What you eat can improve your cholesterol levels and heart health as much as what you don’t. Foods such as nuts, grains, fruits, vegetables and oils contain beneficial compounds including plant sterols, soluble fiber and monounsaturated fats. When these foods are included in a low saturated fat, low cholesterol diet, they can lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Today, you can buy spreads, salad dressings and yogurts that have been fortified with plant sterols and other heart-healthy fats and fibers. You also can find many foods that contain these components naturally. Here are some old favorites and some new additions to the list of heart-healthy foods:
Out of all nuts, almonds have the most research behind their cholesterol-lowering benefits. Eating a combination of heart-healthy foods that includes just a handful of almonds daily can help reduce LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol levels as much as cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Avocados contain heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and beta-sitosterol, a plant sterol that has cholesterol-lowering properties. People who consume a diet high in avocado for seven days may lower their total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides significantly while raising “good” HDL cholesterol.
Years of well-conducted studies have established that beans promote heart health. Researchers from Arizona State University found significant reductions in total and LDL cholesterol in people who simply added pinto beans to their diet. A study of 16,000 middle-age men from around the world found that those who consumed the most beans and legumes had an incredible 82 percent reduction in risk of heart disease.
Cocoa flavanols help reduce the risk of clotting and protect the inside lining of arteries that feed the heart. Cocoa also has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol and reduce high blood pressure. Some chocolate products now have plant sterols added.
Cinnamon may help reduce harmful fats in the blood and lessen the chance of blood clots forming. The results of a study showed that relatively small amounts of cinnamon per day, about 1 teaspoon, can lower blood sugar, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol in diabetics.
Grapes contain heart protective qualities in both the flesh and the skin. Phytochemicals, such as resveratrol, caffeic acid, caftaric acid and coutaric acid, can be found in abundance in both white and red grape varieties. Drinking Concord grape juice can raise good cholesterol and slow down the oxidation of more harmful LDL cholesterol in the arteries.
More than 40 clinical studies spanning 40 years confirm oats’ ability to fight heart disease. Eating three grams of soluble fiber from oats daily, basically 1½ cups of cooked oatmeal, can lower total and LDL cholesterol. This may be due to the beta glucan component of the soluble fiber.
The allyl sulfides found in onions decrease the tendency of blood clots to form, and significantly lower total and LDL cholesterol levels. A study of Japanese women found that those with the highest onion intake had the lowest LDL cholesterol. University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers found that the stronger-tasting and -smelling onions made blood platelets less sticky, thus reducing risk of plaque formation, cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke.
Pistachios are loaded with four heart-healthy substances—phytosterols, vitamin E, L-arginine and monounsaturated fat—that can lower total and LDL cholesterol and increase HDL levels.
Consuming yogurt for four weeks can improve LDL/HDL cholesterol ratios. Researchers also found that yogurt lowers homocysteine levels, an inflammatory risk factor for heart disease. Several yogurt products on the market now have plant sterols added to them for even more cholesterol-reducing power.