I get asked lots of questions from my blog readers about lowering cholesterol, so I thought it would be helpful to put the most commonly asked questions into one blog post, along with my answers. So here goes.
1. Can I really lower my cholesterol without medication?
In short, yes. In 2016 I reduced my cholesterol significantly in just 6 weeks without medication, just by adjusting my diet (and not too dramatically either). And I’ve kept it low ever since.
When I realised my cholesterol was way too high I was determined to try adjusting my diet as a first step, as there are lots of potential side effects of cholesterol-lowering medication like statins (see this blog post for details). If that hadn’t worked, then I might have considered the medication route, but thankfully it did work and if I’m honest it wasn’t too difficult.
I’ve read about lots of other success stories like mine and there’s tons of scientific evidence backing it up, so I do believe that anyone could do it. Saying that though there may be individual cases that I’m not aware of where people have no choice other than to go on medication.
I’m not a medical or nutritional expert, but I’d highly recommend trying to lower your cholesterol naturally for at least 3 months before considering the various medication options. These blog posts may help you get started:-
2. What exactly is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that occurs naturally in the body. It plays a vital role in how every cell works and makes its way around the body in molecules called lipoproteins.
There are two kinds of lipoprotein that are particularly important:-
LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol)
LDL stands for Low Density Lipoprotein. It is considered ‘bad’ cholesterol because having high levels can lead to plaque buildup in your arteries, which can result in heart disease.
HDL (‘good’ cholesterol)
HDL stands for High Density Lipoprotein. It is referred to as ‘good’ cholesterol because experts believe that it carries bad cholesterol away from the arteries, returning it to the liver to be eliminated.
You should aim to eat lots of foods that lower your bad cholesterol (LDL) and also foods that increase your good cholesterol (HDL).
3. Where can I get my cholesterol tested?
In the UK you can get a free cholesterol test done through the NHS if you are over 40 and/or at high risk. Alternatively you can get it done at Lloyds pharmacy as part of their ‘Cholesterol And Heart Check Service’ (£15):-
A blood sample is taken, either using a needle and a syringe or by pricking your finger, that will be used to determine the amount of LDL, HDL and triglycerides (other fatty substances) in your blood.
4. What should my cholesterol level ideally be?
Here are the UK cholesterol guidelines (i.e. your total cholesterol should ideally be below 5.1 mmol/L):-
(Note, the figures shown here are based on mmol/L)
In the United States, cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood. The general US guidelines state that your total cholesterol should ideally be below 200 mg/dL.
5. Which foods lower cholesterol?
Here’s a list of the top cholesterol-lowering foods, and how much you should eat on a daily basis (I try to eat at least 3 of these foods every day):-
- Oats – 2/3 of a cup
- Ground flaxseeds – 1 or 2 tbsp
- Other seeds – 1 or 2 tbsp
- Apples – 1 or 2
- Beans or chickpeas – 1/2 a cup
- Almonds/walnuts – 12 nuts
- Soya products – 1 or 2 servings
- Plant sterols/stanols – 2 grams
I wouldn’t recommend completely overhauling your existing diet, but instead I’d make small tweaks here and there, gradually adding more of these foods to your daily diet. Easing gently into it should help you maintain it in the long term.
Here are some easy ways to include cholesterol-lowering foods in your meals and snacks:-
- Eat porridge or muesli for breakfast with added nuts.
- Snack on oatcakes with toppings.
- Add ground flaxseeds to pancakes, curriesand houmous.
- Sprinkle toasted seeds on salads and vegetables.
- Eat baked beans on toast or on a baked potato.
- Snack on houmous or roasted chickpeas.
- Spread almond/peanut butter on toast or eat with apple slices.
- Eat soya yoghurt with berries and seeds.
- Have a Benecol/ProActiv yoghurt drink with your main meal.
6. What else can I do to lower my cholesterol?
Reducing the amount of saturated fat in your diet will also help to lower your cholesterol. Look at food nutrition labels when you’re out grocery shopping and choose mainly foods that have less than 1.5g of saturated fat per 100g. They will show as green on traffic light food labels. This blog post explains more about saturated fat and gives suggestions on how to reduce the amount in your diet.
