Just when you thought you understood cholesterol—HDL is good, LDL is bad—it turns out it’s not quite that simple. Cholesterol molecules perform many important functions: They fight infections, facilitate memory and nerve transmission, and act as a structural membrane component for cells. However, most of the cholesterol you need is made naturally in your liver; and your body knows when to make less cholesterol to counterbalance what you get from foods.
New research and testing methods now identify two types of LDL: big, fluffy particles (harmless) and small, dense particles tiny enough to penetrate the blood vessel lining and become oxidized. These particles alone don’t cause heart disease; chronic inflammation, oxidation, and stress also weaken the cells lining the inside of your blood vessels. Cholesterol acts as a repair patch to the damaged areas, which protects them in the short term but can lead to future problems, including arterial plaque buildup. If inflammation continues, plaque can break off, forming a dangerous blood clot.
As their name implies, antioxidants prevent cholesterol from oxidizing, thereby dampening the entire inflammatory process. Enjoy these five antioxidant superstars to improve cholesterol function and reduce chronic inflammation.
Wild Alaskan salmon. Your cell membranes contain omega-3 fats for fluidity and cholesterol for structure. Eating omega-3-rich fatty fish, such as salmon, makes membranes more fluid, creating a need for more cholesterol to maintain structure. Your body pulls this cholesterol out of the bloodstream into your cells, thus reducing the cholesterol that’s subject to oxidation. Fish oil also lowers blood pressure, triglycerides, and inflammation, according to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Choose wild salmon; it has more antioxidants and fewer toxins than farmed.
We love: Henry & Lisa’s Wild Alaskan Pink Salmon
Extra-virgin olive oil. The monounsaturated fat in olive oil stars in abundant research commending the Mediterranean diet’s beneficial effects on heart health. Monounsaturated fat reduces LDL oxidation, triglycerides, and inflammation and decreases blood pressure, according to a study published in The Journal of Clinical Hypertension. Extra-virgin olive oil also contains anti-inflammatory polyphenols. Look for “cold pressed,” which means the oil is processed without heat, hot water, or solvents, preserving the nutritious polyphenols.
We love: Montebello Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Beans. An excellent source of lean protein, beans also contain soluble fiber that reduces heart disease risk by binding with cholesterol in the digestive tract, aiding its excretion and the liver’s ability to use it. In addition, beans improve insulin sensitivity, which reduces cholesterol-molecule damage, and increase satiety, research indicates in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases. Additionally, many types of beans are rich in folate, a B vitamin that lowers homocysteine, a heart disease risk marker that damages blood vessels.
We love: Eden Organic Aduki and Pinto Beans
Green tea. Green tea offers epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a polyphenol that helps liver cells “capture” circulating LDL, essentially pulling it from the bloodstream. Look for green tea blended with tulsi (also called holy basil), an adaptogenic herb shown to relieve heart-damaging stress.
We love: Organic India Tulsi Green Tea
Dark chocolate. Thank goodness: Eating dark chocolate may diminish heart disease risk by up to one-third, according to a British Medical Journal study. Dark chocolate also boosts HDL and reduces dangerous oxidized LDL, thanks to an abundance of powerful antioxidants. To get chocolate’s beneficial flavanols, be sure your choice contains 60 percent or more cocoa content.
We love: Endangered Species 88% Dark Chocolate
Good read: Dive deeper into the latest information and research on cholesterol and heart disease in The Great Cholesterol Myth by cardiologist Stephen Sinatra, MD, and nutritionist Jonny Bowden, PhD (Fair Winds, 2012).