Hi, Chuck. High cholesterol levels run in my family. Any natural remedies? – Paisley H., Caldwell, Idaho

Cholesterol is a fatlike substance that is found throughout the body. The liver makes it, but we also can get it from foods such as meat, eggs, cheese, butter and milk. Cholesterol aids the production of vitamin D, testosterone, estrogen and other things our bodies need.

Eating lots of foods high in cholesterol can increase your cholesterol levels, but the real killer is when those are combined with high-fat foods, particularly bad fats, such as saturated and trans fats. Together they create lipoproteins. Low-density lipoprotein carries “bad” cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein carries “good” cholesterol.

Though we need cholesterol to function, too much LDL cholesterol in our bloodstream is bad, hence its nickname. It sticks to the sides of our arteries and leads to atherosclerosis. High cholesterol levels usually are acquired from a family history of it, being overweight or eating lots of foods that are high in saturated fat.

The Harvard School of Public Health reported that “Dutch researchers conducted an analysis of 60 trials that examined the effects of carbohydrates and various fats on blood lipid levels. In trials in which polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats were eaten in place of carbohydrates, these good fats decreased levels of harmful LDL and increased protective HDL. More recently, a randomized trial known as the Optimal Macronutrient Intake Trial for Heart Health (OmniHeart) showed that replacing a carbohydrate-rich diet with one rich in unsaturated fat, predominantly monounsaturated fats, lowers blood pressure, improves lipid levels, and reduces the estimated cardiovascular risk.”

If you have high levels of cholesterol, you may need to take medicine to lower it. But you also can help to lower and maintain healthy cholesterol levels by exercising more and eating more fruits and vegetables. A low-saturated fat, low-sodium, low-cholesterol diet will go far in creating a better you.

Here are eight actual foods you can eat to lower or better control your cholesterol levels:

  • Fruits and vegetables. All animal foods have cholesterol, but plant foods do not. Their fiber and nutrients help to lower LDL cholesterol levels. Many (including apples, berries, carrots and prunes) are rich in soluble fiber. Flavoproteins and phytonutrients (meaning “plant chemicals”) are in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, too, and help maintain healthy blood vessels. Polyphenols are natural plant antioxidants and protect the body against free radicals, which cause aging and result in a host of detrimental effects in the cardiovascular system and the brain.
  • Fish. Fish, particularly salmon, is a great source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Eating fish twice weekly, especially if substituted for other meats, can reduce blood clotting and inflammation of the arteries.
  • Oats/oatmeal. Oats contain soluble fiber, which reduces bad cholesterol. The Mayo Clinic reports: “Soluble fiber can reduce the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream. Five to 10 grams or more of soluble fiber a day decreases your total and LDL cholesterol. Eating 1 1/2 cups of cooked oatmeal provides 6 grams of fiber. If you add fruit, such as bananas, you’ll add about 4 more grams of fiber.”
  • Flaxseed. Flaxseeds are great sources of fiber, too, and contain omega-3s and phytochemicals called lignins. Last year, ScienceDaily reported on a study from Iowa State University’s Nutrition and Wellness Research Center, which concluded that men with high cholesterol who consumed three tablespoons of flaxseed lignins per day decreased their cholesterol levels.
  • Nuts. Eating a daily handful of almonds or walnuts helps to lower LDL cholesterol. They even are marketed now in small packages to keep them fresh. The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter says: “The monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in nuts help lower cholesterol, especially when substituted for sources of saturated fat, such as meat or cheese. Moreover, certain phytochemicals in nuts, such as sterols, may inhibit cholesterol absorption. Studies have found that eating 2 to 4 ounces of nuts a day has a significant effect; one found that a mere 8 to 11 walnuts a day reduced cholesterol levels by 4 percent. But remember, nuts are calorie-dense.”
  • Beans. All types – black, kidney, lima, etc. Again, the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter notes that studies show that eating as little as 4 ounces daily can lower LDL cholesterol significantly.
  • Soy foods. Though some soy foods have been shown to contain significant amounts of tyramine, which can promote migraines, they also aid in reducing bad cholesterol levels. In the April 2007 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Francene Steinberg, Ph.D., of the University of California, Davis wrote: “The cholesterol-lowering effect of soy is directly related to soy protein and other soy components, and not only to its low saturated fat content. The science has not explained the exact mechanism by which soy improves cholesterol, but there is a clear benefit of including soy protein in a healthy diet.”
  • Dark chocolate. Though cocoa is no earth-shattering cholesterol reducer, if you’re going to choose a dessert, choose dark chocolate. The California Academy of Sciences reported that dark chocolate has high levels of stearic acid, which does not raise bad cholesterol, and oleic acid, which may raise good cholesterol levels.

Everyone should have his cholesterol levels checked periodically by a physician. For those with high cholesterol levels, cholesterol intake should be no more than 200 milligrams daily. People with normal cholesterol levels should limit cholesterol intake to no more than 300 milligrams daily.

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