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Improving Your Cholesterol Levels One Bite At a Time

This week, we’re diving into how we can use nutrition to help support specific aspects of heart health (high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes (1)) to reduce our risk of developing heart disease. In fact, many studies suggest that nutrition may be the most preventive factor of cardiovascular disease-related death and could even reverse heart disease (2) This article will focus on cholesterol, and how our nutrition choices can impact our levels.

What Is Cholesterol, Anyway?

If we want to make lasting changes to our cholesterol levels, it’s important that we understand what cholesterol is. Dietary cholesterol is found in animal-based products. Despite it’s typical reputation, cholesterol is a vital component to our overall health – so important that 80% of the cholesterol found in our bloodstream is actually produced by the liver (3). It is a crucial building block in cell membranes, and is needed to make vitamin D, hormones (including reproductive hormones), and digestive enzymes (4, 5). Cholesterol is a fat and travels through our bloodstream. Since fat doesn’t travel well in blood, cholesterol is wrapped up in packaging known as lipoproteins. We most commonly hear about low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL), both of which play important roles in our health.

LDL transports cholesterol from the liver to the cells, in order to carry out the tasks we described above. However, it is also the main ingredient in vessel plaque (6), which can lead to blockages in our arteries. It is particularly susceptible to oxidation, which can lead to oxidative stress (7). Oxidative stress, itself, has also been linked to heart disease (31). This has lead people to refer to LDL as the “bad” cholesterol. HDL, on the other hand, is known as the “good” cholesterol, because it scoops up excess cholesterol and transports it to the liver for disposal. When determining cholesterol levels, one of the things doctors look at is the ratio between LDL and HDL levels.

If you’ve been keeping an eye on your cholesterol levels, you should also be aware of your triglycerides. Triglycerides are how we store excess energy. Calories we consume that we don’t utilize right away can be turned into triglycerides and stored for later use. Then when our body needs it (say, between meals), these triglycerides are released into the bloodstream to use as energy. Consistently eating more calories than our bodies need can lead to elevated triglycerides (8).

Knowing Our Numbers

When we get bloodwork done, our total cholesterol, our LDL, HDL, and triglyceride levels are all measured. Knowing our starting point can help give us clues on how we can move forward with specific changes to improve our numbers. Depending on the values, your health history, and other health considerations or risk factors, your doctor will tell you how they want you to proceed.

According to the Medical Council of Canada, normal cholesterol values are as follows (9):

Total Cholesterol Levels

between 3.5 - 5.2 mmol/L

HDL Levels

> 1.3 mmol/L (females) and > 1.0 mmol/L (males)

LDL Levels

< 2.6 mmol/L


≤ 1.7 mmol/L

To improve our cholesterol levels, experts often suggest eating a "healthy diet", which can feel vague and overwhelming. Generally, we can define a "healthy diet" specific to lowering cholesterol levels as choosing whole grains, fruits and vegetables more often, consuming more low-fat dairy, lean meats, fish, and poultry (if choosing to consume animal products), limiting consumption of trans fats, and incorporating plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds, and legumes into our day. This type of eating pattern provides fibre, protein, heart healthy fats, important vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants - all of which have been shown to individually improve our cholesterol levels (33). We could also describe this type of eating as one that limits refined flours, added sugars, and trans fats, all of which have been linked to having a negative effect on cholesterol levels (34). To read more about how this way of eating improves our cholesterol levels, read through our drop down sections below:

Lowering LDL Levels

Increasing HDL Levels

Improving Triglycerides

My Recommendations

Remember that my suggestions are meant to compliment, and not replace, advice given to you by your health care team (including doctors, specialists, and registered dieticians). If you’re looking to improve your cholesterol levels through diet, here are a few of my suggestions:

  1. Incorporate more orange, red, and dark green fruits and veggies into your day to lower LDL levels. Broccoli, brussels spouts, carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, swiss chard and apples are what I would describe as "heavy hitters". They offer so many cholesterol improving components including being excellent sources of vitamin C, fibre (particularly soluble fibre), antioxidants and plant sterols. Bonus: sweet potatoes are also a good source of niacin! Of course, fruits and vegetables are such nutritional powerhouses to begin with, just increasing your intake of any fruits and veggies will offer nutritional benefit (26). Since fruits and vegetables tend to be a good source of fibre, they will take a little longer for the body to digest, which will keep our blood sugar more controlled. If controlling your blood sugar is a health goal of yours, I recommend eating more vegetables than fruit throughout your day (try a 2:1 ratio) or try to pair your fruits with a protein or a poly- or mono-unsaturated fat.

