Is a Low-Carb Diet Good for High Cholesterol?

Get the lowdown on how low-carb diets affect cholesterol levels, and find out more ways to lower LDL and boost HDL.

January 02, 2020
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"Healthy cereals assortment from top left clockwise linseed, chia, oat, amaranth seeds, quinoa, and barley.."

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While nutrition advice may have the reputation of changing often, the advice on lowering total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol numbers has stayed strong. There are two ways to lower cholesterol numbers: exercise more and avoid saturated fat.

And while that's still true, recent findings by researchers on the benefits of the low-carb paleo diet have surprised nutritionists, including this author. Additionally, a meta-analysis review of studies revealed that the paleo diet may lower blood cholesterol levels and other risks for heart disease, though the authors state that more well-designed trials are still needed.

However, the paleo diet can be tricky (and expensive!) to maintain long-term. Cooking free-range lean meats, only certain low-carb organic vegetables and other allowed whole paleo foods, always from scratch, means devoting a great deal of time to food prep. Plus, one of the best "convenience" foods, heart-healthy canned beans, is not allowed on the paleo diet.

Other review studies have examined how a generally low-carb diet may affect risk factors for heart disease. While these diets had favorable effects on "good" (HDL) cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure, "bad" (LDL) cholesterol was not lowered and researchers note that the diets' long-term health effects are unknown.

This brings us to some good suggestions for lowering "bad" cholesterol:

Cut down on added sugar — Low-carb dieting certainly can have some benefits if the carbs you're cutting are added sugars, bottled sauces, sweet beverages, packaged desserts and the like. In fact, researchers have reported that even if people don't lose weight, cutting sugar can still lower their cholesterol levels.

Dish up a bowl of barley — If you're cutting some carbs, don't ditch two fiber-containing grains, barley and oatmeal. Oatmeal has long been recognized as a grain with cholesterol-lowering benefits. But it turns out that beta glucan, the same type of fiber that helps bowls of oatmeal lower cholesterol, is found in larger amounts in barley. Researchers recommend about 3 grams of beta glucan daily. Cooked oatmeal has 2 grams per cup, while barley has 2.5 grams of beta glucan in just 3/4 cup.

Eat the Mediterranean way — The Mediterranean diet isn't a low-carb diet, but it is low in saturated fats. It also can raise levels of HDL cholesterol, which helps eliminate excess cholesterol from the bloodstream. However, HDL doesn't perform this job as effectively in people at high risk for heart disease. Research has shown that the Mediterranean diet can improve the function of HDL in people with high risk of cardiovascular disease as well as lower overall risk of the disease.

Walk and weight-train — No switch on this advice. Exercising daily, or at least five times a week, by raising your heart rate is still one of the most-powerful ways to lower LDL and raise HDL levels, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. One research review found that light weight training may offer more benefits than other forms of exercise in terms of lowering cholesterol.

Serena Ball, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian nutritionist, food writer and recipe developer. She blogs at TeaspoonOfSpice.com and is the author of the best-selling The 30-Minute Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. Follow her @TspCurry on Twitter and Instagram.

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