A person’s diet plays a crucial role in how healthy their cholesterol levels are. Eating foods that keep cholesterol within a healthy range can help prevent health issues, including a heart attack or stroke.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that travels through the bloodstream as a part of two different lipoproteins: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
People sometimes refer to LDL cholesterol as “bad” cholesterol because it causes fatty deposits to build up in the blood vessels. These deposits can block blood flow and cause heart attacks or strokes.
HDL, or “good,” cholesterol helps remove cholesterol from the body through the liver. High levels of HDL cholesterol can reduce the risk of heart problems and strokes.
This article lists foods that a person can incorporate into their diet to improve their cholesterol levels. It also looks into which foods to avoid.
Okra, or lady’s fingers, is a warm-season vegetable that people cultivate throughout the world.
Researchers have found that a gel in okra called mucilage can help lower cholesterol by binding to it during digestion. This helps cholesterol leave the body through stool.
A small 2019 study found that among 40 participants with mildly high cholesterol, eating two apples a day reduced both total and LDL cholesterol levels. It also lowered levels of triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood.
Avocados are rich in heart-healthy nutrients. A 2015 study concluded that eating one avocado a day as part of a moderate fat, cholesterol-lowering diet can improve cardiovascular disease risk, specifically by lowering LDL cholesterol without lowering HDL cholesterol.
Omega-3 fats, such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are essential polyunsaturated fats found in fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines, with well-documented anti-inflammatory and heart health benefits.
EPA can help protect the blood vessels and heart from disease by lowering levels of triglycerides, a fat that enters the bloodstream after a meal. This is one of many ways that it may prevent atherosclerosis and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Other heart health benefits include preventing cholesterol crystals from forming in the arteries, reducing inflammation, and improving the way that HDL cholesterol works.
Oats significantly improved blood cholesterol levels over a period of 4 weeks in a small 2017 study. Participants with mildly elevated cholesterol levels ate 70 g of oats per day in the form of porridge. This provided them with 3 g of soluble fiber per day, the amount that is needed to lower cholesterol, according to research.
The team found that the participants’ LDL cholesterol levels fell by 11.6% in 28 days.
Other research confirms that the soluble fiber in oats lowers LDL cholesterol levels and can improve cardiovascular risk as part of a heart-healthy diet.
A person can add oats to their diet by eating porridge or oat-based cereal for breakfast.
A 2018 study concluded that beta-glucan, a type of soluble dietary fiber found in barley, as well as oats, can help lower LDL cholesterol.
A 2020 study shed more light on how this happens. The team found that beta-glucan reduces LDL cholesterol by trapping bile acids and limiting how much cholesterol the body absorbs during digestion.
The body uses cholesterol to produce bile acids, replacing those that are trapped, which leads to an overall reduction in cholesterol levels.
The beta-glucan in barley also has a positive effect on the gut microbiome and blood glucose control, further benefiting heart health.
Nuts are a good source of unsaturated fats, which can help lower LDL cholesterol levels, especially when they replace saturated fats in the diet.
Nuts are also rich in fiber, which helps keep the body from absorbing cholesterol and promotes its excretion.
All nuts are suitable for a heart-healthy, cholesterol-lowering diet, including:
A 2019 analysis of 46 investigations into the effects of soy on LDL cholesterol found that a median intake of 25 g of soy protein per day over 6 weeks lowered LDL cholesterol by a clinically significant 4.76 milligrams per deciliter.
Overall, the researchers concluded that soy protein can reduce LDL cholesterol by around 3–4% in adults, cementing its place in a heart-healthy, cholesterol-lowering diet.
Cocoa, which can be found in dark chocolate, contains flavonoids, a group of compounds in many fruits and vegetables. Their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties can benefit health in various ways.
In a 2015 study, participants drank a beverage containing cocoa flavanol twice a day for a month. By the end of the trial, their LDL cholesterol levels and blood pressure had decreased, and their HDL cholesterol levels had increased.
However, eat dark chocolate products in moderation, as they can be high in saturated fats and sugar.
A small 2015 study that included 39 participants who had type 2 diabetes and were overweight or had obesity demonstrated the positive effects of eating lentils on cholesterol levels. After 8 weeks of eating 60 g of lentil sprouts per day, HDL levels improved, and LDL and triglyceride levels decreased.
People can use garlic in a wide range of dishes, and it has many health benefits.
However, these studies involved garlic supplements — it would be difficult to include enough garlic in the diet to have a noticeable effect on cholesterol levels.
Antioxidants called catechins in certain teas, such as green tea, can be very beneficial to health.
A 2020 study found that green tea consumption significantly improved cholesterol levels, reducing both total and LDL cholesterol levels without lowering HDL cholesterol levels. The researchers call for further studies to confirm their findings.
Extra virgin olive oil features regularly in the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. One of its many uses is as a cooking oil.
Substituting saturated fat, found in butter, for monounsaturated fat, found in extra virgin olive oil, might help reduce LDL levels.
Moreover, extra virgin olive oil has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can be very beneficial to cardiovascular and overall health.
A 2016 review demonstrated the link between fiber intake and a reduction in blood fat levels and blood pressure. Including more fiber in the diet can help lower levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol.
Kale is also very rich in antioxidants, which are good for the heart and help reduce inflammation.
Below are some ideas for meals that may help improve cholesterol levels:
- apple and peanut butter on whole grain toast
- cinnamon oats and low fat plain Greek yogurt
- oatmeal with blueberries and almonds
- vegetables and hummus in whole grain pita
- Mediterranean vegetable stew with barley
- kale salad topped with edamame and avocado
Try the following snacks in moderation as part of a cholesterol-lowering diet:
- fresh or frozen fruits
- raw vegetables dipped in hummus or guacamole
- whole grain pretzels or crackers
- roasted chickpeas or edamame
- rye crisps with tuna
- low fat or fat free yogurt
- a handful of pistachios or another nut
- apple slices with almond butter
- a granola bar made from oats, nuts, and dried fruit
The AHA recommend reducing the amount of saturated and trans fats in the diet to lower cholesterol and heart disease risk.
To reduce levels of “bad” cholesterol, limit the intake of the following foods, which contain high levels of saturated and trans fats:
- fatty meat, such as lamb and pork
- lard and shortening
- butter and cream
- palm oil
- cakes and donuts
- potato chips
- fried foods
- full fat dairy products
Keeping LDL cholesterol levels low is important, as it decreases the risk of heart disease and stroke.
A person can do this by maintaining a healthy diet that includes high-fiber fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fatty fish, unprocessed soy, and the occasional dark chocolate treat.
It is also important to limit the intake of foods high in saturated fat, as these can increase LDL cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease, stroke, and obesity.