From oats to walnuts, a handful of everyday foods are stepping up to the plate when it comes to battling unhealthy cholesterol. By: Maureen Callahan, MS, RD
January 17, 2013
1 of 10Photo: Mary Britton Senseney/ Wonderful Machine
Healthy Cholesterol-Fighting Foods
While nobody would intentionally clog their own arteries, it’s easy to do just that with the foods you choose to eat or not eat. Nibbling on hot dogs, full-fat cheese, or donuts can boost unhealthy, artery-damaging LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. Grilling and dining on salmon, on the other hand, can raise the “good” or HDL (high-density lipoprotein) levels. These eight options are prime food warriors in the battle against bad cholesterol. Eaten alone, most of these eight foods will have a modest impact; but when eaten together, like in this Waldorf Salad, they build into a beneficial cholesterol-lowering plan that rivals medication.
2 of 10Photo: Oxmoor House
While most varieties of nuts boast health benefits, the unique fat make-up of walnuts makes them particularly helpful when it comes to lowering cholesterol. Rich in polyunsaturated fats and the only nut source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, walnuts are a star food for cardiovascular health. Harvard researchers found that adding walnuts to the daily diet, even for the short term, creates dramatic drops in cholesterol. Study participants averaged a 10-point drop in total cholesterol and a nine-point drop in LDL, or the “bad” cholesterol.
How much is good? Although some studies test larger amounts, a handful a day, or about one ounce is a beneficial amount.
Of all the whole grains, oats sport the highest amount of soluble fiber. And studies show that just five to 10 grams of this soluble fiber can lower both total cholesterol and LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Does it matter what type of oats you eat? Probably not when it comes to soluble fiber. But steel cut oats have the lowest glycemic index because they’re processed the least. Like dry cereals made with oats or oat bran? Read the label carefully since some provide as much fiber as oatmeal and other have nary a whiff.
How much is good? 1/3 cup of dry oats offers up 1.4 grams of soluble fiber, a good start toward a daily goal of five to 10 grams.
Among legumes, black beans hold the prize as richest source of soluble fiber; each cup provides nearly five grams of this potent cholesterol-lowering agent. In fact, beans may hold the record for most soluble fiber among the whole plant kingdom; a 1/2 cup of cooked black beans carries nearly twice the soluble fiber of oats. Early studies in animals suggest that most of this soluble fiber is concentrated in the inner part of the bean (not the skin).
How much is good? Start with 1/2 cup per day and work up to a cup of black beans or any kind of bean to make the biggest impact on cholesterol.
Over the last few decades many reports suggest that polyphenols, antioxidant compounds found in apples and apple juice, may help inhibit the oxidation of LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Oxidation of LDL cholesterol is what leads to plaque buildup in arteries. Apples are also a good source of soluble fiber and have roughly the same cholesterol-lowering abilities as oats. If you’re counting, one small apple harbors one gram of soluble fiber. Don’t like apples? Many fruits sport comparable levels: 1/2 medium grapefruit, 1/2 large pear, 3 prunes, 2 dried figs, and one cup of strawberries.
How much is good? Dare we say "an apple a day" is a good place to start. Better yet, maybe the new mantra should be an apple at every meal.
High levels of omega-3 fatty acids, or what researchers refer to as fish oils, make salmon a shoe-in when it comes to improving levels of HDL, or “good” cholesterol. In a study from the Western Human Nutrition Research Center, HDL levels shot up 10% when volunteers (all with normal lipid levels) ate a salmon-rich diet for 20 days. Another study found that men with high triglyceride levels can lower blood fat (a vehicle for transporting fat to cells) by 24% with supplements of fish oils, particularly oils found in fatty fish like salmon.
How much is good? The American Heart Association advises eating fish twice per week, particularly fatty varieties like salmon, sardines, mackeral, and albacore tuna.
7 of 10Photo: Oxmoor House
Cooking with barley may be uncharted waters for some, but this whole grain contains the same type of soluble fiber found in oats, making it a super healthy grain option. So it comes as no surprise that multiple studies document cholesterol lowering benefits to barley. Pearled barley, the variety found most commonly in supermarkets, is minimally processed and contains most of the bran and endosperm. For even higher levels of fiber (but longer cooking times), you might want to try hulled or hulless barley, both different varieties of the whole grain.
How much is good? Each 1/2 cup of cooked pearled barley contains about one gram of soluble fiber, a small step toward a daily goal of five to 10 grams.
Rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, olive oil is always a good choice in healthy cooking. And so nutritionists and cardiologists have long encouraged using it in place of butter and other animal fats. Yet newer studies suggest the oil contains a powerful mix of antioxidants that can lower LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. When possible, opt for the extra-virgin variety; minimal processing helps keep more of its antioxidants intact.
How much is good? Two tablespoons of olive oil per day. The FDA recommends using it as a replacement for other fats like butter.
Rich in plant-based omega-3 fats, both flaxseed and flaxseed oil are used to reduce total cholesterol and LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. Studies are limited, however, and results are mixed. Still, one recent report suggests the cholesterol-lowering abilities of this little brown seed are more pronounced in men, lowering their cholesterol level nearly 10%. And many use the seed to promote good digestion and relieve constipation. And just one tablespoon of ground flax contains 16 grams of omega-3 fats. For women, preliminary research hints that 10 to 30 grams of flaxseed (about 1 to 4 tablespoons) may offer some protection against breast cancer.
How much is good? Experts aren’t making any firm recommendations, but 1 to 2 tablespoons per day seems like a good place to start. Keep in mind, seeds need to be ground in order to be digested.
If you want any or all of these cholesterol-lowering foods to do their job effectively, it makes sense to also limit foods that can raise cholesterol. On that list: any animal products with large amounts of saturated fat, including whole milk, ice cream, and fatty red meats. It also includes processed foods (donuts, chips) that contain harmful trans fats, aka partially hydrogenated oils. A two-pronged effort of including foods that lower cholesterol and limiting foods that raise it will put cholesterol numbers into a healthy range.