By paying close attention to what you eat, you can reduce your risk of developing atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the narrowing of arteries caused by plaque build-up inside the arteries. As the arteries narrow, blood can’t flow properly through the arteries, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. If the artery-clogging process has already begun, you may be able to slow it down by making changes in your lifestyle, including your diet.

One of these changes includes lowering your total and LDL cholesterol levels. This handout includes ways to change your diet to help lower these levels.

Limit bad fats and cholesterol

Research shows that the total amount of fat you eat really isn’t linked to your risk of disease. What has the greatest influence is the type of fat you eat. Two unhealthy fats — saturated and trans fats — increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood and put you at higher risk of developing heart disease. Two very different types of fat — mono and polyunsaturated — do just the opposite.

Saturated fats

Saturated fats are generally solid or waxy at room temperature and are most often found in animal products and tropical oils.

The following foods contain saturated fats:

  • Beef, lamb, veal and the skin of poultry
  • Hot dogs and high-fat luncheon meats, such as bologna and salami
  • Regular cheese (made from whole milk only)
  • High-fat dairy products, such as whole milk, 2% milk and 4% cottage cheese
  • Butter
  • Sauces and gravies made from animal fat
  • Most fried foods and fast foods
  • Tropical oils, such as palm, palm kernel and coconut oil
  • Desserts and sweets made with lard, butter or tropical oils

Trans fatty acids

Trans fatty acids are especially bad. They raise the levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) in your blood and lower the levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL).

Trans fatty acids are formed when a liquid fat is changed into a solid fat through a process called hydrogenation. Many manufacturers use hydrogenated fats in their ingredients because it creates a product with an extended shelf life and better consistency.

There are currently no safe levels of trans fat to eat each day, so try to avoid them completely or eat them as little as possible.

Many manufacturers stopped using or greatly reduced the amount of trans fats they use in their foods. But, you should be careful to check the label and avoid:

Partially hydrogenated oils: This means the product contains at least a small amount of trans fat, even if the label states “trans fat-free.” Foods containing up to 0.49 grams of trans fat per serving can claim to be “trans fat-free.”

Margarine: Stick margarine contains more partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat) than tub margarine, and tub margarine contains more than liquid margarine. Choose margarine that does not contain any partially hydrogenated oil.

Shortening: is an example of trans fat in its purest form. Some shortenings claim to be trans fat-free, but remember that such foods can still contain small amounts of trans fats in each serving. Also, the fat used to substitute the trans fat in shortening is high in saturated fat, so it’s still not a healthy choice.

Fast foods and fried foods: Almost all are high in trans fats.

Snack foods: Convenience foods such as crackers, granola bars and energy bars often contain trans fats.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is made by the liver. Therefore, only animal-based foods contain cholesterol. It is important to limit the amount of cholesterol in your diet. In general, the amount of cholesterol you eat has about a 30 percent impact on the level of cholesterol in your blood. If you have been diagnosed with high cholesterol, limit the amount of cholesterol you have each day to 200 mg. If your cholesterol levels are normal, you should have no more than 300 mg per day.

To cut back on the cholesterol in your diet, try these tips:

  • Eat no more than 4 egg yolks per week. Have egg whites or egg substitutes instead.
  • Do not eat the skin of poultry.
  • Trim off extra fat from red meat before eating.
  • Keep servings of poultry and red meat to 3-4 ounces (the size of a deck of cards).
  • Eat only nonfat or reduced-fat cheeses, and include cheese in no more than 3 meals per week.
  • Avoid cream-based soups. Choose those with a vegetable, broth or oil base instead.
  • Use nonfat or low-fat dairy products instead of high-fat varieties of cream cheese, sour cream, cottage cheese (4%) and yogurt.
  • Limit shellfish to twice per week.

Unsaturated fats ("Healthy fats")

Unsaturated fats are considered the healthiest fats because they improve cholesterol levels, help reduce inflammation (a risk factor for heart disease), and help decrease the overall risk of developing heart disease. The main source of unsaturated fats is plant-based foods. There are two types of unsaturated fat — monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Unsaturated fats are generally liquid at room temperature. 

Monounsaturated fats are considered one of the healthiest sources of fat. These fats should make up the bulk of your daily fat intake. Good sources of monounsaturated fats include:

  • Olive, canola (rapeseed) and peanut oils
  • Most nuts, nut oils and nut butters (eg, peanut butter)
  • Olives
  • Avocados

Good sources of polyunsaturated fats include:

  • Corn oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Flax oil and flax seeds
  • Sunflower oil
  • Walnuts
  • Fish

Omega-3 fats are a type of polyunsaturated fat. Omega 3 fats have additional benefits to help protect against heart disease. These include lowering triglyceride levels, protecting against irregular heartbeats, decreasing the risk of a heart attack and lowering blood pressure.

The body cannot make omega-3 fats, so they must come from your diet. The best food source of omega-3 fats is cold-water fish, such as:

  • Salmon.
  • Tuna.
  • Mackerel.
  • Herring.
  • Sardines.

Other food sources that contain smaller amounts of omega-3 fats are:

  • Flaxseeds.
  • Chia seeds (often sold as salvia).
  • Walnuts.
  • Hemp seeds.
  • Soybeans (edamame).
  • Canola oil.

Eat foods rich in omega-3 fats several times per week to get the protective benefits they offer.

Increase the amount of fiber in your diet

Fiber, as part of a healthy diet, can help reduce LDL (“bad) cholesterol levels. A fiber-rich diet can also help control blood sugar, promote regularity, prevent gastrointestinal disease and manage weight.

Dietary fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body cannot digest. As fiber passes through the body, it affects the way the body digests foods and absorbs nutrients.

Most of us do not get enough fiber in our diet. The recommended amount is 25 to 35 grams of dietary fiber per day.

The best sources of fiber are whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes (dried beans, lentils, split peas).

There are two types of dietary fiber: soluble (viscous) and insoluble.

Soluble fiber

Soluble fiber provides the greatest heart-health benefits. It helps lower total and LDL cholesterol levels by binding to bile in the gut and removing it with the body’s waste. Bile is made up of cholesterol. Good sources of soluble fiber include:

  • Oats and oat bran.
  • Barley.
  • Legumes (eg, dried beans, lentils and split peas).
  • Psyllium.
  • Flaxseed.
  • Apples, pears and citrus fruits.

Insoluble fiber

Insoluble fiber is generally referred to as “roughage.” Insoluble fiber promotes regularity, adds bulk and softness to stools, helps with weight regulation and helps prevent many gastrointestinal disorders. Good sources of insoluble fiber include:

  • Wheat bran, whole wheat and other whole grain cereals and breads.
  • Vegetables.
  • Nuts.

Foods contain a mix of soluble and insoluble fiber. To receive the greatest health benefit, eat a wide variety of all high-fiber foods.

Refined foods, like white bread and pasta, and enriched cereals are low in fiber. The refining process strips the outer coat (bran) from the grain, which reduces the amount of fiber that’s left.

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