The DASH Diet and Cholesterol

By Sarah Samaan, Rosanne Rust, Cynthia Kleckner

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that comes from your diet but is also made from scratch by your body. Although it’s often lumped in with fats, it’s technically a lipid, a broader category that also includes fats.

Everyone’s body creates some cholesterol. Some people are genetically super-producers; others naturally manufacture pretty meager amounts of the stuff. That’s why cholesterol in the diet doesn’t have a huge influence on the cholesterol level in the blood.

Why cholesterol matters

The two types of cholesterol you need to concern yourself with are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).

  • LDL is the “bad” cholesterol because it’s the one that clogs up arteries. You need a little bit of it to keep your cell membranes healthy, your brain working smoothly, and your hormones at healthy levels, but most people’s bodies make far more than they need.

    Most of the LDL swimming through your bloodstream is generated in your liver, a highly creative organ that can make cholesterol out of just about any sort of food. Dump in a load of saturated fat (typically from red meat and whole-fat dairy), and it goes to town.

    Trans fat (found in partially hydrogenated oils, especially hard margarine and shortening, and many processed baked goods) revs up the liver’s cholesterol-creation system even more. Carrying around some extra body fat, especially the type that collects around your tummy, also boosts LDL production. Smoking does too.

  • HDL is the good stuff that works to protect your blood vessels. It works in opposition to LDL, pulling bad cholesterol out of the arteries and taking it back to the liver to be processed and eliminated. In general, the higher the HDL the better. Monounsaturated fats (from olive oil, avocados, and nuts), exercise, and alcohol in moderation raise HDL.

    Think “H is for happy; L is for lousy” if you have trouble remembering which cholesterol is which.

If your LDL level is high, then you’re more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke, whereas high levels of HDL may help protect you. The optimal levels vary, depending on your other risk factors. These include hypertension, diabetes, smoking, and whether you’ve already started to develop cholesterol plaque in your arteries.

How the DASH Diet can help

The effect of a strict Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet on cholesterol is modest yet still meaningful. In a study comparing the DASH Diet to a standard Western control diet, with no weight loss allowed, LDL dropped nearly 11 points. The diet, if followed to the letter, will actually drop HDL a little and have no effect on triglycerides.

If those results sound underwhelming, remember that the great thing about the DASH Diet is that you can modify it to suit your needs. For example:

  • If your LDL needs some work, back off the red meat and add in more fish and soy-based foods.

  • If your HDL is running low, try working in a few more monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil and nuts.