My father swore by porridge. He ate a bowl of hot oatmeal every morning of his life. When he worked the early shift in the factory he would be up before anyone else in the house, cooking his porridge at 5 o'clock in the morning. He must have been doing something right, because he was never bothered with constipation, remained healthy and active well into his eighties, and lived to be 92 years old.

When it comes to super-foods, porridge has to be one of the best. In fact, experts agree that the soluble fiber in oatmeal serves a valuable role in the management of cholesterol levels and heart health.

Bowl of Porridge with SpoonCredit: Keypunch. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a chemical substance which is essential for several crucial bodily functions, including the production of vitamin D and the formation of healthy cell walls. There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL cholesterol) and high density liproprotein (HDL cholesterol).

LDL is referred to as “bad” cholesterol because an excess amount in the body can create blockages in the arteries. These blockages can interfere with blood circulation and increase the risk of heart disease. Blockage of the blood vessels leading to the brain can increase the risk of strokes and Alzheimer’s disease.

On the other hand HDL is considered “good” cholesterol because it removes excess cholesterol from the body.

While our bodies do produce a certain amount of cholesterol, we also obtain it from the food we eat. It is therefore possible to maintain healthy cholesterol levels and even lower bad cholesterol by making wise dietary choices.

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Foods That Lower Bad Cholesterol

Some foods contain soluble fiber which combines with LDL cholesterol, preventing it from being absorbed into the bloodstream and literally sweeping it out of the body. Some studies have indicated that three grams of soluble fiber a day could reduce cholesterol levels by as much as 10%.

With a one and a half cup serving containing 6 grams of fiber, by far the best source of soluble fiber is oatmeal. Other good sources of soluble fiber are:

  • dried peas and beans
  • soybeans and soy products
  • fruit and vegetables, especially pectin rich fruit such as apples, grapes and citrus fruit
  • barley and other whole grains


Foods That Block Bad Cholesterol

Sterols and stanols are substances found in plants which act to prevent the body absorbing cholesterol. These substances occur naturally in fruit, vegetables and nuts. They are now also being used to fortify commercially produced foodstuffs, including certain brands of margarine, orange juice and yogurt drinks.

Oxidized cholesterol is considered dangerous because it contributes to the build up of plaque in the arteries. Foods which contain antioxidants therefore work to prevent the adverse effects of bad LDL cholesterol without having any effect on the levels of good HDL cholesterol.

Olive oil, particularly extra-virgin olive oil, is extremely high in antioxidants. Fruits which are rich in antioxidants include blueberries, grapes, cranberries, tomatoes, watermelon and papaya.

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Foods That Increase Good Cholesterol

HDL cholesterol is found in foods high in omega-3 fatty acids. Fish is an excellent source of omega-3, and the American Heart Association advises eating a minimum of two servings of fish a week. The best source of fatty acids are oily fish such as salmon, halibut, sardines, herring, mackerel, lake trout and albacore tuna. It is also possible to take fish oil supplements, although the Mayo Clinic advises that this is not as beneficial.

MackerelCredit: Jastrow (2004). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Many plant foods can also be excellent sources of fatty acids.

The best sources are peanuts and tree nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios and walnuts. Unfortunately, they are high in calories as well as fatty acids, so you only need to eat a small quantity as over-indulgence will lead to weight gain. Also, dry roasted nuts are preferable to nuts that are cooked in oil or coated with sugar.

Other good sources are flax, canola oil and avocados.

Food to Avoid

Trans fats are substances which have the unwanted effect of to raising levels of bad LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream and lowering levels of good HDL cholesterol. 

Food from animal sources, such as eggs, dairy products and meat, are high in saturated and trans fat, and should therefore be consumed in moderation. Although not everyone wants to be a total vegetarian or vegan, we can all reduce our bad fat intake dramatically by consuming lean meat and low fat dairy products.

Other foods high in saturated fat are deep fried foods, coconut and palm oil, chocolate, and processed and prepackaged convenience food.

Butter or Margarine?

Since butter is an animal fat and margarine is produced from vegetable oil, the simple approach to take is that margarine is preferable to butter, and vegetable oil is healthier than margarine.

However, some people prefer butter because it is a more natural product than margarine. The industrial processing which produces margarine from vegetable oil is hydrogenation, a process which produces trans fats. The harder the margarine the more it has been hydrogenated, so soft tub margarine is preferable to the stick margarine and, again, untreated vegetable oil is preferable to margarine. You should, therefore, read labels and buy a spread that is low in trans fat and hydrogenated oil. Also, whether you ultimately choose to use margarine or butter, reduce your calorie intake by using your chosen spread in moderation.
Western Pack ButterCredit: "Western-pack-butter" by Steve Karg. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons -

What About Sugar?

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association identifies a direct link between high sugar intake and unhealthy levels of LDL cholesterol. A simple way to dramatically reduce sugar intake is to avoid sweetened drinks such as soda, sports drinks and fruit juice. Breakfast cereals and processed foods also contain unhealthy levels of sugar.

It is also important to read labels. In the documentary That Sugar Film Damon Garneau explores the connection between sugar, weight gain and health. In the process he discovers that many foods marketed as "low fat" are just as unhealthy as high fat alternatives because they replace fat with excess amounts of sugar. He also dispels the myth that fruit juice is healthier than soda because it, too, contains high levels of sugar.


That Sugar Film
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Other factors which can contribute to elevated cholesterol are obesity, smoking and a sedentary lifestyle. Therefore, in addition to eating cholesterol lowering foods, it is also important to control weight through exercise and diet, to quit smoking, and, of course, to have regular medical checkups.