Finding the right diet to follow to manage your cholesterol can seem like an easy task—until you do one quick Google search and find pages and pages of recommendations. While there is no shortage of cholesterol-lowering diets to choose from, there is a shortage of diets that actually have proof to show that they work.
If you are trying to lower your cholesterol naturally, you can hop on the latest fad diet bandwagon that may or may not do anything for you long-term, or you can simply adopt the scientifically-backed Mediterranean diet.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
Close your eyes and imagine that you are dining al fresco at a Mediterranean villa or seaside on a Greek island. What are you eating? Are you quickly scarfing down a fast-food cheeseburger and extra-large soda? Or are you leisurely dining on a dish made with olive oil, vegetables, grains, and seeds? And are you eating alone, or are you dining with other people and enjoying the process of eating a meal? (Related: What Happens To Your Body When You Eat Olive Oil.)
The Mediterranean diet is modeled after the way that most people eat when they live by the Mediterranean Sea. And although it is called the Mediterranean diet, it is actually more of a lifestyle that many people who live in this part of the world embrace. They dine with family and friends, stay active, and rarely stuff their faces when they have a free moment during a red-light stop in the car. The TV is off and they are focused on what they are eating.
Those who follow the Mediterranean diet tend to avoid added sugars, highly processed and refined foods, and heavily processed meats. Instead, they focus on whole foods that are nutrient-dense and loaded with antioxidants.
Specifically, people who follow the Mediterranean diet eat:
vegetables (including potatoes)
whole grains, like whole-grain pasta, quinoa, and farro
beans, nuts, and legumes,
smaller amounts of dairy, chicken, and lean beef
Overall, it is a diet rich in whole foods and plant-based meals. Oh yeah, and you can have some wine with your meals too.
The Mediterranean diet: cholesterol-reducing link
In the United States, more than 12% of adults had elevated cholesterol levels in 2015-2016. Elevated cholesterol levels is a risk factor for developing heart disease, which is, unfortunately, the #1 killer of both men and women in this country.
Naturally, many people are looking for ways to reduce their cholesterol levels to help protect their ticker from giving them trouble later on in life. And embracing the Mediterranean diet can do just that.
The Mediterranean diet has been linked to health benefits since the 1960s. It was over half a century ago when researchers showed that people who live in the Mediterranean region experienced lower coronary heart disease mortality compared those who live in other areas of the world. Since then, a growing body of research has shown that following the Mediterranean dietary pattern can result in both a lower total cholesterol and LDL "bad" cholesterol level.
The results of an American Journal of Medicine study, suggest that following a Mediterranean diet appears to be more effective than low-fat diets in reducing cardiovascular risk factors, including cholesterol levels.
This diet continues to be a favorite in the medical community because of the tried-and-true outcomes that it offers. (For more: The Top 5 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Following the Mediterranean diet.)
Some foods to focus on when trying to reduce cholesterol
Holistically speaking, the Mediterranean diet appears to help keep cholesterol levels healthy; however, there are some specific foods that are standouts when it comes to protecting your heart health and following this dietary pattern.
One of those foods is extra virgin olive oil. The Mediterranean diet is rich in "healthy" fats that come predominantly from olive oil and is extremely low in saturated and trans-fats. Olive oil is the main fat source consumed on this diet. And along with the healthy fats that it provides, it is also rich in antioxidants and is salt-free. The combination of these unique facts can play a big role in the heart-health benefit that it offers.
Another Mediterranean diet food group that has been linked to lower cholesterol levels is whole grains. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating whole grains lowered LDL cholesterol more than eating refined grains—with the greatest benefit seen when people ate whole grain oats.
Lastly, the diet's emphasis on nuts may also be a key way it helps lower cholesterol. The Mediterranean diet encourages consumption of nuts, and walnuts, in particular, can offer some benefit when it comes to cholesterol levels. Walnuts are a powerhouse when it comes to nutrition, thanks to the healthy fats, fiber, plant-based proteins, and antioxidants that they provide. In a meta-analysis and systemic review of 26 clinical trials published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that total and LDL cholesterol was significantly reduced when walnut-enriched diets were consumed vs. control diets.
How to start the Mediterranean diet
As long as you get the green light from your personal health care provider, starting to follow the Mediterranean diet is simple to do with some small steps. And since small changes can lead to big results, it is best to choose a few principles at a time to adopt and then build on your new habits.
Some steps you can take to get started include:
swap out your processed meat for lean or very lean cuts of beef like flank steak
choose quinoa or farro instead of white rice or other refined grains
cook with olive oil instead of refined oils or sources of saturated fats
turn off the TV when you are eating a meal
have fresh fruit for dessert instead of options that are made with added sugars
Adopting the Mediterranean diet may be the missing link you need to help keep your heart health in check. And since eating as-if you are vacationing off of the coast of the crystal-blue sea is no sacrifice, there is very little downside to eating this way in the long run too. Bon Appetit! For more ways to protect your heart and manage your cholesterol levels, be sure to read up on these Eating Habits to Avoid if You Don't Want High Cholesterol, Say Dietitians.
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