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Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of the major chronic diseases and cause of death worldwide. It is estimated that approximately 92.1 million American adults have at least one type of cardiovascular disease, including a history of heart attack, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), or stroke. Most heart and blood vessel diseases are caused by a buildup of a waxy, fatty substance called cholesterol. When total cholesterol and/or LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol is high, it creates a narrower path for blood to and from the heart, increasing the risk of high blood pressure, heart valve problems, chest pain and other issues. High cholesterol is an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease, including a certain type of cardiovascular disease called atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD).

Some people are prone to high cholesterol due to a genetic condition called “familial hypercholesterolemia,” but most of us can control our cholesterol levels by regularly following these six healthy eating habits.

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Protein doesn’t just mean meat, poultry or fish. It also means consuming a generous amount of plant-based protein like beans, lentils, soybeans, peas like black-eyed peas or split peas, and unsalted nuts and seeds with meals and snacks. Most of us should strive to get half or more of our protein choices from plants, and most of that amount from minimally processed plant protein. Try opting for a lentil patty over a “beef-like” meat substitute for your next burger, or nutritional yeast over non-dairy “cheese graters” on your pasta dish.

whole grain bread
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Whole grains include all parts of the grain kernel: the bran, endosperm, and germ. These cereal layers all contribute unique and important nutrition to our diet. Unfortunately, refined grains (not whole grains) have removed at least one of these layers during processing and probably only the starchy endosperm layer remains. Luckily, there are tasty whole grain choices like oatmeal, whole grain spaghetti, whole wheat bread, quinoa, or brown rice that easily replace the classic refined options that might normally be eaten. Eating whole grains is associated with better managed cholesterol levels, and grains like oats and barley contain soluble fiber to directly help lower total cholesterol levels.

avocado, nuts and oil
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Although cholesterol is a fat-like substance, we still need to include fat in our diet! However, choosing the right types of fat should be the focus. A higher proportion of healthy fats from unsaturated fat sources like nuts and nut butter, seeds, canola oil, olive oil and avocado rather than unhealthy saturated fat sources like tropical oils (coconut oil, palm oil, etc.), hydrogenated oils, or high-fat meat and dairy products, has been shown in research to lead to better cholesterol results.

Fruits and vegetables
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Hopefully this is not new news that eating fruits and vegetables is beneficial to our health. And achieving an ideal cholesterol level is no stranger to this recommendation. Most adults should consume at least three servings of fruits and vegetables a day to control blood cholesterol, and the hope is that we will achieve this goal by eating a mixture of several kinds of fruits and vegetables.

Eating fruit tends to be easier for most of us because it is sweet, making it a good snack option or even an easy addition to dessert. Vegetables can be more difficult. Try incorporating more vegetables by adding them to the things you already like. Try topping your favorite sandwich with extra lettuce, tomato, onion, and cucumber, or toss some broccoli into your mac and cheese.

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It’s often handy to turn to sugary (and caffeinated!) beverages as a pick-me-up throughout the day. However, excess added sugar can play a role in raising our cholesterol. Water should be the first beverage we strive to sip, but other tasty and appropriate beverage choices include flavored seltzer waters, tea or coffee unsweetened or sweetened with a sugar substitute, juices 100% unsweetened smoothies or fruit infused water. .

salmon and vegetables
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General abuse equates to a calorie surplus. This results in weight gain if caloric intake is greater than our caloric needs and we are not expending those calories through exercise. Portion control can have a major impact on maintaining a healthy weight and reducing the risk of high cholesterol.

Learn more about how to lower cholesterol by reading The #1 Best Smoothie for Lowering Cholesterol, Says Dietitian and The Best Breakfast Habits for Lowering Cholesterol, Says Dietitian.

Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD

Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD, is a nationally recognized dietitian. Read more