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Portfolio Diet: Lower Your Cholesterol One Bite at a Time with Plant-Based Eating

What if you could lower your cholesterol without remaking your entire approach to eating by simply incorporating more plants and fewer animal products in your diet? A long-term study of nearly 200,000 people interviewed every four years suggests it’s possible. 

The Portfolio Diet overlaps with the Mediterranean, DASH and MIND diets, which all emphasize whole grains, fruits and veggies, nuts, and plant proteins and oils. While the Portfolio Diet is not designed for weight loss — it’s specifically aimed at cholesterol reduction — you’ll likely experience that too, depending on how much of the program you adopt, especially its advice to cut way down on animal fats.

If this sounds like a vegetarian or vegan diet, you’re not far off. The difference with the Portfolio approach is you can choose the elements of plant-based eating that work best for you. Simply put, Portfolio is really just about incorporating more plants into your diet.

LDL, HDL and You

You often hear about “good” vs. “bad” cholesterol, but dietitians will tell you that value-laden phrases are not useful or helpful. (Can you go to jail for bad cholesterol? No. Think “healthy” — or “unhealthy” — instead.)

When your doctor sends you for your annual lab work, cholesterol is usually reported as a ratio that starts with HDL, what people think of as the “good” cholesterol. Can your HDL — for “high-density lipoprotein” — be too high? Yes, but it’s not common. Where HDL can be concerning is when you consider the next thing on your lipid panel, which is total cholesterol, a combination of HDL and LDL numbers.

LDL — or low-density, the unhealthy cholesterol — is what causes cardiovascular disease, when plaque builds up and blocks arteries. LDL is driven by consumption of saturated fats, especially from animal sources but also things like coconut oil. (Pro tip: Any fat that stays solid at room temperature is going to make your LDL cholesterol go up.) An optimal LDL cholesterol lab value is less than 100; aim for a total cholesterol value of 200 or less.


Cholesterol and Plant-Based Eating

The Portfolio Diet encourages four types of food:

  • Plant-based proteins. Examples include beans and soy foods like edamame and tofu. (Be sure to look at the saturated-fat content on labels of any soy meat substitutes you might consider.)
  • Plant-sterol enriched margarine. Plant sterols — or phytosterols, present in all plants — have a chemical structure similar to cholesterol that stops it from being absorbed in the intestine.
  • Nuts. A handful of almonds a day has been shown to make a difference; other tree nuts like walnuts and pecans also may reduce cholesterol but have been less studied.
  • Soluble fiber. Three daily servings of soluble fiber are recommended, best taken as whole grains, fruits and vegetables like oats, barley, eggplant and okra. Natural psyllium products also can supplement.

There are two types of fiber, insoluble and soluble. Both are found in all plants, but humans cannot absorb insoluble fiber. (It benefits us by providing bulk for our stool.) Soluble fiber forms a gel-like substance that speeds the magic-carpet ride of food passing through your digestive system, absorbing LDL cholesterol and other toxins along the way. Oatmeal, whole wheat cereals and beans all are excellent sources of soluble fiber.

Let’s Get Started

First, find out what your cholesterol levels are. If you have a family history of high cholesterol, medicine might be required; always have a conversation with your physician on what is best for you.

Before you make any changes, take inventory of your current diet. (Online food trackers are great for this, or just write it down.) Do you consume a lot of processed snacks? Try using nuts in place of chips. Then see what other plant-based foods could follow. If margarine is a turn-off, know that today’s margarines are not what you remember — partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and other artificial trans fats linked to heart disease were banned in 2018.

Unless you want to go raw, plant-based diets can require more cooking. But you don’t have to be that savvy in the kitchen to pull this off. Use the grocery store to your advantage — frozen vegetables (or brown rice and quinoa packets) you steam in the microwave are just as beneficial as a fancy roasted eggplant dish you spent hours on. Or try a soy milk or plant-based milk on your cereal. Don’t want to deal with dried beans? Use canned! Put them in the food processor and make your own dips. Canned beans can substitute for ground beef in many recipes.

Focusing on alternatives will help you get into the habit of swaps, and that gives you confidence to make your next change. For anyone concerned about cholesterol, incorporating any part of this diet into your eating routine will be beneficial — even a single conscious, healthy change is so much better than doing nothing at all.

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