  2. Limit man-made trans fats as much as possible. Trans fats are one of the only things I ever suggest restricting in a person’s diet. They are a by-product of processing foods and help to improve a food’s shelf life (27). They increase our LDL levels and decrease our HDL levels, and even small amounts can effect our blood vessel elasticity. Trans fats will be indicated on nutritional information labels, which is the best way to monitor your overall intake.

  3. Prioritize mono- and poly-unsaturated fats. My favourite sources include avocados, nuts, flax, chia, hemp seeds, and cold-water fish such as salmon, rainbow trout, and mackerel. Avocados are also a great source of soluble fibre and niacin, while the nuts and seeds contain fibre, plant sterols, and protein. In addition to protein and heart healthy fats, salmon is also a great source of niacin.

  4. Eat more complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains. As we learned earlier, whole grains can help to lower our triglycerides (28). Additionally, they are typically better sources of fibre than a refined grain (such as white flour) (29). Since I’m all about nutritional multi-taskers, I like brown rice (a whole grain containing fibre and niacin), oats and oat bran (both great sources of soluble fibre and antioxidants), apples, strawberries and citrus fruits (excellent sources of soluble fibre in addition to being high in antioxidants, vitamin C, and plant sterols), and quinoa (which contains fibre, protein, antioxidants, and plant sterols).

  5. Eat your beans. Since cholesterol is only found in animal-based foods, regularly consuming plant-based meals can have a significant impact on cholesterol levels (30). This reason is two-fold: 1, when we eat plant-based meals, we are not consuming cholesterol, and 2, whole grains and legumes found in many plant-based meals have cholesterol lowering properties. Legumes, especially, are excellent sources of fibre and protein, and as complex carbohydrates they help stabilize blood sugar levels. Peanuts (technically a legume) are a great source of protein, fibre, mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, and niacin. Soybeans are also excellent sources of protein, fibre, and antioxidants.

Final Thoughts

There are so many other heart healthy foods out there that didn’t make this list, simply because it would just take too long to go through them all. These foods are ones that specifically support improving cholesterol levels, but there are other components of nutrition that can influence other aspects of heart disease, such as blood sugar and high blood pressure. We’ll be looking at these two topics in the future.

If improving your cholesterol levels through diet is one of your health goals, let your doctor know first. Then, choose something that feels doable for you. Remember that our actions are cumulative, and every little bit helps. Just like with cardio and stress management techniques, the best nutrition techniques for heart health are the ones that you’re most likely to stick with.

Cheering You On,

Jenna xo


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(3) Corliss, J. (2019, July 31). How It's Made: Cholesterol Production In Your Body. Harvard Health



(4-7) Andrews, R. (n.d.). All About Cholesterol: Understanding Nutrition’s Most Controversial Nutrient.

(8) National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (n.d.). High Blood Triglycerides. NIH.

(9) Medical Council of Canada. (2020, December). Clinical Laboratory Tests - Adult Normal Values. MCC.

(11-12, 30) Heart and Stroke. (n.d.). Managing Cholesterol. Heart and Stroke.


(13, 33-34) Wickman, B. E., Enkhmaa, B., Ridberg, R., Romero, E., Cadeiras, M., Meyers, F., & Steinberg,

F. (2021). Dietary Management of Heart Failure: DASH Diet and Precision Nutrition Perspectives.

Nutrients,13(12), 4424.

(14, 16-17) Parhofer K. G. (2015). Increasing HDL-cholesterol and prevention of atherosclerosis: A critical

perspective. Atherosclerosis. Supplements, 18, 109–111.

(15, 23-25, 27) Andrews, R. (n.d.). All About Bad Fats. Precision Nutrition.


(18) Andrews, R. (n.d.). All About Carbohydrates. Precision Nutrition.


(19) Shearer, G. C., Savinova, O. V., & Harris, W. S. (2012). Fish oil -- how does it reduce plasma

triglycerides?. Biochimica et biophysica acta, 1821(5), 843–851.

(20) McRae MP. Vitamin C supplementation lowers serum low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and

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58. doi: 10.1016/j.jcme.2008.01.002. PMID: 19674720; PMCID: PMC2682928.

(21, 22, 29) Heart and Stroke. (n.d.). Fibre and Whole Grains. Heart and Stroke.

(26) Heart and Stroke. (n.d.). Vegetables and Fruit. Heart and Stroke.

(28) Soliman G. A. (2019). Dietary Fiber, Atherosclerosis, and Cardiovascular Disease. Nutrients, 11(5),


(31) Kibel, A., Lukinac, A. M., Dambic, V., Juric, I., & Selthofer-Relatic, K. (2020). Oxidative Stress in

Ischemic Heart Disease. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2020, 6627144.

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Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

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