How to Lower Cholesterol with Diet

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
May 23, 2024
Last updated:
May 31, 2024

In Australia, high cholesterol levels aren't just numbers – they're a significant health concern. In fact, in 2018 alone, high cholesterol contributed to a noteworthy 2.7% of health issues in the country. 

From heart disease to stroke, the risks associated with elevated cholesterol levels are real and impactful. But fear not! Addressing these challenges head-on can pave the way to a healthier future.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is like the cornerstone of fats, serving as a fundamental building block vital for the proper functioning of our bodies. It circulates in our blood, playing an indispensable role in numerous bodily functions essential for our health and wellbeing. 

From contributing to the structure of cell membranes to serving as a precursor for the synthesis of hormones like estrogen and testosterone, cholesterol is involved in a wide array of critical processes that support our overall health.

What Does Cholesterol Do?

  • Cell Building: Every cell in our body needs cholesterol. It's a key component of cell walls, helping maintain their structure and integrity.
  • Hormone Production: Cholesterol is a building block for hormones like estrogen and testosterone, vital in regulating our body's functions.
  • Nerve Health: Our nerves rely on cholesterol for insulation, ensuring efficient communication between our brain and the rest of our body.
  • Vitamin D Synthesis: Cholesterol helps produce vitamin D, essential for strong bones and overall health.

While cholesterol is essential, too much of it can spell trouble, especially for our heart health. An imbalance in cholesterol levels can increase the risk of heart disease, a leading chronic illness in Australia.

Where Does Cholesterol Come From?

About 75% of the cholesterol in our bodies is produced by the liver, ensuring we have enough for our bodily functions. The rest comes from our food, though smaller than you might think.

Various factors influence our blood cholesterol levels, including our diet, lifestyle choices, body weight, and genetics. Keeping these factors in check can help maintain a healthy cholesterol balance, supporting overall health and well-being.

Healthy Cholesterol Levels

Cholesterol plays a vital role in our bodies, but it's crucial to maintain a healthy balance. Let's break it down into simpler terms:

  • LDL Cholesterol (Low-Density Lipoprotein): This is often referred to as the "bad" cholesterol because high levels of LDL can increase the risk of heart disease. It's like having too much sticky substance in your blood, which can build up in your arteries and cause blockages.
  • HDL Cholesterol (High-Density Lipoprotein): This is the "good" cholesterol because it helps remove LDL cholesterol from your bloodstream, reducing the risk of heart disease. Think of it as a cleaner that sweeps away the sticky LDL and keeps your arteries clear.
  • Triglycerides: These are another type of fat in your blood. While they're not cholesterol, high levels of triglycerides can also increase the risk of heart disease. It's like having too much fuel in your bloodstream, which can clog up your arteries over time.

Research shows that having high LDL cholesterol levels is like having more of that sticky substance in your blood, which can lead to heart disease. On the other hand, having higher levels of HDL cholesterol is like having a helpful cleaner that keeps your arteries clear and reduces your risk of heart disease. Elevated triglyceride levels can also contribute to heart disease risk.

So, maintaining healthy cholesterol levels means keeping your LDL cholesterol low, your HDL cholesterol high, and your triglyceride levels in check. 

Now, let's explore how to achieve this naturally through diet, lifestyle, and supplements.

What's Considered as Normal Cholesterol Levels?

Figuring out what's typical for your cholesterol levels involves considering various factors. Your doctor can help decipher your results and advise you on managing your cholesterol and lowering your risk of heart disease.

General guidelines, like those outlined in the Guidelines for Acute Coronary Syndromes and General Practice Prevention Activities, suggest the following targets for cholesterol levels:

  • Total Cholesterol: Ideally, it should be less than 4.0 mmol/L for those at high risk or less than 5.5 mmol/L for the general population.
  • LDL Cholesterol (the 'bad' kind): Ideally, it should be less than 1.8 mmol/L for high-risk individuals or less than 2.0 mmol/L for everyone else.
  • HDL Cholesterol (the 'good' kind): Ideally greater than 1.0 mmol/L.
  • Triglycerides (another type of fat in your blood): Ideally, less than 2.0 mmol/L.

These guidelines also recommend that anyone with elevated total and LDL cholesterol receive advice on healthy eating and lifestyle changes, usually the first steps in managing cholesterol levels.

Why is High Cholesterol a Problem?

Having too much cholesterol in your bloodstream can cause problems. It can lead to the hardening of your arteries and the buildup of fatty deposits inside them, a condition known as atherosclerosis.

If the arteries leading to your heart get too clogged, it can reduce blood flow to your heart, resulting in symptoms like chest pain, also known as angina. In severe cases, a completely blocked artery can cause a heart attack or stroke, which can be life-threatening.

Heart disease is a significant concern, with heart-related issues accounting for about 30% of all deaths in Australia in 2017, especially among those aged 65 and older.

Who Got Hit the Hardest?

The impact of high cholesterol varies with age and gender. Generally, as people get older, they're more likely to face health issues related to high cholesterol. Interestingly, men aged 25 to 64 had nearly three times the health problems compared to women in the same age group.

