Cholesterol is one of the most well-known compounds in our body. It is a waxy lipid synthesis in the liver that plays a vital role in keeping your cells and organs healthy. In addition, your body needs cholesterol to perform various functions, such as building cell membranes, hormone production, bile and vitamin D production.
Still, there are so many persistent myths that cholesterol is bad for you, while the truth is that some types of cholesterol are essential for you. However, another fact is that cholesterol is suitable for you only when regulated. Hence, you need to ensure that your cholesterol levels are not higher than average.
Like several other conditions, cholesterol levels also primarily depend on our dietary habits. This article explains everything you should know about healthy cholesterol levels and an ideal low cholesterol diet plan.
Cholesterol Types and Healthy Cholesterol Levels
There are two main types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol.
A research analysis demonstrates the effect of cholesterol levels and their effect on our heart health. High LDL cholesterol levels in your blood may put you at risk of heart disease. Excess LDL leads to plaque build-up in the arteries’ inner walls, blocking the blood flow to the heart. As a result, it can cause a heart attack. In addition, an interrupted blood flow to the brain can lead to stroke and peripheral artery disease.
On the other hand, HDL cholesterol helps eliminate “bad” LDL cholesterol by absorbing and carrying it back to the liver, which then flushes it from the body.
Healthy Cholesterol Levels
The combined amount of LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol in your blood is called Total Cholesterol. Total and LDL cholesterol levels should be lower. On the other hand, since HDL cholesterol reduces the risk of heart attack or stroke, it is considered good. Healthy cholesterol levels in the blood should be:
Total Cholesterol Level
- Optimal: Less than 200 mg/dL
- Borderline high: 200-239 mg/dL
- High: 240 mg/dL and above
LDL (Bad) Cholesterol Level
- Optimal: Less than 100 mg/dL
- Near optimal: 100-129 mg/dL
- Borderline high: 130-159 mg/dL
- High: 160-189 mg/dL
- Very High: 190 mg/dL and above
HDL (Bad) Cholesterol Level
- Optimal: 60 mg/dL or higher
- Borderline low: 40-59 mg/dL
Everyone of age 20 and older should have their cholesterol measured at least once every five years. In addition, it is best to have a blood test called a “lipoprotein profile” to determine your cholesterol numbers.
Research suggests that HDL levels below 40 mg/dL are a significant risk factor for heart disease. Therefore, doctors recommend keeping HDL levels higher. However, high LDL levels lead to maximum heart issues. Hence, it is essential to eat a low yet adequate cholesterol diet.
Low-Cholesterol Diet Plan: Foods that You Should Eat
Although our body produces cholesterol, foods play a significant role in enhancing its production and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. For example, eating foods high in saturated fats and trans-fats cause bad (LDL) cholesterol levels to go up. Hence, observing and regulating your cholesterol intake is extremely important to avoid various health conditions. However, there is no single food that will help to lower your cholesterol levels. So it’s necessary to focus on the quality of your overall meal and have a balanced diet regularly. Below is a list of foods you can incorporate into your low cholesterol diet.
Whole grains are a complete package of nutrients because of their fibre-rich bran, starchy endosperm, and germ, packed with macro and micro nutrients. In addition, according to research, the consumption of whole-grain foods lowers LDL cholesterol. A few options are:
1. Brown Rice
Rice is one of the staple foods in India. However, white rice primarily contains starchy endosperm. Hence, it can be unhealthy. On the other hand, since brown rice is a whole grain, it is healthier than regular white rice. In addition, it has complex carbohydrates that help you manage your cholesterol and lose weight.
A study established that rice bran oil (RBO) found in brown rice induces cholesterol-reducing activity by absorption-reabsorption of cholesterol and downregulation of cholesterol synthesis. Moreover, it helps to nourish blood vessels, regulate insulin secretion, enhance kidney and liver function and prevent chronic alcohol disease.
One hundred grams of brown rice has 0 cholesterol.
Quinoa is an ancient, gluten-free grain that has recently gained popularity for its high fibre and protein content. As a result, quinoa is a valuable dietary choice for vegans and vegetarians. In addition, it offers iron, copper, thiamin, vitamin B6, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese and folate. It also acts as a prebiotic that promotes beneficial gut bacteria, thriving and improving gut health.
One hundred grams of quinoa has 0 cholesterol.
