Cholesterol shouldn’t be a dirty word! It is an essential substance in the body that is made in your liver and has many important functions. For example, it helps keep the walls of your cells flexible and is needed to make several hormones. However, like anything in the body, too much cholesterol (or cholesterol in the wrong places) creates problems.
Like fat, cholesterol does not dissolve in water. Instead, to move around the body, it depends on molecules called lipoproteins. These carry cholesterol, fat, and fat-soluble vitamins in your blood.
Different kinds of lipoproteins have different effects on health. For example, raised levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) results in cholesterol deposits in blood vessel walls, which can lead to:
- clogged arteries
- heart attack
- kidney failure
In contrast, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) helps carry cholesterol away from vessel walls and helps prevent these conditions.
There are many natural ways to increase HDL (good) cholesterol and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Limiting saturated fats in your diet along with regular exercise may help lower the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in your blood. But as we all have experienced being told to eat less of foods we enjoy such as steak, cheese and fried foods is not particularly inspiring.
So instead, let’s focus on eating foods that can actively lower LDL and raise HDL. The trick is to find ways to include these foods on a regular basis and make them taste delicious!
High fibre foods
High fibre foods provide a combination of soluble and insoluble fibre, both of which can lower cholesterol levels. Studies suggest eating 20g or more of fibre on a daily basis can lower cholesterol levels by 12% over 3 months. If your current diet is low in fibre you should build up to this amount slowly so as not to upset your digestive system.
Oats and wholegrains are the richest sources of fibre along with beans, pulses, nuts, seeds and veg.
Oats and mushrooms are rich in a type of soluble fibre called beta glucans. Beta glucans form a barrier between fat in food and the gut wall slowing or preventing it’s absorption.
One study showed that eating 3g of beta glucans per day for 8 weeks decreased LDL cholesterol by 15%.
Fibre is also fermented by our gut bacteria which make substances that can reduce the ability of the liver to make cholesterol.
Low fat diets do not lower cholesterol levels. Healthy fats known as monounsaturated fats which are found in olive and rapeseed oils raise HDL levels which is important for heart health. These healthy fats also contain vitamin E and other substances that protect against the damage caused by LDL oxidation.
Studies suggest incorporating a couple of tablespoons of healthy oils everyday is effective for raising HDL levels – drizzle over salads or cooked veg or use in place of butter with granary bread.
Soya beans contain isoflavones which reduce the amount of LDL cholesterol made by the body. The reduction of cholesterol attributed to eating soya beans is modest, but can be useful when combined with other foods.
A handful or two of nuts per day can help to raise HDL cholesterol and make LDL less damaging. All nuts count – almonds, walnuts, pecans, Brazil and pistachios to name a few.
They are best eaten raw and unsalted or coated. Add them to yogurt, salads and curries or eat between meals for a healthy snack that won’t spike your blood sugar or disrupt your appetite.
Stanols and sterols
Plant stanols and sterols are plant versions of cholesterol. They reduce cholesterol levels by competing with human cholesterol. They displace the cholesterol found in bile and in the food we eat and stop it from being absorbed. This leads to a reduction of the amount of cholesterol that ends up in the blood.
Small amounts of plant stanols and sterols are naturally found in vegetable oils and they are also added to certain foods such as yogurt shots and butter substitutes.
A review of numerous studies showed that taking 1.5–3 grams of plant sterols/stanols daily can reduce LDL concentration by 7.5–12%. For optimum effect, it is recommended taking two doses per day with main meals.
Try these recipes as a simple and delicious way to incorporate cholesterol-lowering ingredients.
Chicken, butter beans and walnut salad
200g diced chicken breast
2 sprigs rosemary, leaves picked and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
4 tbsp olive oil
150g green beans, trimmed
200g tin butter beans, drained and rinsed
2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
1 tbsp clear honey
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 red onion, very thinly sliced
Place the chicken, rosemary, garlic and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large bowl and toss together until coated in the oil.
Place a large non-stick frying pan over a medium-high heat and add the chicken pieces. Cook, stirring, for about 10 minutes until the chicken is browned on all sides and cooked through.
Meanwhile, bring a large pan of water to the boil and add the green beans. Boil for 2 minutes, then add the butter beans and cook for a further 2 minutes until the green beans are tender and the butter beans are heated through. Drain well.
Whisk together the remaining oil, mustard, honey and vinegar to make a dressing. In a large serving bowl, mix together the warm chicken, beans, red onion and walnuts. Pout over the mustard dressing and toss gently to combine.
Broccoli, mushroom and cashew nut stir fry
50g unsalted cashew nuts
1 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 head broccoli, cut into small florets
400g mushrooms, diced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely sliced
1 bunch spring onions, sliced
200g edamame beans
2 heads pak choi, quartered
1 tbsp hoisin sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
Preheat the oven to 170°C/Gas mark 3. Spread the cashews in an even layer on a baking tray and place in the oven. After 5 minutes give them a stir and return to the oven for a further 5–10 minutes – they should be golden brown. Allow to cool.
Heat the oil in a non-stick wok over a high heat. Add the broccoli and mushrooms then fry for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and chilli and fry for 1 minute before adding the spring onions, beans, pak choi. Stir-fry for 2–3 minutes and then add the hoisin and soy sauces and toasted cashews. Stir to warm through before serving.
100g frozen petits pois
100g frozen edamame beans
100g artichoke hearts (from a jar), drained
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tbsp lemon juice
4 tbsp olive oil
Small handful mint leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Oatcakes to serve
Tip the peas and soya beans into a bowl and pour over boiling water to cover. Leave for 5 minutes, then drain well and tip into a food processor. Add all the remaining ingredients and pulse to make a rough purée. Season to taste and then spoon into a serving bowl. Cover with cling film and chill until ready to serve.
Apple and walnut oatmeal scones
100g self-raising wholemeal flour
80g oatmeal flour
1 tsp baking powder
125g stanol spread, diced
125g grated Cheddar-style soya cheese, plus extra for sprinkling
180g walnut pieces
1 apple, peeled, cored and finely diced
3 eggs, beaten
Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas mark 4. Add the flours, baking powder and salt into a mixing bowl.
Add the diced spread and rub into the flour with your fingertips until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs. Gently stir in the cheese, walnuts and apple pieces. Add the beaten eggs to the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon to make a stiff mixture.
Take a non-stick 12-hole muffin tin and spoon the mixture evenly into each hole. Sprinkle with grated cheese and bake in the oven for 30 minutes until golden and cooked through.