Our theme this month is heart health. To have a healthy heart, you need to have a healthy level of cholesterol in your blood – too much and you can start to experience heart problems. In our detox and weight loss article this month, I’m taking a look at what cholesterol is and make suggestions about some of the best foods to include in your diet to lower your cholesterol. By making some simple swaps to your diet, you could achieve a healthy cholesterol level, supporting your heart. At the same time, by eating a more plant-based diet you are more likely to reach your healthy weight.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a type of fat found in your blood that we need for many normal bodily functions. It’s made by the liver and found in some foods. Cholesterol is part of the outer layer of every cell in your body (the cell membrane), which is needed to keep the cells stable. It helps to produce vitamin D, make the hormones that maintain our bones, muscles and teeth and is needed to produce bile. (Bile is made by the liver, then travels to our intestine where it is needed to digest the fats that we consume in our diet).
Health problems and disease can occur when cholesterol gets too high and the body just can’t manage it.
There are three things to be aware of when talking about cholesterol:
- total cholesterol – this is the overall amount of cholesterol in your blood. It’s made up of LDL and HDL. Total cholesterol is the number most doctors give you when you have a cholesterol test.
- low density lipoprotein – LDL – this is sometimes referred to as “bad” cholesterol. LDL carries cholesterol to the cells that need them, so our body does need some LDL. The problem occurs when there is too much of it.
- high density lipoprotein – HDL – also referred to as “good” cholesterol. HDL’s job is to take cholesterol back to the liver, for it to be processed and removed from your body. You want to have a good level of HDL in your blood.
LDL and HDL exist in a balance. Some foods contain lots of HDL, so including them in your diet can help to lower your cholesterol or maintain a healthy level. Other foods contain high levels of LDL, and it’s these items that generally you should look to minimise in your diet.
How does cholesterol affect your heart?
Too much cholesterol in the blood can directly affect your heart, it can block your blood vessels and cause strokes and heart disease. Doctors recommend that lowering your cholesterol can help to decrease your risk (chance) of having a heart attack or stroke.
High levels of total cholesterol are caused by an unhealthy lifestyle: a combination of eating too much fatty foods, smoking, being overweight, not exercising enough and drinking alcohol. There is also a condition, caused by a particular gene, that means high cholesterol can run in a family. Cholesterol levels also tend to increase with age.
Foods to eat to lower your cholesterol
The main way you can manage your cholesterol levels through your diet is in these five areas:
- Increase soluble fibre
- Ensure you have a good intake of omega 3
- Reduce saturated fats (typically found in meat and dairy)
- Cut out trans fats (typically found in processed foods, takeaways and cakes, biscuits and snacks)
- Reduce sugary foods
Fibre helps to block some cholesterol being absorbed in your gut into the blood stream. Most fruit and vegetables tend to be high in fibre, contain low amounts of fat (if any), are low in calories, naturally low in salt (and sodium), plus have lots of vitamins and minerals needed by your heart and body to stay healthy. So including more in your diet brings many health benefits.
Omega 3 is a type of unsaturated fatty acid that the body needs but is unable to produce itself. This means we need to get it from our diet. It’s known to help reduce inflammation and most scientists suggest that it can help to prevent coronary heart disease and reduce strokes. Omega 3 particularly helps to raise HDL. Most people living in Western societies eat too much omega 6 and not enough omega 3. Too much omega 6 (and not enough omega 3) can cause heart problems and strokes. You can find high levels of omega 6 in many corn-, soybean- or vegetable-oils that are used in producing processed foods. Animals tend to be fed grain-based feed (which tends to include corn or soy) so meat products can be higher in omega 6 fats. We suggest that you focus more on increasing your omega 3 intake, rather than reducing omega 6 – ideally, you are looking for a balance.
Most fruits and vegetables are great to include in your diet to help lower your cholesterol, but these listed below are particularly beneficial for your heart health:
- Oats: contain beta glucan (a type of fibre), which helps to limit the absorption of cholesterol from your gut into your blood stream. (When you eat oats, the beta glucan forms a gel in your tummy. This binds the cholesterol and bile together, so less cholesterol is absorbed into your blood stream. So, it reduces LDL cholesterol. It also means that the liver needs to create more bile, so uses more cholesterol from your blood to do this, further lowering your blood cholesterol). We suggest eating oats once a day, as porridge, in a smoothie or in our lovely banana, nut, seed and oat cookies.
