Making Mealtime Meaningful: See How We’re Giving Back with the New 12 Tomatoes Cares Program →

Whether you have been diagnosed with high cholesterol or are at risk of high cholesterol because it runs in your family, it is a good idea to be familiar with what cholesterol is and how your eating habits influence your cholesterol level.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy compound found in most body tissues. It’s a necessary structural part of most cell membranes. Cholesterol gets transported to tissues by low-density lipoproteins (LDL). Too much LDL is associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease.

One source of cholesterol is the liver. The liver makes all of the cholesterol our bodies need. We also get cholesterol from food. Interestingly, it’s eating high amounts of saturated and trans fats – not high cholesterol foods – that is associated with higher blood cholesterol. When the body gets too much dietary saturated or trans fat, the liver makes more cholesterol, which can result in elevated blood cholesterol.

Blood Cholesterol

The amount of cholesterol in our blood that is considered “heart healthy” is <200 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter). 240 mg/dL is considered high and anything between 200 and 240 is considered borderline. An optimal LDL level is <100 mg/dL. Over 160 mg/dL is considered high and a LDL level over 190 mg/dL is very high. You have probably also heard of the “good cholesterol”, HDL cholesterol. HDL stands for high density lipoprotein. It is called the “good cholesterol” because it travels the blood stream looking for “bad cholesterol” (LDL cholesterol) that it can pick up and carry to the liver. By carrying it to the liver to be processed then excreted, it is moving it away from blood vessels - like the arteries - that it would otherwise build up in. While this is a great cholesterol-lowering mechanism, we can’t totally rely on the good cholesterol to keep the bad cholesterol low - we also need to eat in a way that will keep LDL in check. A heart healthy HDL level is 60 mg/dL. This amount is considered protective against heart disease. If your level is between 40 and 60, that’s not bad - but the higher the better. Lower than 40 mg/dL is considered a major risk factor for heart disease.

Five Tips to a Healthier Heart

1. Fiber

Fiber is the part of plants that the body cannot break down, so it passes right through. There are two types of of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber holds water, so swells as it travels through the gut increasing stool bulk and promoting movement. It helps lower LDL cholesterol by attaching to it in the gut and carrying it out of the body. Combined with a low saturated fat and low trans fat diet, regularly getting 5–10 grams of soluble fiber per day can have a noticeable impact on your LDL levels. Legumes, oats, beans, barley, nuts, blueberries, apples, citrus fruits, and carrots are good sources of soluble fiber.

Try one of these recipes if you’re looking for an easy (yet delicious) way to add more fiber to your diet:

2. Focus On Unsaturated Fats

Replace saturated and trans fats with monounsaturated fats (canola oil, olive oil, olives, almonds, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts and cashews) and polyunsaturated – especially omega-3 – fats (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and soybeans).

Using unsaturated fats in place of saturated fats helps improve cholesterol levels by lowering the bad LDL cholesterol and increasing the good HDL cholesterol.

You can tap into the benefits of salmon and omega-3 with one of these tried and true recipes:

Read on for more tips for a healthier heart.

Subscribe to 12 Tomatoes