September is National Cholesterol Education Month: How to lower bad cholesterol by improving your diet

Jill Fleming ... Submitted photo.

by Jill Fleming, RN/RD,
Dietitian at Veterans Memorial Hospital

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance found in the fats in your blood. Too much cholesterol can cause a build-up in your blood vessels, causing them to narrow and close. This process increases your risk for heart disease or stroke.

If you’ve been told your cholesterol is too high, it usually means your total cholesterol is greater than 200mg/dl and your LDL (low density lipoprotein) or “bad cholesterol” is higher than the recommended level of 130mg/dl. If you have additional risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, you want your LDL cholesterol to be less than 100mg/dl.

How can I lower my LDL with food?
To naturally lower your LDL cholesterol, you will want to make a few changes to your daily diet.  Begin by choosing healthier fats, such as those coming from whole foods like nuts, seeds, avocados and olives. Decreasing your intake of animal fats and fried foods to less than two servings per week will help lower your bad cholesterol.

An important addition to your diet to improve your cholesterol level is fiber.  Dietary fiber is the carbohydrate in plants that your body cannot digest. Fiber does more than just keep your bowels regular. Fiber can also keep your blood sugar stable and make it easier to lose weight, as it helps you feel full.

Most Americans are not eating enough fiber, with the goal of 25-30 grams daily.  The two types of fiber are soluble and insoluble fiber.  Both come from plants and are forms of carbohydrates. While both types of fiber are important for your body, soluble fiber is the fiber which will help lower your LDL cholesterol.

Most plants contain both insoluble and soluble fiber but are usually richer in one type than the other. The easiest way to tell them apart: Soluble fiber absorbs water, turning into a gel-like mush (think of what happens when you add water to oatmeal) while insoluble fiber doesn’t (think of what happens when you add water to celery).

Where do I find Soluble Fiber?
Foods rich in soluble fiber include oats, oatmeal, black beans, lima beans, kidney beans, ground flax seeds, sunflower seeds, hazel nuts, carrots, apricots, brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes, pears, nectarines, figs, apples, blueberries and psyllium husks.

Inside your digestive system, soluble fiber attaches to cholesterol particles and then takes them out of your body. This helps reduce total and LDL cholesterol levels and your risk of heart disease. Oatmeal and black beans may offer the most heart protection.

How does soluble fiber provide diabetes and heart disease protection?
Because soluble fiber isn’t well absorbed, it doesn’t contribute to the blood sugar spikes that can put you at risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. If you already have diabetes (either type 1 or type 2), soluble fiber can even help keep your condition under control.

Soluble fiber is great for your gut and overall health, reducing your risk of heart disease by lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol and helping you balance your blood sugar levels. If you want to increase your soluble fiber intake, it is best to start slowly and build it up gradually. Increasing your fiber intake too quickly can cause stomach bloating and gas.

It’s also very important to drink plenty of water. This will help the soluble fiber form a gel, which aids digestion. Without enough water being consumed, you may end up constipated.  Drinking at least 64 ounces of water daily is a great start for most people. You will know you are drinking enough water when your urine is pale yellow and non-cloudy.

For more information about cholesterol and your diet, contact Dietitian Jill Fleming at Veterans Memorial Hospital at 563-568-3411, Ext. 567, or check out the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics at

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