High cholesterol had a significant impact, contributing to about 37% of all heart-related health issues in Australia in 2018. Both men and women faced challenges with heart health due to high cholesterol.

Are Things Getting Better?

Thankfully, the burden of high cholesterol-related health issues decreased significantly between 2003 and 2018. This positive trend indicates that efforts to manage and prevent high cholesterol have improved, leading to better heart health outcomes.

The Australian Absolute Risk Calculator is a valuable tool for assessing risk. However, discussing your risk with your GP is essential, as this tool has limitations; for instance, it doesn't consider your family history.

What Causes High Cholesterol?

There are various factors behind high cholesterol levels in the blood. Here's a breakdown:

  1. Unhealthy Diet: Eating foods high in saturated and trans fats, like fried foods, processed meats, and baked goods, can increase LDL cholesterol levels.
  2. Lack of Exercise: Not being physically active can lower HDL cholesterol levels, lead to weight gain, and raise LDL cholesterol levels.
  3. Obesity: Being overweight or obese can result in higher LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol levels.
  4. Smoking: Smoking harms blood vessels, making them more prone to cholesterol buildup and narrowing, increasing the risk of heart disease.
  5. Genetics: Family history and genetics play a significant role in cholesterol levels. Some people inherit genes that cause them to produce too much cholesterol or have trouble processing it.
  6. Age and Gender: Cholesterol levels usually rise, and men typically have higher levels than premenopausal women. However, after menopause, women's levels often equal or surpass men's.
  7. Medical Conditions: Conditions like diabetes, hypothyroidism, and kidney disease can impact cholesterol levels. Certain medications, such as corticosteroids and diuretics, can also influence them.

Understanding these risk factors can empower individuals to make healthier choices and collaborate with healthcare professionals to manage their cholesterol levels.

Naturally Lowering Your Cholesterol

Discover how to naturally maintain healthy cholesterol levels and support heart health through delicious foods, smart choices, and a balanced lifestyle.

Foods That Fuel Your Heart

Let's discover some tasty and nutritious foods that can help maintain healthy cholesterol levels while supporting heart health:

  • Oats: Rich in soluble fibre, like beta-glucan, oats can lower LDL cholesterol levels by binding to cholesterol in the gut, preventing its absorption into the bloodstream. Enjoy a hearty bowl of oatmeal with berries for a delicious and heart-healthy breakfast.
  • Beans and Lentils: Packed with soluble fibre, beans and lentils are great for lowering LDL cholesterol levels. Add beans to soups, salads, or vegetarian chilli, and toss lentils into stews and casseroles for a nutritious boost.
  • Fruit: Apples and oranges are high in pectin, a soluble fibre that can reduce LDL cholesterol levels. Snack on fruits or add them to salads and smoothies for a refreshing, cholesterol-lowering treat.
  • Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, and peanuts are rich in unsaturated fats, fibre, and plant sterols, which help lower LDL cholesterol levels. Munch on a handful of mixed nuts or sprinkle them over salads and yogurt for a heart-healthy boost. Chia seeds and flaxseeds are also excellent omega-3 fatty acids and fibre sources, which can reduce LDL cholesterol levels when added to your diet.
  • Fatty Fish: Salmon, mackerel, and sardines are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which lower triglyceride levels and increase HDL cholesterol levels. Aim to include fatty fish in your meals at least twice a week for optimal heart health.
  • Olive Oil: A staple of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats, which can raise HDL cholesterol levels and lower LDL cholesterol levels. Use olive oil as a healthy cooking oil or drizzle it over salads and veggies for added flavour and heart-healthy benefits.

These foods work wonders for cholesterol levels due to their soluble fibre, unsaturated fats, and other essential nutrients. Soluble fibre binds to cholesterol in the gut and helps remove it from the body, while unsaturated fats boost HDL cholesterol levels and lower LDL cholesterol levels. Plus, omega-3 fatty acids in nuts and fatty fish have anti-inflammatory properties that enhance heart health.

Watch Out for the Bad Guys

It's crucial to watch your intake of saturated and trans fats because they can raise LDL cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease. Here are some familiar sources of these unhealthy fats to keep an eye on in your diet:

Saturated Fats

These fats are primarily found in animal products and certain plant oils. 

Familiar sources of saturated fats include:

  • Fatty cuts of meat: Beef, lamb, and pork contain lots of saturated fat, especially if they have visible fat or are processed (like sausages or bacon).
  • Full-fat dairy products: Whole milk, cheese, butter, and cream are packed with saturated fat. Try low-fat or fat-free dairy options whenever you can.
  • Processed meats: Deli, hot dogs, and sausages often add extra saturated fat and sodium. Choose lean cuts of meat or poultry instead.
  • Palm oil and coconut oil: Although they're plant-based, palm oil and coconut oil are high in saturated fat and often used in processed foods like baked goods and snacks.

Trans Fats

Trans fats are mainly found in processed and fried foods and some natural sources. 

