High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease. If you have high cholesterol without known heart disease, your doctor will first give you a little time (usually three to six months) to lower it naturally through lifestyle changes. If your numbers are still high or not improving, your doctor may recommend medication to lower your cholesterol to help reduce your cardiovascular risk
Diet, exercise, and stress management are the three most important lifestyle factors for lowering your “bad” LDL cholesterol and increasing your “good” HDL cholesterol—as well as lowering your blood sugar, blood pressure, weight, and risk for most diseases.
Food is fuel
Think of your body as a machine — a very complex one that requires specialized fuel. Put cheap, crummy gas in your car, and after a while, it’s going to gum up the engine. Everything you put in your body affects its parts and systems. Unhealthy foods are, in a very real sense, poison that damages the parts and worsens numerous functions within your body, leading to illness and disease.
But just as bad food damages your body, good food helps to heal and maintain it. Changing your eating habits, along with getting plenty of exercise and reducing your stress, can lower your cholesterol and put you on the path to better overall health.
If poor eating habits contributed to your cholesterol, chances are, your diet has been less-than-ideal for some time. You may be facing down an entirely new way of eating—and that can be somewhat stressful, especially on short notice and under already-stressful circumstances. If your doctor recommended that you lose weight, eating to lower your cholesterol often overlaps with eating to drop extra pounds.
Breaking habits isn’t easy, but a positive mindset, some support from your friends and family, and a lot of self-compassion will go a long way toward making transformative changes in your life that will help improve its quality—and extend it.
What should you eat (or not eat) to lower your cholesterol?
Nutrition is a highly complex topic, but eating a nutritious diet can be as simple as you want it to be. And most of us want it to be simple, so we’ll start with some general rules of thumb for eating to lower your “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise your “good” HDL cholesterol.
- Cholesterols in food, which comes exclusively from animal products, don’t necessarily raise your blood cholesterol. But in many cases, foods that have cholesterol also have high levels of saturated fat, which can increase “bad” cholesterol in your body.
- Strive to consume mostly plants in your diet—fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and whole grains.
- Don’t be afraid to perk up your lean meats and vegetables with lots of herbs and spices, which have numerous positive nutritional properties.
- Stay hydrated throughout the day to keep your body’s system working optimally.
- Aim to eat mostly whole, unprocessed or lightly processed foods. In general, the less processed it is, the better it is for you. Highly processed foods contain a lot of added sugar, unhealthy fats, salt, artificial ingredients, and chemical preservatives.
Here is a high-level rundown of the groups of foods that help lower cholesterol, followed by some tips for creating a cholesterol-lowering meal plan that works for you.
There are bad fats, and there are good fats. Good fats are unsaturated, which means they don’t turn solid at room temperature. Good fats come from plants, and you can get them through oils like olive, canola, and sunflower oil. Food sources for healthy fats include nuts, seeds, and avocados.
Bad fats are saturated fat, which means they’re solid at room temperature—think lard, butter, or shortening. Saturated fats are mostly found in whole-milk dairy products, red meat, and fried foods. Trans fat, another type of saturated fat, was banned in foods in January 2021, but it can still be found in some processed foods like baked goods and chips—if there’s less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, it doesn’t have to be listed on the label.
Nutrition guidelines recommend eating 20 to 35 grams of fiber every day—five to 10 grams should come from soluble fiber, which turns into a gel-like substance in your digestive tract and “soaks up” LDL cholesterol, expelling it from the body in your stool.
Fruits that are high in soluble fiber include:
- Citrus fruits
- Black beans
- Brussels sprouts
- Sweet potatoes
Fatty fish lowers cholesterol in a couple of ways. First, eating fish twice a week, as recommended by nutritional experts, means you’re not eating meat twice a week. Meat contains saturated fat that can raise cholesterol. Additionally, fatty fish contains omega-3 fats, which reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, a type of fat found in your blood. Omega-3 fats help lower inflammation in the body, which can lower the risk for cardiovascular events (e.g. strokes, heart attacks) and help protect the heart against abnormal rhythms. The best fish for reducing cholesterol include salmon, mackerel, trout, oysters, and sardines.
Where can you get omega-3s besides fish??
