Navigating the wealth of information on diet, fat and cholesterol can be confusing. Although cholesterol is made by the body and is a natural part of every cell, eating foods high in unhealthy fats can lead to high blood cholesterol levels, which increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Limiting red meat and avoiding certain foods can help keep your cholesterol levels in check.
The Harvard School of Public Health reports that foods high in saturated and trans fats contribute the most to unhealthy LDL cholesterol levels. Hence, trans fats should be avoided, and saturated fats should be limited to about 7 percent of your daily calories. However, it is important not to fill the calorie gaps with refined carbs. Surprisingly, consuming simple sugars such as skinless potatoes and sugary drinks also has an overall negative effect on your cholesterol profile. This is because your body converts excess sugar into fat. Instead, eat foods rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids such as olive oil, avocados, nuts, flaxseed and salmon, to name a few. These beneficial fatty acids provide important nutrients and keep LDL low and HDL, the healthy cholesterol, high.
While white meat is considered less fatty than red meat, a study recently published in the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" reports that lean red meat can be healthier than white meat. Red meat may have gotten a bad rap only because all types and cuts of red meat are lumped into one group. While some red meat is high in saturated fat, eating lean beef as part of a balanced diet may help to reduce LDL cholesterol levels and the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The American Heart Association offers several tips on choosing and preparing red meat to minimize saturated fat and its effects on your blood cholesterol. When buying beef, go for round, chuck, sirloin or loin. Note that the percentage of fat is often listed on the packaging. If you’re enjoying a steak, trim off any fat you can, and keep your portion size to the recommended 4 to 5.5 ounces. Skip the frying pan in favor of the broiler for your burgers and steaks so that excess fat can be drained and discarded.
It's important to understand why high blood cholesterol is unhealthy. LDL is the main type of cholesterol that contributes to clogged, hardened arteries. Clogged arteries can prevent blood flow to vital organs, and chunks of cholesterol can break off from arterial walls and get stuck downstream, leading to heart attacks, strokes and even death. On the other side of the coin is HDL. This healthy cholesterol transports other types of cholesterol out of the bloodstream, which prevents them from building up in arteries. The National Institutes of Health advises that for most people, a healthy level of total cholesterol is less than 200 milligrams per deciliter, while LDL should be at less than 100 milligrams per deciliter. HDL partially counteracts the effects of LDL; an HDL level greater than 60 milligrams per deciliter decreases the risk of heart disease and stroke significantly.
Nadia Haris is a registered radiation therapist who has been writing about nutrition for more than six years. She is completing her Master of Science in nutrition with a focus on the dietary needs of oncology patients.