Food has a direct impact on many aspects of your health, including your heart health. Certain foods can improve your cholesterol levels and, in turn, lower your risk of heart disease. Keeping your cholesterol in a normal range by choosing heart-healthy foods will help you live a healthier life.
This article will describe several types of food and how they can be part of your plan for controlling cholesterol.
Besides being a good source of plant-based protein and minerals such as iron and magnesium, beans are a great source of fiber. In particular, beans are rich in soluble fiber—which dissolves in water to form a gel-like material as it passes through your digestive tract. Soluble fiber is known for lowering cholesterol, specifically LDL, or “bad” cholesterol.
Nuts might be small, but they pack a ton of nutrients, including healthy fats, fiber, and antioxidants. In a review of three large prospective cohort studies, people who ate more nuts had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease.
Walnuts are especially great for heart health, as they contain the essential omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease events, such as heart attack or stroke.
Almonds are another nut often studied for heart health benefits, as they are rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, fiber, and antioxidants like vitamin E. A review of studies found that eating almonds may not only reduce LDL cholesterol levels, but may also maintain HDL “good” cholesterol levels, which can help reduce your risk of heart disease.
Avocados are not only a delicious addition to your diet, but a heart-healthy one, too. This green fruit packs plenty of healthy monounsaturated fats and dietary fiber, which help lower LDL cholesterol levels, especially when consumed in place of less healthy saturated fats.
A 2020 randomized control trial found that people who were overweight or obese and who ate one avocado per day as part of an overall heart-healthy diet had an improved LDL cholesterol profile compared with baseline.
Fish are well known as a lean protein source and are often touted for their heart health benefits.
Your doctor may have even recommended eating more fish, taking a fish oil supplement, or following a Mediterranean diet (fish are a major component) to help improve your cholesterol levels. This is because fish—particularly fatty fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, and trout—are full of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
A large, 25-year follow-up study published in 2016 concluded that adults who ate non-fried fatty fish had a decreased risk of developing metabolic syndrome. This syndrome comprises a group of risk factors, including low HDL cholesterol and high triglycerides, which increase your risk for heart disease.
Barley is a whole grain rich in beta-glucans. Beta-glucans are a type of soluble fiber that helps lower cholesterol levels by interacting with fats and bile salts in the digestive tract.
A 2016 review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that barley beta-glucan lowers LDL cholesterol and other non-HDL cholesterol. Because of this, including barley-containing foods in your diet may help reduce your risk of heart disease.
Soybeans are a legume high in plant-based protein. Soy is found in edamame and other foods such as tofu, tempeh, soy milk, and more. One study found that eating about 30 grams of soy foods daily reduced cholesterol levels, thus decreasing risk of heart disease.
Another review of 35 studies concluded that soy foods provided heart health benefits, especially in people with high cholesterol, including improving LDL, HDL, and total cholesterol levels.
It might seem counterintuitive, but adding a little dark chocolate and cocoa to your diet might benefit your heart. Studies have shown that the flavonoids present in dark chocolate and cocoa may decrease your risk of heart disease.
In particular, one clinical trial studied 84 people who consumed either two grams of dark chocolate or two grams of milk chocolate for six months. At the end of the six months, total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol all significantly decreased, and blood pressure significantly improved in those who ate 70% dark chocolate compared with those who ate milk chocolate.
However, you do not want to eat too much chocolate, as it is often high in added sugars, which can negatively affect heart health. It’s best to limit your daily intake of dark chocolate to one serving and choose one with a cocoa content of 70% or higher.
Apples, Citrus, and Berries
Fruit is included as part of any heart-healthy eating pattern, and for good reason. Many fruits are rich in vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and antioxidants. Pectin, a specific type of soluble fiber found in many fruits, including apples, citrus fruits, and berries, helps lower cholesterol in part by decreasing the amount of cholesterol made by the liver.
One small clinical trial of 40 adults found that those who ate two apples per day for eight weeks had lower LDL and total cholesterol levels compared with the control apple beverage.
Antioxidant compounds called polyphenols found in these fruits also provide anti-inflammatory effects that may reduce your risk of heart disease by lowering LDL cholesterol and preventing it from being oxidized.
Including vegetables in your diet is beneficial for many reasons, including for heart health. Just like fruits, vegetables are nutrient rich, boasting many vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. Additionally, they are low in calories and fat, making them a heart-healthy choice.
Dietary fiber from whole foods, including vegetables, may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by reducing total and LDL cholesterol levels.
Tea contains antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, and cholesterol-lowering properties called polyphenols. These compounds may aid in the prevention of heart disease and stroke.
Though some studies have been mixed, the majority of research seems to agree that both green tea and black tea provide heart health benefits.
As a staple in the Mediterranean diet, olive oil has often been studied for its heart health benefits. Extra virgin olive oil is rich in healthy monounsaturated fats that help lower LDL cholesterol. It’s also a good source of polyphenols, which can help reduce inflammation and the risk of heart disease.
Replacing saturated fats (like butter) with extra virgin olive oil in your diet may confer heart-protective benefits.
Foods Fortified With Plant Sterols and Stanols
Plant sterols and stanols are compounds naturally found in small amounts in many plant-based foods, including grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds. They help reduce cholesterol by blocking the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream.
Many food manufacturers are adding plant sterols and stanols to their products, ranging from margarine and cheese to orange juice and bread. You can also find plant sterols and stanols in supplement form. When taken at two grams a day, plant sterols or stanols can lower LDL cholesterol levels by 8% to 10%.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which foods can lower cholesterol quickly?
No single food is going to change your cholesterol levels overnight. It can take months to see lower cholesterol levels through dietary changes alone or combined with physical activity. Focus on an overall heart-healthy diet by including foods high in fiber, healthy unsaturated fats, and antioxidants.
Which foods can lower cholesterol the most?
Rather than focusing on one or two foods to lower cholesterol, including several foods that lower cholesterol in different ways is more beneficial. The main dietary components of a heart-healthy diet include plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains instead of highly refined ones, lean protein, and healthy fats instead of saturated and trans fats.
Additionally, consuming foods or supplements fortified with plant sterols and stanols can help lower cholesterol.
What foods should you avoid if you have high cholesterol?
Contrary to what was once thought, dietary cholesterol may not have as much an effect on blood cholesterol as was once believed. Instead, it has been shown that saturated and trans fats are more to blame for increasing blood cholesterol levels.
Foods often high in saturated fats include animal products, such as red meat, butter, and cheese, and highly processed snack and dessert foods, such as cookies, cake, chips, ice cream, and pastries.
Foods that can improve your cholesterol levels include beans, nuts, avocados, fatty fish, barley, soy, dark chocolate, certain fruits, vegetables, tea, olive oil, and foods fortified with plant sterols and stanols. These foods should be enjoyed in variety and as part of a lifestyle that also reduces saturated and trans fats and incorporates exercise.
A Word From Verywell
Besides the Mediterranean diet, other heart-healthy eating patterns include the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet and the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) diet.
Always consult with your healthcare professional before starting any new diet or if you are concerned about your cholesterol levels. They can answer any questions you might have and help you find the right treatment plan for you.