3. Whole Grain Oats
Whole grain oats are the most effective whole grain for lowering cholesterol. It is because they have a combination of nutrients and phytochemicals that aid in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. For example, a type of soluble fibre called beta-glucan in oats facilitates the excretion of cholesterol-rich bile acids from the body, lowering LDL.
Moreover, whole grain oats have an anti-inflammatory effect that helps protect the blood vessels from the damage of LDL cholesterol. In addition, whole grain oats contain high antioxidants that improve blood flow and lower blood pressure. It is also a prebiotic food that increases gut bacteria’s growth rate and can contribute to a healthy gut.
One hundred grams of whole grain oats has 0 cholesterol.
4. Finger Millets (Ragi)
It is one of the most beneficial whole grains for its high protein and mineral value compared to other cereals and millets. In addition, Ragi helps bring down cholesterol levels because of the various essential amino acids. For example, lecithin and methionine eliminate excess fat from the liver, while threonine inhibits fat formation and helps bring down cholesterol levels.
Ragi is also an excellent source of protein, making it perfect for vegetarian diets. Furthermore, the high polyphenols and dietary fibre content give ragi anti-diabetic, antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Therefore, ragi essentially helps manage cholesterol and diabetes.
Fruits are a perfect choice for cholesterol patients because they help reduce the total and LDL cholesterol levels. Several fruits have cholesterol-reducing properties. For example, the bioactive polyphenols and fibre found in apples have beneficial effects on lipid metabolism and other risk factors of cardiovascular disease. Other fruits like blueberries, pomegranate and strawberries are high in soluble fibre and low in sugar. Studies suggest that dietary fibre helps lower LDL cholesterol. You can add fruits to oatmeal, a salad or snacks for health and taste.
Some of the highly beneficial fruits in lowering and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels are apples, grapes, pears, etc.
Non-starchy vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts are low in calories and high in fibre. Other vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, celery, carrots, leafy greens and onions also offer the same nutrients. The role of dietary fibre in lowering cholesterol is well-known.
According to a study, stress can lead to high cholesterol by initiating chronic inflammation and plaque formation. Vegetables like eggplant can help decrease oxidative stress. Furthermore, okra or lady’s fingers have a gel called mucilage, which helps lower cholesterol by binding it during digestion. That helps excrete the cholesterol from the body through the stool.
Increasing the consumption of non-starchy vegetables and decreasing the starches like rice, potatoes, pasta, and bread helps lower triglycerides and cholesterol. Hence, you should ensure that you add vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, asparagus etc., to your diet.
Studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids in fish can positively impact your cholesterol levels. It is because fatty acids positively impact Reverse Cholesterol Transport (RCT). RCT describes a mechanism by which excess cholesterol from peripheral tissues is transported to the liver for hepatobiliary excretion, thereby inhibiting foam cell formation and the development of atherosclerosis.
Omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve blood vessel function, and ease inflammation. In addition, consuming fatty fish can reduce the risk of dementia, rheumatoid arthritis, and cardiovascular diseases. Examples include anchovies, salmon, tuna, halibut, herring, and sardines.
Legumes like beans, lentils, split peas and chickpeas are a rich source of fibre and protein but are free of cholesterol. They contain soluble and insoluble fibres, which aid in lowering cholesterol absorption in the gut. In addition, it promotes the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
Studies show that consuming 130 grams of pulses per day can reduce LDL cholesterol by 5%. These are also high in protein and keep you satiated for a long time. In addition, a diet high in legumes lowers the risk of developing obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, or strokes.
Some of the best legumes are kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils etc.
Milk and Fermented Dairy
Milk is a crucial nutrient-dense constituent of a healthy diet as it offers essential vitamins, minerals, macronutrients and micronutrients important for growth, development and tissue maintenance.
Studies suggest that milk increases HDL cholesterol, and fermented dairy products reduce LDL cholesterol and lower the risk of hypertension. You can include low-fat milk and fermented dairy products like buttermilk, sour cream etc. However, it is necessary to consume them in moderation as dairy naturally contains cholesterol, and excess can increase total cholesterol levels in the body.
Nuts contain heart-healthy unsaturated fatty acids, dietary fibre, and antioxidants. Therefore, consuming nuts can lower the risk of coronary heart disease and various other heart conditions linked to cholesterol. As per a review, people eating approximately 67g of nuts a day experienced a 5.1% reduction in total cholesterol and 7.4% in LDL.
