Cholesterol is a strange thing: too much, and you’re in a trouble, too little, and you’re in just as much. With too little, our bodies can’t function normally. With too much, we increase our risk of heart disease, stroke, blood clots, and a litany of other unmentionables. While low cholesterol isn’t a concern for the vast majority of us, high cholesterol is.
While the condition can sometimes be inherited (in which case, medical treatment is the only way to manage it), most of the time it’s down to lifestyle choices. Even if you exercise enough to look trim and healthy, you could still be in for a world of trouble if you’re regularly filling your belly with less than optimal foods.
The real kick in the teeth is that high cholesterol is symptomless: unless you take a blood test to detect your levels, the first time most people realize they have the condition is when they fall ill as a result of it.
Of course, regular testing is a great way of working out exactly what’s going on in your body (most experts suggest that children with no risk factors for heart disease are tested once between 9 and 11 years old, and again between 17 and 19 years old, with adults testing once every five years), but prevention is always better than cure.
Make The Right Changes
Fortunately, a few tweaks to your lifestyle can slash your risk of developing the disease, keeping you trouble-free and healthy into a ripe old age. The first thing to understand is what factors increase the risk of bad cholesterol (bad cholesterol is the type known as LDL cholesterol.
This is the type you need to watch out for. HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, has a saintlier reputation, capable of reducing the amount of the bad stuff floating around and keeping your body in tip-top condition).
Smoking can damage the walls of your blood vessels, making fatty deposits more likely to stick around. A lack of exercise can increase your risk of high cholesterol almost as much as tobacco: workout regularly and not only will you improve your levels of HDL cholesterol, you’ll also increase the particle size of LDL cholesterol, making it far less harmful in the long term.
One of the biggest risk factors is diet: food items high in trans or saturated fats (including baked goods, luncheon meats, and, strangely enough, microwave popcorn) can raise your cholesterol levels to astronomical levels.
While you may be young enough to eat all the ice-cream, bacon, and muffins you like without feeling any ill effects, give it a few years and your diet is likely to catch up with you in some very unpleasant ways. If you’re keen to stay fit and healthy for as long as you possibly can, you may want to start cutting back on some of these admittedly delicious, but ultimately deadly, foods.
It might be delicious chopped with bacon and onions, but seeing as just three ounces of liver contains the maximum daily recommended amount of cholesterol, you may want to limit it to the very occasional treat only. Don’t take it off the table entirely: as a rich source of iron, vitamins, and minerals, liver can be a great, healthy source of protein when eaten in moderation. As with all things, just be mindful of how much you’re eating, and use it a complement to other ingredients, rather than the main feature.
For most people, shellfish is a healthy, tasty staple. For anyone with a predilection for heart disease, it’s anything but. Shellfish is loaded with cholesterol (three ounces of lobster, for example, contains a whopping 61 mg of cholesterol, and that’s before we even consider the melted butter you’ll want to dip it in) making it a no-no for anyone wanting to keep theirs under control.
18. Egg Yolks
Egg yolks may be the tastiest part of the egg, but unfortunately, they’re also the fattiest. If you don’t want to give up on your eggy breakfast completely, try scrambling 3 whites for each yolk; you’ll still get the flavor, but with less than half the fat.
You may think you’re being healthy with your breakfast of whole-wheat toast and orange juice, but did you know that just one tablespoon of butter will use up half of your daily saturated fat allowance? Try to avoid adding animal fats to dishes unnecessarily, replacing butter with heart-healthy olive oil wherever you can.
16. Red Meat
As you’d suspect, red meat is one of the richest sources of saturated fats in our diets. Try replacing your steak with some fresh, oily fish every once in a while: you’ll still get all the great protein, but the abundance of omega 3s found in fish such as salmon, trout, anchovies, and herring will do wonders for your heart health.
15. Cream Cheese
With just one ounce of cream cheese containing up to 27 mg of cholesterol, you may want to load your bagel with smoked salmon instead. If you can’t resist the occasional creamy treat, go for a thin scraping as opposed to a fully loaded spoonful, and do your best to stay away from cream cheese frostings entirely.
14. Regular Cheese
Cheese may make everything taste that much better, but use it too often and it’s unlikely your heart will thank you for it. According to the National Cancer Institute, cheese is the top food source for saturated fat in the US. If you’re at risk of high cholesterol, most doctors recommend you minimize saturated fats in your diet. This doesn’t mean you have to give up on cheese forever: simply replace cheese with high concentrations of sat fats (such as whole-milk ricotta, full-fat cheddar, Swiss, feta, Muenster, and American cheese) with lower fat alternatives.
13. Ice Cream
There may be nothing quite so enjoyable as a bowl of ice cream on a hot summer’s day (or even a cold winter’s one, thinking about), but most ice creams are packed with enough saturated fats and sugars to wreak havoc on your cholesterol levels. If you really can’t resist an icy treat, try a refreshing sorbet instead. Even better, make your own healthy “ice cream” by freezing chunks of banana before whizzing them through a food processor. Add some fruits, nuts, or even some dark chocolate chips, and voila- a creamy, sweet bowl of deliciousness you can enjoy guilt-free.
