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Olive Oil

Although all cooking oils are high in fat, the type of fat makes a difference, Miller says.

Olive oil -- which is high in monounsaturated fat -- seems to help lower bad LDL cholesterol levels without affecting good HDL cholesterol. Diets rich in olive oil, fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains are associated with lower risks of heart disease and stroke. Olive oil is also rich in healthy vitamin E, an antioxidant. Other healthy oils include canola and flaxseed. 

The key is not just to add olive oil to your diet. You need to use it instead of less healthy oils higher in saturated and unsaturated fat, Miller says. How much do you need? The FDA recommends using two tablespoons daily as a replacement for less healthy oils.

Should you start drenching everything in olive oil? No. It's still high in calories. Too much will lead to weight gain, says Alice H. Lichtenstein,  director of the cardiovascular nutrition research program at Tufts University's Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging.

Sterols and Stanols in Fortified Foods

We hear a lot about unhealthy food additives. Sterols and stanols are additives in special margarines and other products that help improve cholesterol. They occur naturally in some plants in very small amounts. In the body, they help lower cholesterol by blocking its absorption in the intestines.

Studies have shown that eating foods fortified with sterols or stanols -- such as spreads or orange juice -- twice a day can lower unhealthy LDL cholesterol by 5% to 17%. Sterols and stanols are also added to products like granola bars and cheese.

The American Heart Association recommends that people who have high cholesterol take two grams of sterols and stanols daily. Keep in mind that these recommendations are for people diagnosed with high cholesterol. "If you have normal cholesterol levels, sterols and stanols don't have a benefit," Lichtenstein says.

How to Use Foods to Lower Cholesterol

There's no question that these foods can have a real benefit for people with unhealthy cholesterol levels. Still, it's important to understand how to use them -- and the limits of their benefits.

  • Don’t think of cholesterol-lowering foods as the “cure.” Although eating a good diet is important for health, Lichtenstein is concerned about people viewing specific foods as medicine. A bowl of oatmeal might help lower cholesterol, but it won't if you eat a hot fudge sundae later.
  • Replace unhealthy foods with healthy ones. Some of the apparent benefits of cholesterol-lowering foods might come not from the foods, but from the fact they're displacing other foods. We know that eating fish for dinner twice a week is associated with a lower rate of heart disease. But is it just the fish? Or is it because the fish is pushing less healthy fare -- like cheeseburgers -- off the menu a few nights a week? Lichtenstein says we don't know for sure.

    For that reason, don't just add foods that lower cholesterol to your diet. See if they can replace some of the less healthy stuff you're eating now.
  • Remember that even healthy foods have calories. Foods that lower cholesterol still have calories, and too many calories cause weight gain. And gaining weight can worsen your cholesterol levels. Eating a pound of walnuts or a tub of margarine with sterols will do a lot more harm than good, Miller says.
  • Keep in mind that genetics play a role. Dietary changes don't work for everyone when it comes to achieving lower cholesterol levels. "Some people are just more susceptible genetically to the effects of diet than others," Miller says.
  • Adopt a healthier lifestyle. Achieving lower cholesterol isn't just about eating more walnuts and fortified orange juice. Ideally, it should involve bigger changes to your lifestyle, Liechtenstein says. That includes a diet high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, as well as regular exercise.
  • Work with your doctor. If you have unhealthy cholesterol levels, work with your doctor. Get regular blood tests to monitor your levels and track any other risk factors.

Depending on your case, your doctor might recommend managing your cholesterol with diet. But if you're prescribed medicine, take it. Don’t think of eating more oatmeal as an alternative treatment. The risks of unhealthy cholesterol levels are just too high for you to try to handle the problem on your own.

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