The nutritional composition of nuts is also associated with reducing diabetes risk, promoting weight loss and fighting inflammation. Some of the healthy nuts that you can consume in a low cholesterol diet are walnuts, pistachios, peanuts and almonds.
Soybeans are a type of legume. Soy products have gained a reputation over the years for their capacity of lowering cholesterol levels. Vegetarians and vegans who suffer from protein deficiency can incorporate soya chunks into their diet. The two potential components in soy that could reduce cholesterol are soy protein and isoflavones. The combination of both components exhibits cholesterol-lowering ability. In addition, soy products are high in protein and fibre and low in saturated fat, making them heart-healthy food.
The best soy products that you can consume are soy milk and tofu.
Research shows that consumption of green tea lowers LDL and total cholesterol levels. The active ingredient in green tea, known as catechin extract, plays a role in increasing the function of LDL receptors in the liver and preventing the absorption of cholesterol in the intestines. In addition, green tea has zero calories. It is a powerhouse of antioxidants, which gives it additional benefits such as managing weight, enhancing the immune system and balancing blood sugar.
Low Cholesterol Diet Plan for Beginners: Options to Choose From
Vegetarian Diet: Food Options
A vegetarian diet can be heart-healthy and nutritious because some vegetarian foods are low in total fat and saturated fat and high in fibre. These nutrients play a significant role in lowering your cholesterol. Moreover, a vegetarian diet can help reduce your risk for chronic health conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. Therefore, a carefully planned vegetarian diet lowers cholesterol levels and improves overall health. Here are some food preparations to choose from:
- Overnight oats with fruits
- Methi paratha with low-fat curd
- Oats idli with vegetable sambar
- Whole grain bread vegetable sandwich with tofu
- Thalipeeth with low fat curd
- Roasted oats upma with sprouts
- Low-fat paneer bhurji and toast
- Avocado toast with sprouts
- Quinoa upma with vegetables
- Apple slices with mix seeds
- One whole guava with mix nuts
- Coriander seed water and lime with chia seeds
- A handful of nuts and a fruit
- Brown rice with rajma gravy and salad
- Whole grain chapati with spinach sprouts curry and vegetable salad
- Low-fat paneer Matar sabzi, chapati and Vegetable raita
- Onion tomato masala, jeera rice (brown) and palak salad
- French beans curry with brown rice and low fat curd
- Okra curry with chapati and sprout salad
- Tomato dal, brown rice and cluster beans sabzi
- Red gram dal, brown rice and brinjal sabzi
- Ragi roti, mixed vegetable sabzi and onion raita
- Vegetable pulao with cucumber raita and chole curry
- Ivy gourd sabzi with whole-grain chapati and dal
- Carrot methi matar sabzi, Jowar roti and cucumber raita
You can drink one glass of buttermilk after your lunch.
- Sprouts or handful of nuts with a fruit
- Coconut water with Roasted peas/bengal gram
- Fistful of nuts with lemon water without sugar
- Soyabean Chaat
- Palak corn low fat paneer curry with brown rice and vegetable salad
- Lauki methi dal, Bajra chapati and vble salad
- Jowar roti with broccoli masala and moong dal
- Dill and yellow moong dal curry with brown rice and palak salad
- Whole grain chapati with cabbage pea sabzi and low fat curd
- Brown rice pulao with lentil curry and cucumber tomato salad
- Punjabi chole and Bajra roti with onion tomato salad
- Brinjal sabzi, beetroot salad and multigrain chapati with dal or low fat curd
- Chana palak, okra sabji and brown rice
Vegan Diet: Food Options
- Sprouted moong chilla with mint coriander chutney
- Overnight oats with plant-based milk and fruits
- Whole grain bread with tofu vegetable sandwich
- Besan chilla with tomato chutney
- Palak paratha with plant-based milk/curd
- Oats idli with red lentil sambar
- Quinoa upma or poha with vegetables and sprouts
- Vegetable Dalia with tofu
- Almond milk smoothie
- Hummus with carrots
- Roasted chickpeas
- Apple slices with peanut butter
- Brown rice with soya chunks curry and vegetable salad
- Lentil handi with whole-grain roti and vegetable salad
- Mushroom gravy and brown rice with sprout salad
- Spinach tofu stir fry and Jowar roti
- Cauliflower and peas curry with tomato pulao and began curd raita
