From eggs and meat to popcorn and chocolate, if you’re not sure what will or won’t raise your cholesterol, you’re not alone. Here’s the scoop on common foods and how they affect your cholesterol levels.
If you’re watching your diet in order to lower your cholesterol, it may surprise you that controlling cholesterol is actually more about controlling the kind of fats you eat, not the level of dietary cholesterol in your food. In moderation, eggs don’t do much to thwart cholesterol levels, but buttery popcorn might.
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“Dietary cholesterol in food can increase blood cholesterol, but the biggest culprit is saturated fat,” says dietitian Joan Salge Blake, RD, a clinical associate professor at Boston University and author of Nutrition and You. That’s the kind of fat that stays solid at room temperature. The most obvious sources of saturated fat are fatty meats and full-fat dairy products such as whole milk, butter, and cream. But saturated fat can also hide in unlikely places. The good news is, there are low- and no-saturated-fat options for almost all of these foods to reduce your fat intake and, in turn, your cholesterol.
Bad for Cholesterol or Not?
Here are the most-questioned foods when it comes to high cholesterol:
Cheese. Full-fat cheese delivers a saturated fat wallop in a concentrated package — just a small 1-ounce cube has about 100 calories, most of them from artery-clogging saturated fat. “Choose the reduced, low-fat kind,” advises Blake, who adds that cheese is still a healthy food source of calcium and shouldn’t be banned completely. Look for no-fat cheese that’s 3 grams of fat or less per serving; low or no-fat cottage and ricotta cheeses can substitute for cream cheese on your bagel. And while you’re making these swaps, replace full-fat milk and yogurt with no-fat or 1 percent, and use cholesterol-lowering olive oil instead of butter.
• Eggs. Once labeled bad-cholesterol raisers, eggs are now considered a relatively healthy choice — within limits. A recent study of 40 adults with high cholesterol showed that the cholesterol from one egg a day doesn’t hurt or help heart health. Anything more than one a day probably isn’t a good idea, however. Egg substitute — made from egg whites — would be a healthier choice if you’re craving a big omelet. “The cholesterol is in the yolk,” explains Blake. One egg contains about 186 milligrams of dietary cholesterol, which is just over half of the 300 mg daily limit. Of the benefits, Blake says, “eggs are versatile, inexpensive, a good source of protein, and can be included in any meal of the day.” Egg whites, on the other hand, you can eat in just about unlimited quantities. They contain no cholesterol and only about 15 calorie
• Meat. You don’t have to lose your taste for red meat to lower cholesterol. A daily small serving — about 5.5 ounces — of lean beef can lower bad LDL cholesterol by about five percent, according to a small study that compared the effects different amounts of red meat in the diets of 36 people with high cholesterol. Taking a varied approach to protein makes the most sense, says Blake: “Two fish meals a week has been shown to reduce heart disease risk,” she says. Always stick to healthy portion sizes — you need just 5 to 7 ounces of protein a day.
• Coconut oil. You may know someone who swears by coconut oil. But the trendy vegetable-based oil is a poor choice for people who are watching their cholesterol. Blake points out that coconut oil, though it sounds healthy, it actually one of the oils that is high in saturated fat. She recommends almost any other vegetable or nut oil, such as cholesterol-lowering olive oil. Other good choices are safflower, canola, and peanut. “I like to switch them up,” she says.
• Buttery popcorn. Popcorn is a totally innocent victim in this scenario, says Blake, who likes it air-popped as a healthy snack. But if you slather it with real butter or use a commercial product with fake butter, chances are it’s going to up your cholesterol. Sprinkle on your own herbs or spices to add flavor power to plain popcorn. And if you do buy microwave popcorn, check the ingredients label because some brands have saturated fat, even if they’ve removed the trans-fat.
• Chocolate. Dark chocolate in small amounts (about a half-ounce) is actually good for your heart: Studies show that flavonoid-rich cocoa (a key ingredient in chocolate and hot chocolate) lowers “bad” LDL cholesterol and raises “good” HDL cholesterol. But, cautions Blake, “chocolate is not a food group.” Chocolate is a high-calorie food that has both saturated and unsaturated fat, so don’t overindulge.
• Soda. Already in trouble for contributing to excess weight, sugar-sweetened beverages may increase cholesterol, too, according to research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism. An analysis of health information and soda consumption from 18,770 adults in Norway found that the more sodas people had, the higher their LDL (bad) cholesterol and the lower their HDL (good) cholesterol.
Sometimes, says Blake, simple changes are the best strategy to improve your cholesterol levels.
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