If you’re not a fan of seafood, try these omega-3 rich foods instead:
- Seaweed and algae (nori)
- Chia seeds, hemp seeds, and flaxseeds
- Nuts—especially walnuts
- Edamame (immature soybeans)
- Kidney beans
- Soybean oil
Whole grains can help prevent cardiovascular disease. Studies show that eating whole grains lowers “bad” LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol but has no effect on “good” HDL cholesterol or triglycerides. The greatest positive effects were seen with whole-oat grains, which you can have for breakfast every day as oatmeal. If you do, choose whole oats and consider adding berries, spices (e.g. cinnamon), and a splash of milk.
Other sources of whole grains include:
- Brown rice
- Popcorn (yes, popcorn!—but not from the theater, and avoid the buttered variety)
- Whole-wheat pasta or bread
Beans & legumes
Beans and legumes are rich in soluble fiber, which help absorb cholesterol in your digestive tract, and since they take a long time to digest, you’ll feel fuller longer after eating them.
Different types of cholesterol-busting beans include:
- Pinto beans
- Black beans
- Navy beans
- Chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
- Black-eyed peas
Nuts & seeds
Nuts and seeds are heart-healthy foods that are high in essential nutrients. Just two ounces of nuts each day can lower “bad” LDL cholesterol by five percent. A recent study suggests that eating one-quarter cup of nuts just a couple of times a week is associated with a decreased risk of dying from heart disease.
Supplements to help lower cholesterol
While it’s always best to get your nutrients from real food, supplements can do just what they say—supplement your diet to eliminate deficiencies or get an extra boost of targeted nutrition. Talk to your doctor before starting a supplement.
Foods fortified with plant sterols and stanols
Sterols and stanols are substances extracted from plants. They inhibit the ability of the body to absorb cholesterol from food. A number of foods fortified with these compounds are on grocery store shelves, or you can take them as a supplement. Two grams of plant sterols or stanols each day may lower your “bad” LDL cholesterol by around 10 percent.
By far, the best way to get more fiber in your diet is to eat more foods that are packed with it. But if you need extra fiber in your diet or can’t get the recommended 20 to 35 grams per day through food, a fiber supplement known as psyllium, the active ingredient in bulk-forming laxatives, offers four grams of soluble fiber.
Fish oil supplements
If you need more omega-3 fats in your diet, look to a fish oil, cod liver oil, or krill oil supplement. If you’re vegetarian, you can get your omega-3 fats from algae oil supplements.
How do you create a diet to lower your cholesterol?
The best way to eat for lower cholesterol and better overall health depends on you: what you like to eat, whether you have allergies or other dietary restrictions, and whether you’re vegan or vegetarian. You can decide on what foods you’ll want to eat in a number of ways.
Online recipe sites
Websites dedicated to healthy recipes abound, and you can find numerous sites focused on offering a wealth of flavorful cholesterol-lowering recipes. Bookmark or print recipes that look tasty to you.
Meal kit subscriptions
A subscription meal service sends meal kits to your door weekly, containing all of the ingredients you need to make nutritious meals. Most of these services have options for kits that lower cholesterol, but you don’t necessarily need to limit yourself. Vegetarian and low-fat meal options can also help with cholesterol-lowering. Choose meals that look delicious and satisfying to your palate, and when they arrive, you’ll have your dinner plans set for the week.
Stick to a specialty diet
From keto and paleo to vegan and vegetarian, specialty diets abound. Keto and paleo aren’t ideal for those with high cholesterol, since these diets are heavy in meat and their by-products. Vegan (no animal-based foods, including meat, dairy, and eggs,) vegetarian (no meat) and pescetarian (replaces land animal meat with seafood) can be good options.
Diets like the DASH and Mediterranean diets are designed specifically for people with risk factors for heart disease.