12. Mac & Cheese
What could be nicer than a big bowl of comforting mac and cheese? Getting to a good old age without heart disease, for one thing. Mac and cheese might be everyone’s favorite comfort food, but its rich, buttery, cheesy deliciousness comes with a price: a massive amount of saturated fats. Do your waistline and your heart a favor by opting for a low-fat version whenever you can.
Tuck into just one hamburger and your daily recommended allowance of 13 grams of saturated fat will be gone before you know it. Add some melted cheese, some French fries on the side, and a dollop of mayonnaise for good measure, and your heart will be wondering what it ever did to deserve such abuse. If you can’t imagine a future without the occasional burger, don’t worry too much. There’s plenty of ways you can enjoy your indulgence without causing too much damage in the process. Try making your own patties at home from lean mince, or even better, substitute the meat entirely for a grilled portabella mushroom: with the right accompaniments, it can make a very tempting, meat-free alternative to traditional burgers.
A fully loaded pizza drowning in cheese, pepperoni, ham, and sausage may taste divine, but the effect it’ll have on your cholesterol will be far from godly. Don’t despair too much: limit your pizza to an occasional treat, swap thick crust for thin, halve the amount of cheese, and replace the pepperoni for sweet peppers, and you can enjoy your indulgence without worry.
9. Commercial Baked Goods
It may be hard to resist the siren call of a blueberry muffin, but if you’re at all concerned about your cholesterol levels, you should at least try. Commercial baked goods tend to be full of nasties like hydrogenated oils and trans foods, two of the biggest culprits when it comes to high cholesterol. If you really can’t forgo the baked treats entirely, try making your own instead. Either find a healthy recipe or simply make some adjustments to a conventional one. Oil or shortening can be replaced with an equal amount of applesauce in waffles and cookies, while mashed banana makes a great alternative in muffins and breads.
8. Microwave Popcorn
Depending on how it’s cooked, popcorn can either be a healthy snack or a deadly indulgence. Air popped kennels sprinkled with some spices or nutritional yeast can be enjoyed without guilt. Microwave popcorn, on the other hand, should be struck off your shopping list for good. The reason? It’s loaded with even more hydrogenated oils and chemicals than you’ll find in a bucket of fried chicken.
7. Fried Chicken
Chicken may be a great, healthy source of protein in its plain form, but coat it in flour, dunk it in hot oil, and serve it with some fries on the side and you’re basically looking at a heart attack on a plate. 99.9% of the problem with fried chicken is the oil it's cooked in: add hydrogen to vegetable oil and you end up with a solid fat full of trans fatty acids. With there being no safe amount of trans fats in our diets, this is one food that needs to be eliminated for good.
6. French Fries
Like fried chicken, the problem with French fries doesn’t lie in its primary ingredient. A plain potato will have no impact on your cholesterol either way: a potato chopped up and cooked in hydrogenated vegetable oils, on the other hand, will send your bad cholesterol skyrocketing.
5. White Bread, Rice and Pasta
If you want to avoid high cholesterol, then avoid beige foods. White bread, pasta, and rice are composed of simple carbohydrates; when your body processes these types of carbs, it breaks them down into sugar, resulting in a spike of inflammation, blood sugar levels, and LDL cholesterol.
When it comes to things like trans fats and hydrogenated oils, it’s not just a case of limiting your consumption. While some foods like liver and egg yolk can increase bad cholesterol, they also have enough health benefits to warrant the occasional indulgence. Trans fats and hydrogenated oils (the key ingredients in certain margarines and shortenings) have no health properties at all. Avoid any foods cooked in shortening and be wise to ingredient lists- you may think you’re buying a healthy snack, but you’ll be amazed at how many foods manufacturers like to bulk out their products with some cheap shortening.
3. Soft Drinks and Sodas
Sugar is just as bad (some think even worse) than saturated fat when it comes to keeping your cholesterol levels under control. According to research published by Jama, sweetened beverages can lower good HDL cholesterol while increasing bad LDL cholesterol- the worst of both possible scenarios and one guaranteed to make you regret that extra-large cola.
2. Processed Meats
Meats in their natural form are full of protein and other helpful ingredients designed to make our bodies run efficiently. Diets high in processed meats, on the other hand, have been shown by research to result in a higher incidence of heart disease, stroke and high cholesterol.
1. Breakfast Cereal
They may be tasty, but most breakfast cereal are so overloaded with sugar and starch, they’re unlikely to get you off to the best of starts in the morning. With research suggesting that sugar is a major contributor to heart disease and fatty liver, it may be time to replace the fun stuff with a more sedate bowl of heart-healthy oatmeal.
Written by Garrett Parker
Read more posts by Garrett Parker