- Eggplant rice and vegan yoghurt
- Soya pulao with methi curry
- Tofu tikka masala with brown rice
- Watermelon with nuts
- Sprouts with salad veggies
- Hummus with veggies sticks
- Guava with seeds
- Tofu curry and whole-grain rotis with carrot salad
- Kala chana kebab, dal and brown rice with cucumber salad
- Palak tofu, jeera rice and beetroot salad
- Red lentil curry and brown rice with cabbage sabzi
- Matar tofu and ragi roti with onion tomato salad
- Red gram dal, brown rice and brinjal sabzi
- Pumpkin curry with brown rice and sprout salad
- Okra masala with multigrain chapati and moong dal
Non-Vegetarian Diet: Food Options
For a non-vegetarian diet, it is essential to note that the meat you consume during a low cholesterol diet should ideally be grilled, barbecued, boiled, baked or roasted in a minimal amount of healthy oil. Add fibre-rich vegetables to your non-vegetarian meal to reduce the acidic effects of meat on blood. The enzymes present in the vegetables help digest the meat better. Moreover, consume more fish and white meat like chicken or turkey. Avoid red meat, especially if you have diabetes, blood pressure, and obesity. Here are some food preparations to choose from:
- Whole grain bread with scrambled eggs
- Grilled tuna sandwich
- Palak omelette with fresh orange juice
- Grilled chicken sandwich
- Mushroom omelette and boiled vegetables
- Avocado toast with boiled eggs
- Spinach, tomato and scrambled eggs toast
- Whole guava with nuts
- Boiled eggs
- Mosambi with mix seeds
- Egg salad
- Chicken gravy with brown rice and salad
- Grilled fish with sauteed vegetables
- Bajra roti with beans sabzi and baked fish
- Coconut and fish curry, brown rice and cabbage sabzi
- Chicken xacuti with whole-grain chapati and cluster beans
- Broccoli and chicken stir fry
- Egg curry and vegetable pulao
- Sprouted lentils
- Roasted chickpeas
- Boiled eggs
- Chicken salad
- Pan-roasted chicken and vegetables
- Whole wheat pasta with chicken and vegetables tossed in olive oil
- Chicken stew with steamed vegetables and brown rice
- South Indian fish curry with brown rice and vegetable salad
- Cauliflower soup with grilled fish or chicken
- One-pot lentil chicken with a vegetable salad
- Spinach and chicken soup with oats
Low-Cholesterol Diet Plan: Foods to Avoid
Red meat like beef, pork, veal and lamb tends to have high saturated fat and cholesterol content. The high saturated fatty acids can cause an increase in LDL cholesterol. Saturated fats occur naturally in fatty beef and poultry with skin. Consumption of red meat is also associated with bowel cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Therefore, lean meat and skinless poultry are better choices as they are low in saturated fat.
In addition, there is evidence of the health risks of eating high amounts of red meat, such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers.
French fries, fried chicken with skin, and other deep-fried foods have excess saturated fat and cholesterol from the oil they’re cooked in. In addition, deep-frying can cause foods to lose water and take in fat, making them more calorie-dense and high in trans fats. You can choose grilled or baked chicken without the skin or baked sweet potato fries tossed with a bit of olive oil as a healthier option.
Processed foods such as mayonnaise, crackers, microwave popcorn, and potato chips are made in hydrogenated oil with high trans fats content. In addition, they have unhealthy levels of added sugar, sodium and fat, which strips the nutrients from the food. Excess processed foods increase the risk of various health issues such as obesity, high blood cholesterol, blood pressure, and diabetes.
Full-Fat Dairy Products
Dairy products full of fat such as butter, cheese, heavy cream, and dairy desserts are high in saturated fatty acids and contribute to the development of coronary heart disease. But fermented dairy products positively affect cardiovascular health and show more beneficial effects than non-fermented and full-fat dairy products.
Processed meats are smoked, salted, canned, dried, or preserved to increase their shelf life and have minimal nutritional values. Bacon, hot dogs and sausages are usually made using fatty cuts of beef or pork. The high-fat content in processed meats is terrible for your heart as it increases LDL cholesterol in the body. Consumption of processed meat also causes colorectal and stomach cancer. Hence, you should limit the intake of processed meats.
