In understanding the right foods for lower cholesterol we need to also understand which foods have high cholesterol levels and therefore should be avoided or minimized in our diet.
The main food sources of dietary cholesterol are animal and dairy products. The fats within these foods contain considerable cholesterol and should therefore be minimized or taken sparingly. But it is important to remember that not all fats are bad, and we must have some fats in our diet in order to fulfill our body’s energy needs. Some fats are good and some fats are bad in terms of cholesterol.
Basically fats can be broken down into two main categories – saturated and unsaturated.
Saturated fats are the ones that carry the cholesterol and therefore should be minimized or used sparingly in our diet. These are primarily the fats from animal and dairy products.
Unsaturated fats, found in vegetable oils, on the other hand support the beneficial balance of cholesterol and are generally good for us to eat, with one very notable exception. That exception is trans fats which is the result of a process (called hydrogenation) applied to vegetable oils that turns them into semi-solid fats from their original liquid state. Trans fats are typically found in margarines, fried foods, and processed foods. Trans fats are doubly bad in that they will increase LDL (the bad cholesterol) and also decrease HDL (the good cholesterol), and therefore should be avoided.
The unsaturated fats (also referred to as unsaturated fatty acids) can be further broken down into two major groups – polyunsaturated and monounsaturated.
Within the polyunsaturated group are Omega-6 (linoleic acid) and Omega-3 (alpha-linoleic acid). In fact these are also called essential fatty acids, meaning they are essential to our well being. Our body requires them to support many biological processes. They cannot be manufactured within the body and therefore must be part of our diet.
Omega-6 fatty acids are found in vegetable oils, such as sunflower, safflower, soybean, corn and cottonseed, and therefore will be present to some extent in all foods cooked in those oils. Omega-6 has the effect of lowering LDL (the bad cholesterol). However some studies have suggested that it may also lower HDL (the good cholesterol).
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in oily fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, kippers, trout, fresh tuna and sardines and are excellent foods for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. Omega-3 may also be found in oils from seeds, e.g. linseed, soya, walnut, and rapeseed. It is also present in meat from grass-fed animals and vegetables of the green leafy variety such as spinach.
In terms of the polyunsaturated group my own recommendation is that you try to reduce the intake of Omega-6 and increase the intake of Omega-3 such that you maintain a ratio in the range of 1:1 up to 4:1 between Omega-6 and Omega-3. It is not uncommon for some people to have a ratio of 30:1 mainly as a result of eating too many processed foods. Although both may lower LDL (the bad cholesterol), Omega-3 unlike Omega-6 does not carry the risk of lowering HDL (the good cholesterol).
The monounsaturated fats are found mainly in olive oil, sesame oil, avocado, nuts, canola oil and rapeseed oil, and are excellent for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. They will lower LDL (the bad cholesterol) and unlike the Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats they will not lower HDL (the good cholesterol).
So it becomes very clear that the foods to be wary of in our diet if we wish to control and manage our cholesterol levels are the saturated and trans fats. It is also clear that there are foods within the unsaturated fats which we must consume to achieve healthy cholesterol levels.
A final caution is that although the various unsaturated vegetable cooking oils maybe okay, if they are heated beyond the extent they become discolored or start to smoke they can transform into trans fats and therefore adversely affect your cholesterol levels. So it is important to avoid over heating and re-using cooking oils as part of your strategy for foods for lower cholesterol and managing your cholesterol level.