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People often don’t think about cholesterol levels until there is cause to wonder, such as after a blood test check-up. While genetics can influence cholesterol levels to a degree, the foods we eat also play a part.

One of the main ways diet can help lower cholesterol is by reducing LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol – known as the ‘bad’ cholesterol and associated with increased risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease.

To combat and lower LDL cholesterol, there are some simple but significant improvements you can make to your diet, including the below.

1. Eat a nutritious bowl of oats for breakfast

Oats are a great source of beta-glucan, a soluble dietary fibre. Beta-glucan has been shown to have cholesterol lowering properties as it binds to cholesterol, helping the body to eliminate it. Some studies have reported that eating 3g of beta-glucan per day can lower cholesterol levels by 5–10 per cent, and consistently consuming oats can reduce total and LDL cholesterol by 5–7 per cent.1, 2 Other than easily including oats in your breakfast repertoire, other sources of beta-glucan include:

  • Barley
  • Mushrooms (reishi and shiitake)
  • Yeasts
  • Rye and wheat (although in lesser amounts).

2. Include a couple of serves of oily fish during the week

Eating a serve of oily fish two to three times per week is a long-standing recommendation to promote overall cardiovascular health. Oily fish is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce triglycerides and LDL cholesterol levels. Examples of oily fish include salmon, tuna, trout, herring, sardines and mackerel. Our bodies cannot synthesise omega-3s, meaning they must be obtained from our diet. Easy ways to include a serve of oily fish in your week are to:

  • Add a can of tuna to salads, sandwiches or wraps
  • Replace grilled chicken with grilled salmon
  • Try an oven tuna pasta bake with vegetables.

3. Choose food products fortified with sterols and stanols

Sterols and stanols are cholesterol-like substances that occur naturally in plant-based food. Research has shown that when eaten in adequate amounts (2–3g per day), plant sterols reduce LDL cholesterol in the body by competing with LDL cholesterol for absorption. In fact, studies have shown that consistently consuming 2g of plant sterols per day can help lower LDL cholesterol by 10 per cent.3,4 Sterols and stanols are found naturally in vegetables, or in higher amounts in fortified products including:

  • Margarine
  • Cereals
  • Breads
  • Milks.

4. Include one or two vegetarian meals per week to reduce saturated fat intake

In recent years, there has been a stronger push for more plant-based diets. This push is now reflected in most café and restaurant menus, through the growing vegetarian and vegan options available that may not have been available in the past. There are a number of health benefits in following a plant-based diet, one of those being improved cardiovascular health due to limiting intake of saturated fat and encouraging a high intake of heart-friendly wholegrains, legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables.

Saturated fat is typically consumed in animal products such as red meat, eggs and whole-fat dairy, although it also appears in some plant-based oils (coconut and palm). You don’t have to switch completely to a vegetarian or vegan diet to help improve your cholesterol levels – you can start by simply thinking about eating one or two meat-free meals a week. There are plenty of delicious options to try, such as:

  • Vegetarian pad Thai
  • Tacos filled with Mexican-style beans
  • Tofu honey and soy stir-fry.

References

1 Systematic Review of the Evidence for a Relationship between Oats, Barley and their derived β-glucans on Blood Cholesterol Concentration, Prepared by: Food Standards Australia New Zealand, Date: August 2015.

2 Cholesterol-lowering effects of oat β-glucan. Othman RA1, Moghadasian MH, Jones PJ. Nutr Rev. 2011 Jun;69(6):299-309.

3 Heart Foundation; www.heartfoundation.org.au/healthy-eating/food-and-nutrition/fats-and-cholesterol/plant-sterols

4 Plant sterols and plant stanols in the management of dyslipidaemia and prevention of cardiovascular disease. Gylling H, Plat H, Turley S, Ginsberg HN, Ellegard L, Jessup W, et al. Atherosclerosis. 2014;232(2):346–360.

About the author

Kate Freeman

Kate Freeman is HRI's resident nutritionist. She is a registered nutritionist from Canberra, Australia and the creator and managing director of the largest private nutrition practice in Canberra, The Healthy Eating Hub. Kate consults, writes, presents and mentors in the field of nutrition and has over 10 years of experience in the industry.

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