Healthy Fats That Fight Cholesterol

If you're reading this, your doctor has probably told you that your cholesterol levels are too high. Maybe she put you on a medication to help lower cholesterol or simply told you to consume less cholesterol-containing foods. No matter what you are doing to manage your high cholesterol, the big picture of "cholesterol" is pretty complex.

Since your body makes about 80 percent of its cholesterol, the other 20 percent comes from the foods you eat. Dietary cholesterol is only found in foods of animal origin, such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. All individuals (and especially people with high cholesterol levels) should limit their intake of dietary cholesterol to less than 300 milligrams daily. But, as you'll soon learn, limiting your dietary cholesterol intake is only a small part of a cholesterol-lowering diet. The types of fat you eat can have a much larger effect on your cholesterol levels.

After the low-fat and fat-free craze of the 90s, many people still fear fat or just don't understand it. It may come as a surprise that fat is very valuable to your health. Some kinds are good for you, while others are not.

When you’re making food choices, the types of fats you choose are just as (if not more) important than the amount of cholesterol the food contains.

These heart-healthy fats are part of a cholesterol-lowering diet:
  • Monounsaturated fats are the healthiest variety. They decrease your total blood cholesterol, but maintain your HDL (good) cholesterol. Ideally, most of the fat in your diet should come from this group, which includes: almonds, avocados, cashews, canola oil, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, natural peanut butter, olive oil, olives, pecans, peanuts, peanut oil, pistachios, sesame oil, sesame seeds and tahini paste.

    Certain margarines (those made primarily of the oils listed above) also fall into this healthy category of fats. But exercise caution when choosing one. Avoid those that list any form of "partially hydrogenated" oil in the list, which is a red flag for unhealthy trans fats (explained below).
  • Polyunsaturated fats are somewhat healthy fats that decrease your total blood cholesterol by lowering both the LDL (bad) cholesterol and the HDL (good) cholesterol. Lowering your total cholesterol is great, but because these fats also lower your HDL (good) cholesterol, you should only enjoy them in moderation. You'll find polyunsaturated fats in corn oil, mayonnaise, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.

    A special group of polyunsaturated fats is called Omega-3 fatty acids. These are heart-healthy and can be found in high-fat fish (albacore tuna, mackerel and salmon), other seafood (herring, lake trout, oysters, sardines, shellfish and shrimp), and plant sources (butternuts (white walnuts), flaxseed, flaxseed oil, hempseed, hempseed oil, soybean oil and walnuts).

    Certain margarines and most salad dressings (those made primarily of polyunsaturated or omega-3 fats) also fall into this somewhat healthy category.
Now that you know which fats to include as part of your cholesterol-lowering plan, it's time to learn about the types of fats that are bad for your health.

To lower your cholesterol, avoid these unhealthy fats:
  • Saturated fat is unhealthy fat that increases both your total cholesterol and your LDL (bad) cholesterol. Some experts say that limiting your saturated fat intake is one of the most important cholesterol-lowering tips you can follow. No more than 10 percent of your calories should come from saturated fats—that's about 15-25 grams daily, depending on your calorie needs. Keep this number as low as possible. Try to limit or avoid these sources of saturated fat: bacon, bacon grease, beef, butter, cheese, cocoa butter, coconut, coconut milk, coconut oil, cream, cream cheese, ice cream, lard, palm kernel oil, palm oil, pork, poultry, sour cream and whole milk.
  • Trans fat is the unhealthiest fat you can eat. It increases your total cholesterol and your LDL (bad) cholesterol while lowering your HDL (good) cholesterol. Eating even a small amount of trans fats significantly increases your risk of heart disease—especially if you already have risk factors like high cholesterol. Limit your intake of trans fats as much as possible. Experts haven't established any level of trans fats as safe, so keep your intake near 0 grams. Food products that contain trans fat include vegetable shortenings, hard stick margarines, crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, doughnuts, pastries, baking mixes and icings, store-bought baked goods and more.
Although some fats (monounsaturated, Omega-3s) are healthier than others (saturated and trans fats), it's important to remember that fats are still high in calories. Consuming too many—even the healthy ones—can result in weight gain. So limit your total fat intake to less than 30 percent of your total calories each day. This is about 45-65 grams each day (more or less depending on your calorie needs).

Of course, there is more to a cholesterol-lowering plan than eating good fats and avoiding bad ones. Exercise, weight loss, a healthy diet and not smoking also play important roles.