- Berries: berries are nutritional powerhouses and MORE. We love to include them sometimes in our juices, like this lovely berry juice Berry Beat or Vibrant health berry juice recipe.
- Nuts and seeds: particularly walnuts, almonds and flaxseeds. These three items in particular are great plant-based sources of omega 3. You can sprinkle nuts and seeds onto your salads, breakfast porridge, add flaxseed into your juice or simply snack on a handful of nuts, to reap the benefits.
- Green veggies, like broccoli, kale and spinach, are all great sources of fibre and have an anti-inflammatory effect on your whole body, including your heart and blood vessels. Try our lovely broccoli, tofu and cashew nut stir fry recipe. You could consider swapping the cashew nuts for almonds or walnuts. These green veggies are also great to add into a juice. Most of us, when we cook broccoli, we tend to trim off the thick stem – this is the perfect part of the broccoli to add to your juice.
- Avocado: Avocados are a great source of monounsaturated fat, the good type of fat that the body needs to lower blood pressure and protect the heart. They also contain oleic acid, which has been linked to lowering cholesterol levels. Avocados are quite high in calories (most of the calories come from the fat content), so we recommend keeping to half an avocado a day, particularly if you are looking to lose weight. This portion counts as one of your five a day. You can include avocado in any of the juices. You might also like to try our quick and easy broccoli, rosemary and avocado dip recipe, giving your heart health and cholesterol a helping hand!
- Legumes and pulses, like lentils, beans and chickpeas: these are all fantastic sources of fibre, in addition to potassium and lots of other vitamins and minerals needed by the heart for healthy functioning. If you need inspiration, there are lots of recipes on our health and wellbeing blog – use the search box for “food recipes” or type the word into the search box.
- Wholegrains, including brown rice: help to reduce LDL, which in turn helps to reduce overall cholesterol levels. They are also a great source of fibre and help to maintain healthy blood pressure. We suggest including a source of wholegrains in your daily diet. The nutrients in wholegrains help to contribute to overall health, in addition to bringing benefits to your heart. We know some of our guests are concerned about eating too many carbs – we cover this in our earlier article: what are good carbohydrates to include in a plant-based diet.
Juicing is a great way to increase the amount of raw fruit and veggies that you consume on a daily basis. In this month’s juice article we share La Crisalida’s top five juice recipes for heart health for ideas and recipes.
Changing your diet to incorporate more fruit and vegetables will also help to bring about weight loss (for those people who are overweight) or to maintain a healthy weight. There are a few simple swaps that you can make at home to reduce saturated fats. For example, drink oat milk, instead of dairy milk. Replace saturated fats (like butter) with unsaturated fats, including vegetable oils, like olive oil, sunflower oil, seed or nut oils. Start by making small changes and get consistent with that. Once you have created a new habit (and you start noticing the benefits), make the next small change. Over time, these small changes add up!
Other things to do to lower your cholesterol
Reducing cholesterol through the foods that you eat is just one part of the lifestyle changes that you need to make. Other steps include:
- Take regular exercise. Walking, rebounding, dancing or exercise classes are all great ideas. A regular yoga practice can also help with this – read Amanda’s yoga article this month how yoga can benefit the heart.
- Reduce or stop smoking.
- Reduce or stop drinking alcohol.
- Reduce stress. Read more about how stress affects your heart in Tania’s article.
- Get better sleep.
- Lose weight (if you are overweight).
Remember, please speak to a doctor or medical practitioner if you are concerned about high cholesterol. You can ask your doctor for a blood test to check your cholesterol levels (total, LDL and HDL), and some pharmacists also offer finger-prick testing. People with high blood pressure and diabetes might be checked regularly anyhow. We also suggest that you speak to a medical practitioner before making large scale changes to your lifestyle.
If you want to find out more, there is a charity in the UK which has lots of information: Heart UK (external link).
Book a detox and weight loss retreat
Coming on a retreat will help you to make some of the dietary changes outlines above. At the same time, the change in environment will help to reduce stress levels and get better sleep. Book your La Crisalida detox and weight loss retreat
About the author
- Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).