases… and let’s not forget the goal to simply enjoy delicious food! Adding another factor like cholesterol to consider could feel a little daunting. But the truth is, a heart-healthy diet can still be as delicious and varied as any other.

We spoke with Karly Nelson, a heart transplant dietitian at Banner - University Medical Center Phoenix, to better understand the risks of high cholesterol and how to address it. She explained that there are many factors at play. “Genetics often play the biggest role in your battle with high cholesterol, and a poor diet and exercise routine will only make genetic destiny occur faster. A healthy lifestyle can offset genetics for a time or even prevent the effects of dangerous cholesterol for life. In every case, management is key. Our bodies are all different.”

“Good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol

There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL is the type of cholesterol you want to avoid. When your doctor says, “you have high cholesterol,” it typically means that your LDL cholesterol levels are too high. High HDL levels are desirable and can usually be achieved with regular exercise and a healthy diet.

The dangers of unhealthy cholesterol

Over time, cholesterol can build up in your arteries, putting stress on the heart and even leading to heart attacks, strokes, and other life-threatening conditions. Balancing your cholesterol to have low LDL and high HDL levels, leads to a reduced risk of dangerous build-up. If you come from a family with a history of cardiovascular disease, balancing your cholesterol is especially important. You can learn more about your personal heart risk by taking Banner Health’s heart age test

What is a heart-healthy diet?

“A healthy diet doesn’t mean cutting out ALL fats,” Nelson explained. “There are many healthy fats that should be included in your diet. The real danger is found in a diet that includes high levels of excess saturated fats and trans-fats.”

Life is about balance, and your diet is no different. If you are the type who struggles with high cholesterol, Nelson suggested splitting your plate into sections to keep a closer eye on a well-balanced diet. “Half your plate should be vegetables, a quarter of your plate protein/meat and a quarter of your plate grains or fruit. Make your dishes colorful!”

Eating a balanced plant-based diet with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean protein sources, like the DASH and Mediterranean diets, can be great options for lowering bad cholesterol and reaping other health benefits.

What foods are recommended?

  • Grains including whole grain breads and cereals, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, quinoa, whole grain crackers and breads.
  • Protein foods including lean cuts of beef and pork, skinless poultry, fish, wild game, dried beans and peas, nuts and nut butters, and egg whites or egg substitutes.
  • Low or non fat dairy including skim, low-fat or 1% milk or buttermilk, nonfat or low-fat yogurt, cottage cheese and fortified non-dairy milk.
  • Fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables without added fat or salt.
  • Fresh, frozen, canned, or dried fruit.
  • Consume a moderate of unsaturated oils (corn, olive, peanut, soy, sunflower, canola), soft or liquid margarines, trans-fat-free vegetable oil spreads, salad dressings, seeds, nuts, and avocado.

What foods should be avoided?

  • Processed foods such as high-fat baked goods such as doughnuts, biscuits, croissants, pastries, and snacks made with partially hydrogenated oils (chips, snack mixes, etc.)
  • Protein foods such as higher fat cuts of red meat, bacon, sausage, cold cuts, corned beef, hot dogs, organ meats, poultry with skin, and fried meats.
  • Dairy products such as whole and 2% milk, whole yogurt and ice cream, cream, half & half, cream cheese, sour cream, and cheese.
  • Fried vegetables and vegetables prepared with butter, cheese, and cream sauce.
  • Fried fruits and fruits served with butter or cream.
  • Refined carbohydrates such as sugar, sweets, and sugary beverages.
  • Oils such as butter, stick margarine, shortening, partially hydrogenated oils and tropical oils.

Keys to a heart-healthy lifestyle

Although diet is a key factor in lowering your risk, there’s more to your heart-healthy lifestyle than what you eat. Nelson offered a few other helpful tips:

  • If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation: one serving per day for women and two for men. One serving equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. 
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Introduce a plan to lose weight if necessary.
  • Set a goal to achieve 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise every week.  
  • Quit smoking. The practice negatively impacts how your body regulates cholesterol.
  • Understand your family history. Genetics play a key role in your overall health. During your regular check-ups, speak with your doctor about how your genetics could play a role in your health. 
  • Many people battling unhealthy cholesterol are prescribed medication. These can be very helpful additions to your heart-healthy lifestyle.

The bottom line

While age and obesity are risk factors for unhealthy cholesterol, they are not the ONLY risk factors. It’s what’s inside that counts. If your doctor has warned you about your cholesterol levels, it’s time to act. Learn more about nutrition and set up a visit with a health care provider to get more help. 

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