Research has shown that increasing the amount of exercise you do can also help to lower your cholesterol. I personally didn’t increase the amount the exercise I did when I lowered my cholesterol, but I was already fairly active (nothing too strenuous though – mainly long walks with the dog).
7. Which foods increase ‘good’ cholesterol?
As well as eating lots of foods that lower ‘bad’ cholesterol, try to eat foods that increase ‘good’ cholesterol. Here are some examples:-
- Olive oil
- Brown rice
- Oily fish like salmon
See this blog post for tips on how to incorporate these foods into your daily diet.
8. Does this mean I have to give up all of my favourite foods?!
Definitely not! I follow the 80:20 rule, meaning I try to stick to eating foods that are low in saturated fat and/or foods that lower cholesterol for 80% of the time, and then eat anything I wanted in the other 20%. My 20% time is mostly all about buttered croissants, bacon butties, cheeseburgers, pork belly with crackling, pizzas, spaghetti carbonara, steak, triple cooked fries, chocolate brownies and ice cream.
Ensuring I have this 20% time means I don’t ever feel deprived, and makes it a lot easier for me to stick to low cholesterol eating the rest of the time.
I prefer to spread the 20% time out across the week rather than combining it into one day, because it means I have something to look forward to every couple of days, and to be honest I actually don’t feel that great if I eat too many high fat foods in one day. Saying that though, if I’m on holiday (which includes the Christmas period), I tend to go all out and eat whatever I want. You only live once after all!
Here’s the diet plan that reduced my cholesterol last year in just 6 weeks – you’ll see that it includes a meal every other day where I ate whatever I liked. This may not work for everyone, especially if you’ve been advised that you should avoid high fat foods altogether (see note below), but it works for me as I’ve stayed on track and have managed to keep my LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) levels low and my HDL (‘good’ cholesterol) levels high ever since.
Also (and I never thought I’d say this!) there are actually loads of recipes for cholesterol-friendly meals that taste great, so I don’t really feel that deprived in my 80% time anymore. If you don’t believe me, try these:-
- French Toast with Maple Syrup
- Pancake with Yoghurt & Berries
- Salted Chocolate Nutty Oatcakes
- Chinese Sweet & Sour Chicken
- Italian Beef Meatballs
- Super-Quick Fish Curry
- Salted Chocolate Chia Truffles
- Flourless Chocolate Muffins
Note:- There are a few conditions that cause people to have more difficulty in clearing triglycerides (a form of dietary fat found in meat, dairy produce and cooking oils) from their blood after eating a fatty meal. High triglyceride levels can result in low HDL (‘good’ cholesterol) levels, so if you have one of these conditions, your doctor may advise against eating fatty foods altogether. For more information on triglycerides and the associated conditions, click here.
9. Should I avoid eggs if I have high cholesterol?
It was once thought that those with high cholesterol should avoid eggs completely because they contain a lot of cholesterol. But the general consensus now is that the cholesterol found in food has much less of an effect on blood cholesterol than the amount of saturated fat you eat.
Some experts do however seem to agree that those with a history of high cholesterol should still eat eggs in moderation (i.e. 2-6 a week), and make sure they are balancing them with low cholesterol foods. I’m still not quite sure what to believe, so I tend to stick to these guidelines. When I do eat eggs I try to eat just one at a time (or two eggs whites and one yolk, because the whites are cholesterol-free). My absolute favourite one-yolk breakfast recipes are these:-
Saying that though, if I’m having boiled eggs, I always have two (one is never enough!), and won’t have any more eggs for the rest of the day. I also try to avoid eating other high fat foods on those days. This isn’t backed by any scientific research, but I feel like it gives my body the balance it needs.
For more information on eggs and cholesterol read this blog post.
10. What are the best margarines/spreads for a cholesterol diet?
Unfortunately butter and a lot of margarines and spreads are high in saturated fat, which can increase cholesterol, but there are a few options that can fit into a cholesterol-lowering diet:-
- Olive/vegetable oil based spreads
- Cholesterol-reducing spreads
- Light/low fat spreads
I wrote this blog post about these different cholesterol-friendly margarines and spreads, which should help you decide which option works best for you. And one more thing – make sure you avoid anything that contains trans fats (found in hydrogenated oils), as they can raise your cholesterol levels.