About 38% of American adults have high cholesterol—which is alarming, given that having high cholesterol increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in the U.S. The good news? If your doctor has determined that you have high cholesterol, there is something you can do about it: improve your diet.
According to Keith-Thomas Ayoob, RDN and associate clinical professor emeritus at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, what you eat can have a major impact on your cholesterol levels. And unlike cholesterol medication, he says food doesn't come with any potentially nasty side effects. So, what's the best food to lower your cholesterol? You may be surprised to find that it's something you may already have on hand at home.
How to lower "bad" cholesterol with food.
There are two types of cholesterol: HDL, the "good" kind, and LDL, the "bad" artery-clogging kind. When tweaking your diet, the name of the game is to eat foods that will help to lower your LDL cholesterol as well as raise your HDL cholesterol.
"When it comes to lowering your cholesterol, fiber is the most important thing you can eat," says Elise Harlow, MS, RD. "You can think of fiber as a sponge that absorbs excess bad cholesterol and helps your body to eliminate it."
Cara Harbstreet, a registered dietitian and owner of Street Smart Nutrition, adds that focusing on foods high in soluble fiber, specifically, is a great strategy. In fact, research has proven that soluble fiber can lower LDL cholesterol levels.
"Soluble fiber, which dissolves in water, attracts, and absorbs water to form a gel-like substance, slows down the transit time of food," she explains. "Soluble fiber can be found in foods such as oats, barley, beans, flax seeds, vegetables like brussels sprouts, and fruits such as apples and oranges. [Because] soluble fiber is slowly digested, it binds to the cholesterol in the blood before it can enter circulation. It is then able to clear the cholesterol from the body, which helps lower LDL cholesterol."
The best food for cholesterol is a pantry staple
As far as soluble fiber-rich foods go, experts say the best one you could eat to keep your cholesterol under control is black beans. (They also happen to be the best carb for weight loss because they're high in protein and fiber but low in fat).
"You can use canned beans, or cook them from their dry form—both work," says Ayoob. "Bonus—beans help to prevent blood glucose spikes."
A 3/4 cup serving of black beans packs 5.4 grams of soluble fiber— that's 19% of the daily value for fiber.
"Black beans are rich in a viscous, soluble fiber that interferes with the reabsorption of cholesterol-rich bile acids in your gut," says Dr. Joan Salge Blake, RDN, a nutrition professor at Boston University and the host of the award-winning nutrition and health podcast Spot On!. "The bile acids are 'grabbed' by the fiber before they can be reabsorbed by the body, and end up being excreted along with the fiber in your stool. Your body then has to remove cholesterol in your blood to generate new bile acids in the liver. Presto—your blood cholesterol levels are lowered."
In addition to lowering cholesterol, Blake points out that black beans are rich in plant protein. By cooking with them, you can reduce the amount of animal protein you consume, and thus reduce the cholesterol-raising saturated fat. For example, Blake recommends using more beans and less ground meat or poultry in your next crockpot of chili to increase fiber and lower saturated fat.
Blake notes that black beans are also chock full of potassium, a mineral that can help control high blood pressure—which is important because high blood pressure can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Needless to say, picking up a can of black beans is about the best thing you can do for your body if you're struggling with high cholesterol. Not sure what to do with them? Try whipping up a Vegetarian Black Bean Omelet for breakfast, or some heart-healthy Black Bean & Sweet Potato Tacos for dinner.
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