Managing your diabetes isn’t only about your blood sugars or your A1C levels. Other numbers that you need to be aware of (and keep in a healthy range) are your cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that your body makes and that is also found in animal foods.
Blood cholesterol is carried on proteins called lipoproteins. Two types of lipoproteins carry cholesterol throughout the body:
- LDL (low-density lipoprotein), or bad cholesterol. This makes up most of the body’s cholesterol. High LDL levels can raise the risk of heart disease and stroke.
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein), or good cholesterol. This latches on to cholesterol and takes it back to the liver. The liver then flushes it out of the body. A high HDL level can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.
People with diabetes are more prone to having high cholesterol, says the American Heart Association; that, in turn raises the risk of heart disease. Luckily, there are things that you can do to lower your LDL cholesterol and keep it at a safe level. Speaking of safe levels, your provider may recommend that you get your LDL cholesterol to below 100 mg/dl or even below 70 mg/dl. Be sure to find out your LDL target.
1. Boost your soluble fiber intake.
Soluble fiber is a type of fiber that binds to cholesterol in the digestive tract and removes it from the body. The National Lipid Association states, “Eating 5 to 10 grams of soluble fiber a day can help lower total and LDL cholesterol by 5 to 11 points, and sometimes more.” What foods have soluble fiber?
- Beans (e.g., chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans): 1-3 grams soluble fiber per 1/2 cup
- Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, green beans: 1 or more grams soluble fiber per 1/2 cup cooked
- Berries (raspberries, blueberries, strawberries): 0.3 to 1.1 grams soluble fiber per 1 cup
- Flaxseed: 1.1 grams soluble fiber per 1 tablespoon
- Oat bran: 2.2 grams soluble fiber per 3/4 cup
- Psyllium-based laxatives (e.g., Metamucil): 4 grams soluble fiber per 2 teaspoons of psyllium
By including a source of soluble fiber at each meal and snacks, you can easily get your 5-10 grams every day! For more information, visit the website of The National Lipid Association.
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2. Cook with liquid vegetable oils.
We know, cooking with butter is so tasty, but that doesn’t do your heart health any favors. Switch to an oil such as olive oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, or peanut oil to help lower your LDL. These oils are high in healthy unsaturated fats, which can get and keep your cholesterol at a safe level. Limit fats that are solid at room temperature: butter, stick margarine, shortening, lard, and coconut oil.
Losing weight isn’t always easy, but if you’re overweight or obese, losing even 10 to 20 pounds can do wonders to improve your health, including lowering your LDL cholesterol. Focusing on portions, filling up on low-calorie vegetables, and making a point to include a healthy protein food at each of your meals to keep you feeling full are just a few ways to help you drop a few pounds. For a more focused approach, meet with a registered dietitian for an individualized eating plan.
4. Include whey protein in your eating plan.
Whey is the liquid that remains after milk has been curdled and strained. Research shows that whey protein can lower LDL cholesterol, along with reducing inflammation. Including dairy foods, such as low-fat milk and yogurt, in your eating plan will give you whey; you can also get whey from a protein powder that contains whey. But go easy on how much protein powder you use — it contains calories, and using too much of a protein supplement may not be a good idea if you have kidney problems.
5. Be active.
Regular physical activity can increase your HDL, or good, cholesterol along with lowering LDL cholesterol (and blood pressure, too). Aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week is the goal. Walking, cycling, swimming, and dancing are some examples of aerobic exercise. But don’t forget to add some strength training, such as lifting weights, using resistance bands, or doing calisthenics. Always check with your health care provider before starting any type of exercise program to make sure it’s safe for you.
Constant stress can increase your blood sugars and blood pressure. Stress may even raise your LDL cholesterol, possibly due to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, and also as a result of the body releasing free fatty acids to be used for energy. Plus, when you’re feeling stressed, you’re less likely to choose healthy foods and stick with your physical activity plan. Deep breathing, going for a walk, doing some art (try an adult coloring book!), and carving out time in your day for yourself are relatively simple but effective ways to help you manage, if not banish, stress.
7. Get your phytosterols.
Phytosterols, which include plant sterols and stanols, are substances found in plant membranes that block cholesterol from being absorbed in the digestive tract. Eating foods containing phytosterols can lower your LDL cholesterol by up to 14%! They’re so effective that the National Cholesterol Education Program recommends aiming for 2 grams of phytosterols every day. Foods that contain phytosterols include:
- Olive oil
- Almond butter
- Wheat germ
- Oat bran
- Pumpkin seeds
Phytosterols are added to some margarines, and are also available as a dietary supplement.
8. Eat fatty fish.
You can lower your LDL cholesterol as well as your triglycerides (blood fats) by eating fatty fish at least twice a week. When you eat more fish, you usually eat less red meat, which has saturated fat that raises LDL cholesterol. Plus, fish provides a healthy fat called omega-3 fats that lower triglycerides and keeps your heart rhythm normal. Examples of fatty fish include:
- Bluefin tuna
- Black cod
- Striped bass
Want to learn more about diabetes and cholesterol? Read “Natural Ways to Lower Your Cholesterol,” “Your Cholesterol Questions Answered,” and “Statin Alternatives: Other Medications That Can Lower Cholesterol.”