October 2019

How to reduce cholesterol, but not the meat on your plate

In light of cholesterol month, we look into the ways in which we can still enjoy some of our favourite foods while helping to improve cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol is a sterol – a type of lipid. It is made by all animal cells and is a major structural component of their cell membranes. It also plays a part in the synthesis of steroid hormones, bile acid and vitamin D. However, too much cholesterol can result in negative effects including the clogging of arteries which can result in cardiovascular events such as stroke and heart disease.

This year there have been new cholesterol recommendations released highlighting the differences in the types of cholesterol. Previously, the focus was on LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol and HDL (‘good’) cholesterol levels. However, research is now suggesting that we need to take a closer look at the ‘bad’ cholesterol. These include IDL, VLDL and lipoprotein A, known collectively as ‘non-HDL’ cholesterol. This has been done to help produce a more accurate measurement of the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. It is now suggested that you should consume less than 4mmol/L of non-HDL cholesterol and less than 5mmol/L of total cholesterol.

Red meat has long been criticised for high levels of cholesterol, but how can you still eat red meat while actively trying to reduce your cholesterol intake?

Reducing cholesterol in meat-based dishes

Take off the skin – When eating poultry and other meats, there is a lot of fat in the skin and so by taking this off, you are saving yourself a bunch of calories while also reducing your saturated fat intake.

Cut off excess fat – The fat on meats is often already trimmed to acceptable levels due to certain requirements. However, if you are trying to reduce your cholesterol, you may need to trim off the extra visible fat surrounding the steak.

Choose leaner cuts of meat – This can help to reduce saturated fat intakes due to the lower total fat content. For example, some lean cuts of steak are:

Cooking methods for reducing cholesterol

Roasting – Using dry heat to cook the meat while the juices are normally allowed to drain out of the steak into a roasting pan. Results in minimal losses of vitamin C, however long cooking times at high temperatures can cause up to a 40% loss of B vitamins (in the juices that drip from the meat).

Grilling – Temperatures are usually higher than roasting and so this can lead to potentially harmful chemicals. This is due to the fat melting and dripping onto the grill which creates toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that rise up and seep into the meat. PAH’s have been linked to several types of cancers.

Both roasting and grilling are suitable ways of cooking to reduce cholesterol however frying should be kept to a minimum.

Frying – Using high temperatures to cook meat fast will minimise the nutrient loss, however cooking with oil will add to the total fat content and therefore increase cholesterol intake.

Cholesterol-beneficial cooking oils

To curb cholesterol levels, it is important to choose the right fats and oils in which you cook with. Unsaturated fats are deemed beneficial for health due to helping to prevent the clogging of arteries and so when you cook or prepare foods, unsaturated fats should be the main types used in food preparation.

Usually, unsaturated fats are found in oils, nuts and soft spreads, and saturated fats are found in solid fats (when at room temperature) such as butter. So, you would think that consuming more unsaturated fats is better than more saturated fats, and while this is partially true, you still need to keep in mind that fat will still contribute to calories, which if eaten in excess can lead to weight gain.

So, in theory, you need to consider both quality AND quantity.

For example, try to use oils which are rich in unsaturated fats and that can withstand high cooking temperatures, such as vegetable, safflower and canola oil. Also try to make healthier swaps such as using ¼ cup of olive oil instead of ½ cup butter.

Other ways to reduce your cholesterol

When trying to reduce your cholesterol it is best to avoid processed meat products, however if you still want to enjoy the occasional burger now and then, try to look out for products that are ‘low in saturates’ or have a green traffic light for the levels of saturated fat. The products will still contain cholesterol but at lower amounts than the regular versions.

Research has shown that eating foods which contain saturated fat alongside wholegrain carbohydrates may reduce your total cholesterol. Studies have shown that eating 2-3 daily servings of wholegrain products may reduce the risk of heart disease by 20-30%. This could be due to either the fibre content of whole grains or the antioxidants and phytoestrogens helping to lower the cholesterol.

Aim to eat at least 30g fibre/day.

Try to become more active – research has shown that doing 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week can help to improve your cholesterol levels by getting your heart pumping and burning excess calories.