Oatmeal, garlic, flax seeds, beans, almonds and apples — these foods may sound odd when grouped together, but for balancing cholesterol levels they are a recipe for successful health.

Although there are some stigmas associated with cholesterol, it is needed to maintain normal body functions. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL), often referred to as “bad cholesterol,” are the most prevalent cholesterols in the human body and contribute to fatty buildup in arteries. High-density lipoproteins (HDL), the so-called “good” cholesterol, may protect against heart attack and stroke.

“Cholesterol is not all bad,” says registered dietitian Mary Opfer, a professor at Pace University in Pleasantville, New York. “We need a certain amount of cholesterol to help synthesize vitamin D, which is needed for bones and mineral metabolism and muscle tone, as well as immune system function. Cholesterol helps with cell membrane integrity; is a precursor to hormones that deal with stress; and protects the body against heart disease and cancer. And it’s needed to make the sex hormones testosterone, estrogen and progesterone.”

The science behind cholesterol

The main function of cholesterol is to uphold the integrity and fluidity of cell membranes. The body requires cholesterol to build healthy cells, but high cholesterol levels may increase the risk of heart disease. Fatty deposits in the blood vessels can develop with high cholesterol. These deposits eventually grow, which can make it difficult for sufficient amounts of blood to flow through the arteries.

LDL takes cholesterol to the arteries, where it may collect in the artery walls. HDL helps get rid of excess cholesterol, so it is less likely to end up in the arteries.

“The brain actually produces its own cholesterol, as well as getting HDL cholesterol from circulation,” Opfer says. “The brain needs cholesterol as a structural component for the cell membranes. There is some research that says HDL cholesterol plays a role in preserving cognitive function and helps the synapse and dendrite — the dendrite extends from the neuron — formation, which essentially are what send the signals in the brain to the body. Overall, HDL is needed to protect the cell membrane and keep the signals firing from the neurons.”

The desirable level of LDL should be less than 100 mg/dl, Opfer says.

“High levels of LDL can cause clogging in the arteries, which leads to heart attacks and other heart diseases,” she says. “I sometimes give the visual of bacon grease in the pan and how it solidifies and turns an opaque color. This hardening of the bacon fat is what is happening in your arteries causing the blood flow to slow up.”

When it comes to lowering cholesterol, soluble fiber may be most effective in keeping lipids low, some research has shown, because it binds with cholesterol in the small intestine to help prevent it from being absorbed. Instead, the body excretes it as a component of stools.

“Soluble fiber in oatmeal, beans, lentils, flaxseed, apples and

citrus fruit are what binds and acts as a ‘sweeper.’ They can modestly reduce LDL cholesterol,” Opfer says.

Food for thought

Because cholesterol comes from animal sources, plant-based foods are naturally cholesterol-free, says Erin Palinski-Wade, a nutritionist and registered dietitian in Sparta, New Jersey.

“However, it is important to remember that dietary cholesterol typically has little impact on your own cholesterol levels,” she says. “A diet high in saturated fat and trans fats, along with large amounts of added sugar, will negatively impact blood lipids, while eating a diet rich in unsaturated plant-based fats and fiber — especially soluble fiber — will improve cholesterol levels.”

To improve cholesterol levels, limit the intake of foods rich in saturated fats, such as high-fat animal proteins including bacon, heavy creams and butter, and avoid foods containing trans fats, Palinski-Wade says.

“Eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, beans/lentils and whole grains can help you to increase your intake of fiber to naturally lower cholesterol,” she adds. “And choosing plant-based fats like avocado, nuts and seeds can be beneficial, as well.”

In addition, Opfer suggests oats, quinoa, barley, brown rice, legumes, eggplant and fish such as salmon, herring and mackerel.

“The Mediterranean diet is still thought to be one of the best diets to follow, and I believe it’s realistic to follow,” she adds.

Marinated Salmon

Serves 4

Ingredients

1/2 cup pineapple juice

1/4 cup coconut aminos

1/4 cup scallions, chopped

2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger

1/4 teaspoons hot sauce or sriracha sauce

2 tablespoons olive oil

Parsley and lemon slices for garnish, optional

Four 5-ounce fillets of wild salmon

Directions

Mix the pineapple juice, coconut aminos, ginger, scallions, sriracha and oil in a medium bowl. Place half the marinade in a small bowl, and set aside. Place the salmon fillets in the medium bowl and coat well with the rest of the marinade. Marinate for 20 minutes or up to 12 hours. When ready to serve, heat the grill to medium high. Grill the fish until just cooked through about 4 minutes per side.

Heat the reserved marinade in a small saucepan until simmers. Spoon the heated marinade on cooked salmon. Garnish with parsley and lemon slices.

Red Lentil Soup

Serves 8

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 medium carrots, chopped

2 teaspoons cumin

3 cloves garlic

1 teaspoons salt

2 cups lentils (red or yellow)

9 cups of water/stock (veg/chick)

Pepper to taste

Parsley, chopped, sprinkled on top

Instructions

In a large pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, cumin, garlic and salt, cook until onion is soft. Add lentils, water (or stock). Bring to a boil, and then lower heat to a very low simmer. Cover and cook for another 20 minutes, until lentils are soft. Add pepper to taste. Sprinkle parsley on top, and serve while hot.

Slow Cooker Vegetarian Chili

Ingredients

1 can black beans, drained 15.5 oz

1 can kidney beans, drained 15.5 oz

1 can cannellini beans, 15.5 oz

1 cup fresh salsa

1 can corn, drained 10 ounces

1 can diced tomatoes, drained 10 oz

1 large red bell pepper, diced

1 large yellow bell pepper, diced

1 medium sweet onion, diced

1 can chili peppers, drained 4.5 oz

1 tablespoon taco seasoning

1 tablespoon chili seasoning

Instructions

Mix together all ingredients in a large bowl. Add ingredients to slow cooker, and cook on low for 4 hours. Serve warm. Top with shredded cheese and sour cream if desired.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Overnight Oats

Ingredients

1/2 cup rolled oats

1 tablespoon chia seeds

1 cup low-fat chocolate milk

2 tablespoons crunchy peanut butter

1 medium avocado, pitted

Instructions

In a small container or Mason jar, combine rolled oats and chia seeds. Set aside. In a blender, add chocolate milk, peanut butter and avocado. Blend until smooth. Add liquid to oats and combine well in container. Refrigerate overnight. Top with a banana in the morning, and enjoy on the go.

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