11 Tips for Eating Out With High Cholesterol
So you’ve been told by your doctor that you need to watch your cholesterol. But that’s hard to do when you’ve got an invite for dinner with friends at the new place that just opened in town. Rest assured, you can eat out and still manage to keep your cholesterol in check. It’ll take a little prep, but these simple tips and tricks will help you find something on any menu to satisfy a grumbling stomach—and your doctor’s orders.
Go With a Heart-Healthy Mindset
Think of this as setting a little pre-dinner intention: You'll approach the menu with your cholesterol in mind. You'll look for dishes low in saturated fat and heavy on fruits and vegetables, eaten raw, steamed, or grilled, which are naturally low in cholesterol. Making this promise to yourself can help ensure you don’t consume high amounts of greasy foods with saturated and trans fats, which can cause LDL (bad) cholesterol levels to rise, says Jo Ann Carson, Ph.D., R.D., of the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee.
One way to ensure you pick something healthy off the menu is to focus on foods that fit the parameters of the Mediterranean diet. Along with lean protein and leafy greens, the Mediterranean diet favors healthy fats like avocados, nuts, and olive oil that are known to help lower LDL cholesterol levels, according to a study published in Circulation. Ask for olive oil instead of butter with your bread at dinner, and choose avocado toast over pancakes if you’re out for brunch.
Animal products like steak are higher in cholesterol as opposed to plant-based foods, because animals themselves produce cholesterol, says Dylan Steen, M.D., assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. If you’re choosing between steak and fish on the menu, go with fish, which is high in heart-healthy omega-3s. Better yet, look for foods made from tofu or beans—high in soluble fiber, they can help lower cholesterol levels. “It’s all about eating a balance of nutritious foods,” Dr. Steen says.
Downsize Your Dinner Plate
You know the drill: You order dinner at a restaurant and when your plate comes, it’s heaping with mounds of totally delicious, completely not-healthy foods. “The quantities of things we eat are so enormous,” Dr. Steen says. “Overall, it’s one of the big factors contributing to high cholesterol.” Often, restaurant meals are really two or even three portions. When it arrives, divide your plate in half so you know how much to eat at the table, then ask your server to box up the rest for later.
Ask About Food Prep
You know to avoid fried foods (you do, right?) but it’s not always easy to tell how your meal is being prepared. So ask. It’s OK, your server is used to it. Are the veggies cooked in butter? One tablespoon contains 7 grams of saturated fat, not great for your LDL cholesterol levels. Is the rice cooked with coconut oil? That’s primarily saturated fat as well. Ask if the chef can use olive oil—or, what the heck, just have your veggies steamed instead.
Worried the Italian restaurant you’re headed to won’t have healthy choices? Rather than stress over the menu once you arrive, look it up online before you go, so you can figure out what works with your diet. Most restaurants offer salad, so that’s a good place to start (hold the creamy dressing), along with dishes cooked in marinara sauce (skip the cream-based ones). Having a plan will help keep you from impulsively ordering things you know aren’t good for you—but are too yummy to resist.
Know Your Food Terms
There are many words used to describe foods and food preparation—understanding what they mean is key to making sure you order right. Start by avoiding these words on the menu: Creamed, escalloped, au gratin (cooked with cheese), béchamel and béarnaise (butter-based sauces), aioli (a fancy word for mayo), tempura (a Japanese version of battered and fried), scampi (garlic and butter sauce), and of course, fried (what it sounds like!). Steamed, grilled, smoked, and baked are generally healthier ways to prepare a meal.
Swap Soda for Seltzer
Soda is not what you need when you’re watching your cholesterol—the added sugars can lower your HDL levels, causing LDL to rise. Even if you opt for the diet version, the bubbly beverage is packed with artificial sweeteners, which up your cravings for even more sweets, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health. Swap your cola for sparkling water or seltzer instead. Add a couple wedges of lime or lemon and you have a refreshing, cholesterol-friendly drink.
Get Your Whole Grain On
Reaching for a dinner roll? Make sure it’s a whole grain one. “Whole grains have a variety of different vitamins and minerals other food groups don’t have,” Dr. Steen says. For example, they contain dietary fiber, which is good for cholesterol. (Soluble fiber found in oats, flax seed, and oat bran, has been found to lower LDL cholesterol levels.) Same goes for weekend brunch: Choose whole wheat toast over white, and all-grain bagels over plain.
Even if you go into your evening out with a game plan, hearing what other people are ordering at the restaurant (buttery mashed potatoes, mozzarella sticks, and apple pie a la mode never sounded so good…) might sway you to change your mind last-minute. Borrow this classic dietician trick: Order your meal first. This allows you to stick to your healthy diet and avoid having your good intentions derailed by the fried dishes and sweet desserts your friends might order.
How to Survive Dessert
No dinner out is complete without that final course—but if you’re watching your cholesterol, it’s also one of the trickiest to navigate. Two options: Choose something fruit-based like sorbet or frozen yogurt with fresh fruit (fruit is high in soluble fiber, good for lowering overall cholesterol) or go for a glass of sweeter red dessert wine instead—resveratrol, a naturally occurring compound found in wine and grapes, may lower LDL cholesterol levels, according to research.
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Heart Health and Mediterranean Diet: Harvard Health. (2018). “Diet Review: Mediterranean Diet.” hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-weight/diet-reviews/mediterranean-diet/
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Red Wine and Health: Mayo Clinic. (2019). “Red Wine and Resveratrol: Good for Your Heart?” mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/red-wine/art-20048281