5 Tips for a Heart-Healthy, Cholesterol-Smart Diet

Focus on what you're adding, not what is taken away.

Dietary cholesterol may not impact your blood cholesterol levels as much as you might think. Indeed, only about 10 percent of the dietary cholesterol you eat (from sources like beef, butter, and cheese) is actually absorbed. But that doesn't grant permission for you to fill your plates with meat and buttery sauces.

Cholesterol-rich foods tend to be high in saturated fats, and saturated fats can impact your body's natural cholesterol production in the liver. This can have negative impacts on your health, leading to issues like like heart disease and plaque buildup in arteries. Creating a diet that emphasizes healthier plant-based foods and leaner proteins can have a positive impact on your cholesterol, and on other parts of your health, too.

"The best style of eating for cholesterol is one that you can stick to! It doesn't have to fit into a box of a specific diet," says Ashley Reaver, RD, an Oakland, Calif.-based registered dietitian and the creator of the Lower Cholesterol Longer Life Method. "Simply making two or three of the changes below can lead to major improvements in your cholesterol levels."

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1. Load up on whole foods.

Rather than tuning in only to what you're reducing, focus on adding more whole, minimally-processed foods like whole grains, fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, seeds, and lean protein to your meals and snacks, suggests Mary Stewart, RD, LD, a registered dietitian and the founder of Cultivate Nutrition in Dallas.

2. Eat more soluble fiber.

Soluble fiber swells when in contact with water. Think about putting oats, beans, brown rice, grits, and chia seeds in water overnight. They look very different in the morning because the soluble fiber has absorbed the water.

Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, which is mostly found in fruits and vegetables, does not look any different after a night in water. While it's still important for health, insoluble fiber does not impact cholesterol.

A digestive compound called bile is released in the small intestines to allow our digestion and absorption of fat in the diet, Reaver explains. Usually bile is recycled at a 97 to 98 percent rate, so it requires very little cholesterol.

"However, when you eat a diet high in soluble fiber, bile gets trapped to it and transported out of the body. Since we require it for digestion, the body produces more by utilizing our cholesterol stores. This is the only way that we can help to rid the body of excess cholesterol," Reaver says. Some of the best sources of soluble fiber include:

  • oats
  • peas
  • beans
  • apples
  • carrots
  • barley

3. Get off the LB roller coaster.

Maintaining a healthy weight is good for myriad reasons. Another reason: it can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.

"Consider working with a professional to aim for a lifestyle that moves away from practices of weight cycling, like yo-yo dieting, which has been shown to be an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease," says Rachel Fine, RD, a registered dietitian and owner of the nutrition counseling firm To The Pointe Nutrition in New York City.

4. Mix up your proteins.

Try to keep meat and poultry to one serving per day, Reaver says. Then swap in fish two to three times per week and beans or soy-based protein sources for the remainder of your meals. Here are 16 flexitarian recipes featuring legumes to get you started.

5. Incorporate other lifestyle habits.

"In addition to a heart-healthy diet, don't forget to incorporate other healthy habits, like exercise, stress reduction techniques, and avoiding unhealthy habits like smoking and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol," Stewart says.

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