In this article:
- Cholesterol is part of your cells and it is a building block for hormones. However, you don’t need to get cholesterol from your diet, and high levels of cholesterol in the blood can increase risk for heart disease.
- Foods that are high in soluble fiber and healthy fats can improve cholesterol levels. Fruit, vegetables, fatty fish, beans, nuts, and whole grains are some good choices for lowering cholesterol.
- Lark can help you make good choices for your cholesterol as well as for weight loss and other health goals. With small changes, you can establish healthy habits that can lead to lasting weight loss and health improvements.
Your blood cholesterol levels affect your risk for heart disease. For most people, cholesterol in food doesn’t have much effect on cholesterol. Other foods can have a bigger effect. Here are the basics of cholesterol in your body and in food, and best and worst foods for cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol in Food and Your Body
High levels of total and “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol are a risk factor for heart disease. So are low levels of “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. But cholesterol isn’t a “bad” compound. Harvard Medical School says cholesterol is critical in your body.
- It’s part of your cell membranes.
- It’s needed to produce certain hormones.
You can get cholesterol from food. But you don’t need to. Your body can produce its own cholesterol.
Dietary cholesterol doesn’t have any benefits. But is it dangerous? For years, people were told to limit cholesterol. More recent information says cholesterol isn’t the villain. Cholesterol from food doesn’t affect blood cholesterol levels for most people. Still, it does for some. And the Dietary Guidelines for Americans still say to limit dietary cholesterol as much as possible.
Mayo Clinic says eating a lot of saturated fat or trans fats is a risk factor for heart disease. They have unhealthy effects on blood cholesterol levels. They may raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol. These are some sources.
- Fatty meat.
- Partially hydrogenated oils (banned since 2021).
- Butter and lard.
Other foods that can raise cholesterol levels are doughnuts, French fries, and other fried foods, baked goods, and sugar-sweetened foods and beverages.
Best Foods to Improve Cholesterol
The best foods to improve cholesterol can be high in cholesterol-lowering nutrients such as dietary fiber and heart-healthy fats. They can be even more effective when you choose them instead of less healthy foods. These are some foods that Harvard Medical School and Mayo Clinic say can help lower cholesterol.
Whole grains can improve heart health. Oatmeal, oat bran, and unsweetened cold whole-grain cereals, such as bran flakes, are good swaps for sugar-sweetened, refined cereal. It’s also easy to eat brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, and whole-grain bread instead of refined white versions.
Avocados are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and dietary fiber. For a healthy swap, try spreading avocado on sandwiches instead of butter, or topping soup with pureed avocado instead of cream. Peanut butter is also high in monounsaturated fat.
Salmon and other fatty fish may raise HDL and lower LDL levels. That may be related to their omega-3 fats. You can get even more benefits when you serve fish instead of a fatty steak. Mackerel, herring, tuna, and sardines are also fatty fish that are high in omega-3’s.
Eggplant is high in soluble fiber and low in calories, making it ideal for lowering cholesterol and losing weight. Do you think you don’t like eggplant? Then try it prepared a different way! Eggplant parmesan (made with whole-grain breadcrumbs and low-fat cheese), Szechuan eggplant, grilled or roasted eggplant, baba ghanouj or mutabal, baingan bharta, and ratatouille are just a few of the very varied ways to prepare eggplant. You can dip vegetables into baba ghanouj instead of creamy dip for a heart-healthy snack. Other vegetables with soluble fiber include tomatoes, green beans, turnips, brussels sprouts, and broccoli, to name a few.
Lentils, beans, and split peas are high in fiber, especially soluble fiber. That can block cholesterol absorption from your food. These foods are also high in protein and resistant starch. They take a long time to digest and make you feel full for longer. You can get extra benefits from peas, beans, and lentils by choosing them instead of fatty meats. For example, have split pea or lentil soup instead of beef soup, or a bean burrito instead of a beef burrito.
There are many soy-based meat substitutes to try. Soy-based chicken, ground beef, burger patties, bacon, hot dogs, and sausages are just the start. For extra benefits, fill your sandwich with soy-based deli slices instead of luncheon meat such as salami, ham, or bologna.
Barley is one of the best sources of soluble fiber. This grain is easy to make. Just boil it. You can add it to soup. Or, use it as a side dish instead of refined pasta, French fries, white rice, or mashed potatoes.
Nuts have fiber and heart-healthy fats. Brazil nuts, macadamias, hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews, and pecans all count. So do seeds, such as sunflower and pumpkin. Walnuts and flaxseed have omega-3 fats.
You can get more benefits by swapping nuts for less healthy foods, such as if you snack on ½ to 1 ounce of nuts instead of an ounce of potato chips.
Apples have pectin, which is a type of soluble fiber. So do many other fruits, such as pears, berries, oranges, and grapes. It’s a great idea to choose fruit instead of a sugar-sweetened dessert. You can also add fruit instead of sugary jam to peanut butter sandwiches.
10. Olive oil
Consuming olive oil is linked to many health benefits, including reduced heart disease risk. It can be a healthy swap for butter in cooking and most baking recipes. You can also use it for a salad dressing, with vinegar or lemon juice and herbs, instead of a creamy dressing or a dressing with added sugars.
More Ways to Lower Cholesterol Naturally
Other lifestyle choices can affect cholesterol levels. Mayo Clinic says these choices can lower LDL cholesterol or raise HDL cholesterol levels.
- Losing excess weight. Even a bit of weight loss can help.
- Increasing physical activity. Exercising is one of the best ways to increase HDL. Most adults should aim for at least 150 minutes per week.
- Not smoking. One year after you quit smoking, your risk for heart disease decreases by half.
- Limiting alcohol intake. Drinking no more than one drink per day for women or two for men can increase HDL cholesterol levels, but the benefits aren’t strong enough to recommend drinking if you don’t already.
Always talk to your healthcare provider if you have concerns about your heart health and before making any changes to your exercise program or other aspects of your lifestyle. Your provider can also provide resources, such as for quitting smoking or reducing alcohol consumption. And you may need medication if lifestyle changes don’t get your numbers into healthy ranges.
Eating healthy foods and losing weight can lower cholesterol, help manage blood pressure, and prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes. You don’t need to worry about making major changes to your lifestyle to get benefits. Even small changes can make a big difference. Lark can help you establish habits to lose weight and eat well.