A healthy diet that helps reduce cholesterol is important for Australians, as approximately half of Australia’s adult population have high blood cholesterol (Source: Better Health). In this article, we will explain what cholesterol is, and how you can manage it by eating a healthy diet.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a type of fat that is produced naturally by your liver and gets carried around your body through your bloodstream. Its job is to help your body by;
- Building the structure of cell membranes.
- Producing oestrogen, testosterone and adrenal hormones.
- Aiding your metabolic processes, such as the production of vitamin D.
- Creating bile acids that help your body digest fat and absorb important nutrients.
There are two kinds of cholesterol;
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) which is referred to as ‘bad cholesterol’ because it can cause health problems if it builds up in the arteries.
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) which is often called ‘good cholesterol’ because it helps remove excess amounts of other forms of cholesterol from the body’s cells.
When we eat certain foods, our body produces different kinds of cholesterol. So, it’s important to eat foods that promote the creation of good cholesterol in the body.
What are the recommended cholesterol targets?
The recommended blood cholesterol targets rely on a number of factors that are based on your personal risk. For the general healthy population, a total cholesterol of less than 5.5 mmol/L, LDL less than 2.0mmol/L and HDL of greater than 1.0 mmol/L is advised.
If you are considered at high risk for chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and stroke, a total cholesterol of less than 4.0 mmol/L, LDL of less than 1.8 mmol/L and HDL of greater than 1.0 mmol/L is recommended (Source: CSIRO).
Why do I need to reduce cholesterol levels?
Too much cholesterol results in the buildup of fatty deposits within the arteries that causes them to harden and narrow. When the arteries harden and narrow, it becomes more difficult for them to transport enough blood and oxygen to important organs in your body, such as your heart and brain.
This leads to various health complications; such as heart disease and stroke. High cholesterol doesn’t have symptoms; so it is important that you consult your doctor and have your cholesterol checked if you are at risk.
You can check your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke using the Life! program’s online health check.
What kind of diet reduces cholesterol?
The best kind of diet for reducing cholesterol is the same as a generally healthy diet. If you pair a healthy diet with regular exercise, stress management, maintaining a healthy weight and monitoring your cholesterol levels, you can successfully reduce your cholesterol.
There are steps you can take to maintain a healthy diet and reduce your cholesterol levels.
Eat less saturated and trans fats
Foods with high levels of saturated and trans fats raise the levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood, and should be avoided:
These foods include;
- Full fat: milk, yoghurt, cheese, ice-cream and custard
- Animal fat
- Poultry skin
- Butter, lard, dripping, cream, sour cream, copha, coconut milk, coconut cream and hard cooking margarines
- Pastries, cakes, puddings, chocolate and cream biscuits
- Pre-packaged biscuits, savoury packet snacks, cakes, frozen and convenience meals
- Processed deli meats (devon/polony/fritz/luncheon meat, chicken loaf, salami etc) and sausages
- Fried takeaway foods such as chips, fried chicken and battered fish
- Pies, sausage rolls and pastries
- Creamy sauces or dressings
- Creamy style soups
Eat more healthier fats
While saturated and trans fats are not ideal food options, that doesn’t mean that you have to eliminate all fat from your diet.
Instead, aim to eat more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. These kinds of fats help your body get the essential fatty acids and vitamins that it needs without significantly raising your LDL levels.
Polyunsaturated fats include:
- Polyunsaturated margarines (check the label for the word ‘polyunsaturated’)
- Sunflower, safflower, soybean, corn, cottonseed, grapeseed and sesame oils
- The fat found in oily fish such as herring, mackerel, sardine, salmon and tuna.
Monounsaturated fats include:
- Olive oil
- Peanut butter, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, peanuts and pistachios
- Some margarines
- Rapeseed oil
You can find both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats in:
- Nut spreads
- Peanut oil
Eat more soluble fibre
Soluble fibre plays an important role in cholesterol reduction by lowering the absorption of cholesterol in your blood and your small intestine. Additionally, soluble fibre helps by slowing down your digestion, making you feel fuller for longer.
Foods that are high in soluble fibre include;
- Lentils, peas and beans
- Fruits and vegetables (such as apples and carrots)
While soluble fibre is important for reducing cholesterol, insoluble fibre is also important for a healthy diet, as it plays a role in digestive health. You can find insoluble fibre in wholemeal breads, cereals, the outer skin of fruits and vegetables, as well as nuts and seeds.
Eat more plant sterols
Plant sterols are compounds that lower LDL cholesterol. They occur naturally in foods such as fruits and vegetables, as well as nuts and grains. They are also added to certain packaged foods including table spreads, cereals, and low fat dairy products such as yoghurt and milk.
Adding plant sterol-enriched foods to your diet is the most effective dietary change you can make to reduce your LDL cholesterol. However they’re not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women (Source: Health Direct).
How do portion sizes work for reducing cholesterol?
Portion sizes play a huge role in effectively reducing cholesterol; as you want to eat enough foods to give your body the nutrients it needs to produce HDL, while limiting foods that raise your LDL.
Case Study: The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean Diet is an example of a healthy diet that can help reduce bad (LDL) cholesterol. It comprises of;
- High monounsaturated (eg olive oil) to saturated (eg fatty red meat) ratio – at least 2:1
- High intake of legumes
- High intake of fruits and vegetables
- High intake of grains and cereals
- Moderate quantities of fish, white meat and low-fat dairy
- Low intake of red meat, processed meat and eggs
- Low intake of sweets, sweet desserts and sweet drinks
An example of a Mediterranean Diet meal plan would be;
Sourdough toast with slice of avocado, poached egg, and drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with cracked pepper
Mixed salad with beans and tuna or salmon
Where can I find recipes for my diet to reduce cholesterol?
If you’re looking for recipes that you can use in your own diet to reduce cholesterol, the Life! program Health Hub contains various healthy recipes for all meals of the day (breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in between).
What is the Life! program?
The Life! program is a free healthy lifestyle program that helps you improve your eating habits, increase your physical activity and manage stress. You can choose from a group course or the telephone health coaching service.
Our experienced health professionals will help you make small changes to your lifestyle so that you can achieve your health goals and reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
Life! is funded by the Victorian government and managed by Diabetes Victoria. You can check your eligibility for the program here.
Elleni Kaias, Accredited Practicing Dietitian | Primary Care Engagement Lead
Kristie Cocotis, Head of Prevention and Health Promotion
Sarah Dubé, Strategy and Engagement Lead
Ria Cheripuram, Digital Communications Officer
Tegan Kohlman, Communications and Social Marketing Officer