The DASH diet
Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH, is a diet based on studies sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Research shows that this diet lowers high blood pressure and reduces cholesterol, lowering your risk for heart disease. The DASH diet focuses on heart-healthy foods like:
- Whole grains
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy
- Lean proteins like chicken and fish
The Mediterranean diet
Like the DASH diet (and any healthy, heart-friendly diet), the Mediterranean diet is based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean meats. This diet supports cardiovascular health as well as optimal brain function, lower blood sugar levels, and lower blood pressure. While there are no hard-and-fast rules for following the Mediterranean diet, the general guidelines — and the countless Mediterranean diet recipes online — help you incorporate healthier foods into your diet. These are a few of the easy-to-follow guidelines:
Eat as much as you want: fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, fish, seafood, and extra-virgin olive oil.
Eat in moderation: poultry, eggs, yogurt, and cheeses
Eat rarely: red meat, processed meats, added sugars, and highly processed foods.
Tips for healthier eating with ease:
- Institute Meatless Mondays, Fish Fridays, and Salmon Sundays (or similar) to cut down your meat consumption.
- Help combat sugar cravings with sweet fruits like oranges, grapes (try freezing them!), strawberries, and bananas.
- Look in the specialty or health food aisles at your grocery store for healthier swaps.
- Eat the colors of the rainbow when consuming fruits and vegetables to get as many different nutrients as possible.
- Rethink old beliefs about food, such as “If there’s no meat, it’s not dinner” or “You can’t have a side vegetable and a salad but no starch!”
- To help battle cravings for candy, chips, and other unhealthy snacks, go for a walk. Or distract yourself—call a friend, run an errand, scrub the bathtub. Cravings usually last around 15 minutes and then subside.
- Stay motivated with a food tracking app that will keep track of your intake of nutrients, including fiber, sugar, and fat, and show you your daily results and progress over time.
- Make fewer trips to the grocery store. Don’t shop hungry and shop the perimeter—most of the processed stuff is in the aisles.
FAQ: Which foods are good and bad for cholesterol?
Here are the top five foods people are most likely to ask about to find out whether they’re good or bad for cholesterol:
Coffee: filtered is okay
Coffee may affect cholesterol levels due to the diterpenes found in our favorite breakfast drink. These suppress the body’s ability to produce substances that help break down cholesterol. However, research shows that if you use a coffee filter to brew your cuppa, it’s unlikely to increase your cholesterol.
Coconut oil: not as good as olive or sunflower oil
Although some studies have found that coconut oil helps reduce “bad” LDL and total cholesterol levels, others have shown that it increases them. The jury is still out on coconut oil for lowering high cholesterol. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends using coconut oil less often than olive or sunflower oil, whose heart-health benefits are well-known.
Eggs: keep it to one a day, and you’ll be okay
Although a large egg contains about 187 mg of cholesterol, eating less than 250 mg of eggs (about 1.5 eggs) each day doesn’t appear to be significantly associated with cardiovascular death in American adults. However, eating more than 250 mg of eggs each day is associated with higher all-cause mortality in participants. However, no significant link was found between dietary cholesterol consumption and mortality related to heart disease. Don’t cook your eggs in butter, and skip the side of bacon.
Sugar: one of the very worst—avoid as much as possible
Large amounts of added sugar in your diet increase your total cholesterol, lower your “good” HDL cholesterol, and significantly increase triglyceride levels. High cholesterol is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the damage too much added sugar can do to your body. While American adults consume an average of 77 grams of sugar each day, the American Heart Association’s recommendation for a heart-healthy amount of sugar is 36 grams (nine teaspoons) for men and 25 grams (six teaspoons) for women.
Milk: whole is better than skim for higher good cholesterol
A six-week, randomized and controlled study on the effects of whole milk (3.5% fat) and skim milk (0.1% fat) on cholesterol levels found that drinking a half-liter of whole milk per day significantly increased “good” HDL cholesterol, while skim milk had little effect. Additionally, neither whole nor skim milk has a statistically significant impact on “bad” LDL cholesterol or triglycerides.
Take control of your heart health with Forward
Forward members enjoy full access to our doctor-led Heart Health Program, which includes a full lipid panel, genetic testing, and a range of risk assessments. Set personal heart health goals, and walk away with a personalized plan to reach them. Ongoing monitoring keeps you on top of your numbers, and the Forward app gives you access to your test results, goals, progress, and latest information on the best way to protect your heart. Our weight management program helps you tackle health issues from different angles for a holistic approach to better health and a longer life.