Avoid or cut back on these foods to reduce your trans fats intake: 

  • Margarine and vegetable shortening: Stick margarine and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils contain trans fats and are commonly used in baking and frying.
  • Packaged snacks: Many packaged snacks, like chips, crackers, and cookies, contain trans fats to make them crispy and last longer. Check food labels and choose items with zero trans fat whenever possible.
  • Fried foods: French fries, fried chicken, and doughnuts are usually cooked in oils with trans fats. To lower your trans fat intake, try baked, grilled, or air-fried alternatives.
  • Commercially baked goods: Pastries, pies, and cakes made with shortening or margarine may contain trans fats. Consider homemade or healthier options made with fats like olive oil or avocado.

By paying attention to these sources of saturated and trans fats and opting for healthier choices, you can help lower your LDL cholesterol levels and decrease your risk of heart disease.

Heart-Healthy Drinks

Besides changing your diet, certain drinks can boost heart health and lower cholesterol levels. 

Check out these heart-healthy drinks:

  • Green Tea: Packed with antioxidants called catechins, green tea can reduce LDL cholesterol levels and improve heart health. Sipping green tea regularly may help cut the risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Black Tea: Like green tea, black tea contains antioxidants that improve cholesterol levels and protect against heart disease. Studies suggest regular black tea consumption may lower LDL cholesterol levels and decrease the risk of heart problems.
  • Hibiscus Tea: Made from dried hibiscus petals, this tea boasts a bright red colour and tangy taste. Research indicates that hibiscus tea's antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties may lower LDL cholesterol, triglyceride levels, and blood pressure.

Adding these beverages to your daily routine can boost your heart and help you naturally lower cholesterol levels.

Helpful Supplements

While changing your diet is critical to managing cholesterol levels, certain supplements may offer extra support. Remember, supplements should complement a healthy lifestyle, not replace it or any prescribed medication. 

Here are a few supplements that offer cholesterol-lowering effects:

  • Plant Sterols: Found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, plant sterols block cholesterol absorption in the intestines, lowering LDL cholesterol levels. You can find plant sterol supplements in various forms, like capsules, tablets, and fortified foods.
  • Psyllium Husk: Derived from the seeds of the Plantago ovata plant, psyllium husk is a soluble fibre that forms a gel-like substance in water. It helps reduce LDL cholesterol levels by binding to cholesterol in the digestive tract and promoting removal. Psyllium husk supplements are available in powder or capsule form and can be taken with water or added to food.
  • Fish Oil: Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil supplements offer numerous health benefits, including lowering triglyceride levels and reducing inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids may also raise HDL cholesterol levels and improve heart health. In liquid or capsule form, you can find fish oil supplements derived from oily fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines.

Before starting any supplement regimen, consult a healthcare professional to ensure safety and effectiveness, especially if you have underlying health conditions or take medications.

Get Moving

Exercise is vital for a healthy heart and can improve cholesterol levels, lower heart disease risk, and enhance overall well-being. Here's how exercise can help your cholesterol:

  • Aerobic Exercise: Activities like brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, or dancing can boost HDL cholesterol levels and lower LDL cholesterol levels. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise spread over several days.
  • Strength Training: Resistance exercises such as weightlifting, bodyweight exercises, or using resistance bands help build muscle mass and improve metabolism. Muscle burns more calories at rest than fat, aiding weight management and cholesterol levels. Aim for muscle-strengthening activities two or more days per week, targeting all major muscle groups.
  • Flexibility and Balance: Yoga, Pilates, or tai chi improves flexibility, balance, and coordination, complementing aerobic and strength training exercises. These activities reduce stress, enhance posture, and improve overall physical function, contributing to better heart health and cholesterol management.

Choose activities you enjoy that suit your fitness level and preferences. Consistency is critical, so make physical activity a regular part of your routine for long-term cholesterol management and overall health.

Risks, Warnings, and Things to Know

As you work on lowering your cholesterol, you must know some critical points to keep you on track and healthy.

Potential Risks

While changing your diet and taking supplements can help, some supplements might interact with medications or cause side effects. Always talk to your doctor before trying anything new. If you notice any unusual reactions, seek medical advice right away.

Why Check-Ups Matter

Regular check-ups are crucial for monitoring your progress and ensuring your efforts pay off. Your healthcare provider can do blood tests to check your cholesterol levels and help you adjust your plan as needed. This ongoing support can make a big difference in your cholesterol journey.

Talk to the Experts

Your healthcare team is your best ally in managing your cholesterol naturally. Doctors, dietitians, and other professionals can offer personalised advice and support and answer any questions or concerns you may have. By working together, you can create a plan that's just right for you and your heart.

Keeping Your Cholesterol Balanced, Naturally

Balancing your cholesterol levels naturally involves more than just one thing. It's about making smart choices in your diet, staying active, and considering supplements. With the proper guidance from healthcare professionals, you can give your heart the care it deserves and feel better overall. Just be sure to chat with your doctor before significantly changing your routine.

Related articles