Have you had your lipid panel checked recently? Have you been told you have high cholesterol? If so, you are among the approximately 94 million American adults with cholesterol levels above normal ranges. This condition, called dyslipidemia or hyperlipidemia, is not just for adults. It is estimated that about 7% of all children also have high cholesterol. Your doctor may prescribe medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination of both to combat the condition.
What does it mean to have high cholesterol?
Your lipid panel contains several values; Here’s a breakdown of what can typically be displayed:
- total cholesterol: The combination of components of your lipid panel
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol: “Bad” cholesterol that can restrict blood flow as it builds up in blood vessels
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol: “Good” cholesterol that reduces the build-up of LDL and flushes cholesterol out of the body
- Triglycerides: Fat found in food can increase the blood.
- You may also have your LDL/HDL ratio or very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) measured.
Why is having high cholesterol important for health?
A major factor in high cholesterol is the increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). This is because LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) can stick to the walls of our arteries, block blood flow and lead to a heart attack or stroke. High LDL cholesterol can also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. High HDL cholesterol, however, is found to be protective by scavenging and inhibiting the oxidation of LDL cholesterol.
Although the risk for women and men is similar, there are some nuances with each gender. For example, a 2022 study in the Journal Lancet found that younger women had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than men, but that dietary components had a more vital link to CVD risk than men in general Women also have an increased risk of CVD as they enter menopause. This risk is due to hormonal changes that can increase cholesterol levels. Conversely, men at higher risk of CVD in the study were more likely to have higher LDL levels as well as symptoms of depression. It is important to note that heart disease remains the leading cause of death for men, with high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity, smoking and alcohol as important risk factors along with a diagnosis of dyslipidemia.
4 ways to lower cholesterol with diet
Diet plays an important role in reducing the risk of dyslipidemia. Here are four dietary ways to address your diagnosis.
1. Opt for more soluble fiber
Fiber is found in plants and can be classified as soluble or insoluble. Soluble fiber can help lower cholesterol. The mechanism occurs when soluble fiber (which adds bulk to the diet) helps absorb and sequester cholesterol in the body. Cholesterol is redirected from the bloodstream to be excreted out of the body. You don’t have to focus only on soluble, but a recent study found that consuming fiber from any source benefits your health. High-fiber foods that help control cholesterol include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, oats, beans, and legumes. Try to consume at least 25 grams of dietary fiber per day.
2. Focus on a good gut
Gut health is a critical factor in the overall lipid panel. A study in the Journal Circulation Research identified 34 different gut bacteria that played a positive role in triglycerides and HDL cholesterol. An animal study from Scripps Research found that a healthy balance of gut microbes helped lower blood cholesterol. Finally, a 2020 study in the journal Nature identified that statins (medicines that help lower cholesterol) also helped promote a healthy microbiome. Microbial diversity is an important factor in getting the best gut possible. Dietary measures to achieve this include eating less sugar and processed foods and having more fermented foods and foods with prebiotics and probiotics. These include sauerkraut, kombucha, sour cream, kefir, tempeh, miso, and dairy products with live active enzymes such as yogurt. Prebiotics can be found in bananas, berries, garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus and whole wheat.
3. Embrace monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
Healthy unsaturated fats are associated with improvements in overall cholesterol. A 2022 study from Penn State showed that consuming an avocado daily helped lower cholesterol levels. A study in the Journal Circulation found that eating a Mediterranean dietary pattern rich in extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds helped raise healthy HDL levels. Finally, studies on omega-3 fatty acids have been equally positive. Higher doses of marine omega-3 fatty acids are associated with beneficial impacts on triglycerides. In addition, omega 3s may also play a role in increasing good HDL and lowering bad LDL cholesterol. A 2021 study found that having a handful of dairies could help lower LDL cholesterol in healthy adults with dyslipidemia.
4. Don’t forget plants, including sea plants
Eating a primarily plant-based diet can help with the overall management of dyslipidemia. That’s because plants can help fill you up with fiber, phytonutrients, and plant sterols, all components associated with a better lipid panel. In addition to fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts and legumes, you can also consider plants that grow in the ocean. Sea vegetables (think seaweed snacks and seaweed salad) can help lower cholesterol thanks to their fiber and antioxidant content.
Improving your lipid panel can take time and involve pharmacological assistance in addition to lifestyle changes. In addition to diet, you can also help lower cholesterol by exercising more, reducing obesity through weight loss, quitting smoking, and limiting alcohol consumption. Discussing your lipid panel with your doctor is the best first step in determining the right course of action that fits your life goals.