Want to maintain a healthy heart and brain? Keep a close eye on your cholesterol numbers.
LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol builds up in the arteries and forms plaque, which blocks blood flow to the brain. HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol picks up the LDL and takes it to the liver to be processed.
The optimal levels vary from person to person, so always check with your doctor first.
As a cardiologist who treats patients with high cholesterol, I always try to use diet as medicine first. Here are the four worst foods for high cholesterol — and what I eat instead to keep my heart healthy:
1. Red meat
Yes, that includes burgers, ribs, steak and pork chops. If you don’t want to cut out red meat altogether, focus on small amounts of lean meat. And by small, I mean a portion size of up to three ounces — and eat red meat at most, once a week.
Remember that poultry also contains saturated fat, so avoiding red meat doesn’t necessarily mean you should load up on chicken.
As for meat alternatives, I’m generally skeptical about engineered foods. To me, plants were never meant to bleed.
What to eat instead: Think fish and shellfish. Shrimp may be high in cholesterol, but as long as you don’t douse it with butter, it will supply you with plenty of protein while leaving your blood cholesterol alone.
Some other delicious lean protein options are white-fleshed fish like tilapia, halibut, cod and bass.
2. Anything fried
Frying food typically ups the calorie count because saturated or trans fats and cholesterol are absorbed by the foods during the process.
What to eat instead: Bake potatoes, kale or broccoli to a crisp when you’re craving crunch. Or, you can invest in an air fryer, which uses much less fat.
3. Processed meat
The World Health Organization has classified processed meats such as bacon, hot dogs and salami as carcinogens. Processed meat is also loaded in sodium and saturated fat.
What to eat instead: Fake bacon is unlikely to satisfy your cravings for a BLT. My advice? Cut way back on these products and make them special occasion treats.
4. Baked goods
Mass-produced cookies, cakes and pastries are often dense in calories, low in nutrients, and contain large amounts of fat (especially saturated fats like butter and shortening) and sugar. All of these are big culprits of high cholesterol.
What to eat instead: Bake at home, and control the amount and type of fat and sugar you use.
Dr. Elizabeth Klodas is a cardiologist and founder of Step One Foods. Trained at Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins, Dr. Klodas has published dozens of scientific articles throughout her career, authored a book for patients, “Slay the Giant: The Power of Prevention in Defeating Heart Disease,″ and served as founding editor-in-chief of Cardiosmart.org.