Baked foods such as cookies, cakes and doughnuts have butter, and they are high in saturated fat and cholesterol. They also have high sugar content, leading to high blood triglycerides. It can be a risk factor for coronary heart disease. However, you can sparingly enjoy baked items by substituting all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour, sugar with maple syrup and limiting fats. In addition, you may add fruits to enhance the taste and increase fibre content.
Other Ways to Maintain Healthy Cholesterol Levels
Getting enough exercise is the key to reducing cholesterol levels naturally. Cardio exercises such as jogging, cycling, swimming, brisk walking burn calories and reduce body fat percentage, lowering cholesterol. It also improves joint health, decreases blood pressure, and increases overall fitness.
Insulin resistance in diabetic patients causes more synthesis of cholesterol. It leads to high levels of blood glucose which contribute to an increase in LDL cholesterol in the liver. Managing diabetes can help regulate your blood cholesterol, blood glucose and blood pressure.
Excessive alcohol consumption contributes to obesity and high fats such as triglycerides. In addition, being obese can raise your LDL level and lower your HDL level. So, limit your alcohol intake to maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
Smoking decreases HDL cholesterol levels and increases the risk of coronary heart disease. However, smokers can lower their LDL cholesterol and increase their HDL cholesterol levels by quitting. It can also help protect their arteries and decrease the chances of cardiovascular and lung disorders.
Health Risks of Abnormal Cholesterol Levels
High Blood Pressure
High cholesterol levels cause high blood pressure due to the narrowing of the arteries by the deposition of plaques. In that case, your heart has to pump blood with an increased force to overcome the difficulty of transporting blood to all the body’s organs. That extra force leads to high blood pressure.
Coronary Heart Disease
High cholesterol levels lead to plaque formation on the walls of arteries that supply blood to the heart. It can interrupt the blood flow and result in heart attacks and strokes.
High cholesterol levels lead to plaque build-up in the blood vessels connected to the kidneys, obstructing the blood supply. It can also cause kidney failure.
The plaque buildup on the arteries that supply blood to the brain causes a blockage. This restricted blood flow to the part of the brain causes a stroke.
Cholesterol from food ends up in the liver, whose accumulation results in the enlargement of the liver. Therefore, high cholesterol levels are directly proportional to a higher risk for fatty liver disease, leading to abdominal pain.
Your diet has the most significant influence on your cholesterol levels. While some amount of cholesterol is essential for good health, high levels of bad cholesterol can be detrimental. Your body produces most of the blood cholesterol it needs. Therefore, it remains crucial to limit the amount of dietary cholesterol, especially if you have diabetes or blood pressure. Dietary cholesterol is found naturally in animal-based foods, including meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products but lacks in plant food sources. The most significant way to maintain healthy cholesterol levels is to include more foods rich in soluble fibre, protein-rich plant foods over processed and red meat. In addition, doing regular physical activity, having a healthy weight and quitting habits such as smoking and drinking can lower cholesterol levels.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q. Do bananas lower cholesterol?
A. Bananas are fibre rich fruits and have no cholesterol. A gel-like substance in bananas can bind to cholesterol in the digestive system and excrete it out of the body. Bananas are also rich in potassium which promotes heart health and decreases the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Q. Does coffee affect cholesterol?
A. No, coffee doesn’t affect cholesterol if consumed in adequate amounts. The relationship between drinking coffee and elevated cholesterol levels is associated with the amount consumed and the preparation method. Intake of more than 4-5 cups of coffee per day can raise the cholesterol levels in your blood.
Q. What are the warning signs of high cholesterol?
A. There are no specific symptoms of high cholesterol, and it varies from person to person. However, some generic warning signs include fatigue, obesity, chest pain, nausea, high blood pressure, and shortness of breath. If you experience these signs, get your cholesterol tested to reduce the risk of cholesterol-related disorders.
Q. Is peanut butter good for cholesterol?
A. Peanut butter is made from roasted ground peanuts. Peanut butter has unsaturated fats, which help reduce LDL cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease. That makes it a heart-healthy food and well-suited for people with high cholesterol when consumed in recommended servings.
Q. Does drinking a lot of water lower cholesterol?
A.No, drinking water does not directly affect cholesterol levels in your body. However, if you drink plenty of water along with regular exercise and eat right, your metabolism will improve. As a result, it can reduce bad cholesterol levels and improve cardiovascular health.