Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by your liver and obtained by eating animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs.
Your liver will produce less cholesterol if you consume a lot of this substance from food, so dietary cholesterol rarely greatly impacts total cholesterol levels.
However, eating large amounts of saturated fat, trans fat, and sugars can raise cholesterol levels.
Bear in mind that there are different types of cholesterol.
While “good” HDL cholesterol may benefit your health, high levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, mainly oxidized, have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
That’s because oxidized LDL cholesterol is more likely to stick to the walls of your arteries and form plaques, which clog these blood vessels.
Here are ten tips to lower cholesterol with your diet and help reduce your risk of heart disease.
1. Eat foods rich in soluble fiber
Soluble fiber is abundant in beans, legumes, whole grains, flax, apples, and citrus.
Humans lack the proper enzymes to break down soluble fiber, so it moves through your digestive tract, absorbing water and forming a thick paste.
As it travels, soluble fiber absorbs bile, a substance your liver produces to help digest fats. Eventually, both the fiber and attached bile are excreted in your stool.
Bile is made from cholesterol, so when your liver needs to make more bile, it pulls cholesterol out of your bloodstream, which lowers cholesterol levels naturally.
Regular soluble fiber consumption is associated with a 5–10% reduction in total cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol in as little as four weeks.
Eating at least 5–10 grams of soluble fiber each day is recommended for maximum cholesterol-lowering effects. Still, benefits have been seen at even lower intakes of 3 grams daily.
Summary: Soluble fiber lowers cholesterol by preventing the reabsorption of bile in your gut, which leads to the excretion of bile in the feces. Your body pulls cholesterol from the bloodstream to make more bile, reducing levels.
2. Enjoy lots of fruits and vegetables
Eating fruits and vegetables is an easy way to lower LDL cholesterol levels.
Studies show that adults who consume at least four servings of fruits and vegetables daily have roughly 6% lower LDL cholesterol levels than those who eat fewer than two servings per day.
Fruits and vegetables also contain high numbers of antioxidants, which prevent LDL cholesterol from oxidizing and forming plaques in your arteries.
Together, these cholesterol-lowering and antioxidant effects can reduce your risk of heart disease.
Research has found that people who eat the most fruits and vegetables have a 17% lower risk of developing heart disease over ten years than those who eat the fewest.
Summary: Eating at least four servings of fruits and vegetables daily can lower LDL cholesterol levels and reduce LDL oxidation, which may reduce your risk of heart disease.
3. Cook with herbs and spices
Herbs and spices are nutritional powerhouses packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Human studies have shown that garlic, turmeric, and ginger are especially effective at lowering cholesterol when eaten regularly.
Eating just one garlic clove daily for three months is enough to lower total cholesterol by 9%.
In addition to lowering cholesterol, herbs and spices contain antioxidants that prevent LDL cholesterol from oxidizing, reducing the formation of plaques within your arteries.
Even though herbs and spices are not typically eaten in large quantities, they can contribute significantly to the total amount of antioxidants consumed daily.
Dried oregano, sage, mint, thyme, clove, allspice, and cinnamon contain some of the highest numbers of antioxidants and fresh herbs such as oregano, marjoram, dill, and cilantro.
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Summary: Both fresh and dried herbs and spices can help lower cholesterol levels. They contain antioxidants that prevent LDL cholesterol from oxidation.
4. Eat a variety of unsaturated fats
Two main kinds of fats are found in food: saturated and unsaturated.
On a chemical level, saturated fats contain no double bonds and are very straight, allowing them to pack together tightly and stay solid at room temperature.
Unsaturated fats contain at least one double bond and have a bent shape, preventing them from joining together as tightly. These attributes make them liquid at room temperature.
Research shows that replacing most of your saturated fats with unsaturated fats can reduce total cholesterol by 9% and “bad” LDL cholesterol by 11% in eight weeks.
Longer-term studies have also found that people who eat more unsaturated and less saturated fats tend to have lower cholesterol levels over time.
Foods like avocados, olives, fatty fish, and nuts contain ample heart-healthy unsaturated fats, so it’s beneficial to eat them regularly.
Summary: Eating more unsaturated and less saturated fats has been linked to lower total cholesterol and “bad” LDL levels over time. Avocados, olives, fatty fish, and nuts are especially rich in unsaturated fats.
5. Avoid artificial trans fats
While trans fats occur naturally in red meat and dairy products, most people’s main source is artificial trans fat used in many restaurants and processed foods.
Artificial trans fats are produced by hydrogenating — or adding hydrogen to — unsaturated fats such as vegetable oils to change their structure and solidify them at room temperature.
Trans fats make a cheap alternative to natural saturated fats and have been widely used by restaurants and food manufacturers.
However, substantive research shows that eating artificial trans fats increases “bad” LDL cholesterol, lowers “good” HDL cholesterol, and is linked to a 23% greater risk of heart disease.
Suggested read: 13 cholesterol-lowering foods to add to your diet
Watch out for the words “partially hydrogenated” in ingredient lists. This term indicates that the food contains trans fat and should be avoided.
As of June 2018, artificial trans fats are banned from use in restaurants and processed foods sold in the US, making them much easier to avoid.
Naturally occurring trans fats in meat and dairy products can also raise LDL cholesterol. However, they’re present in small quantities to generally not be considered a significant health risk.
Summary: Artificial trans fats are linked to higher LDL cholesterol levels and an increased risk of heart disease. Recently, the US banned their use in restaurants and processed foods, making them easier to avoid.
6. Avoid added sugars
It’s not just saturated and trans fats that can raise cholesterol levels. Eating too many added sugars can do the same thing.
One study found that adults who consumed 25% of their calories from drinks made with high-fructose corn syrup experienced a 17% increase in LDL cholesterol in just two weeks.
Even more troubling, fructose increases the number of small, dense oxidized LDL cholesterol particles contributing to heart disease.
Between 2005 and 2010, an estimated 10% of Americans consumed over 25% of their daily calories from added sugars.
According to a 14-year study, these people were almost three times more likely to die from heart disease than those getting less than 10% of their calories from added sugars.
The American Heart Association recommends eating no more than 100 calories (25 grams) of added sugar per day for women and children and no more than 150 calories (37.5 grams) per day for men.
You can meet these goals by reading labels carefully and choosing products without added sugars whenever possible.
Suggested read: 13 simple ways to stop eating lots of sugar
Summary: Getting more than 25% of your daily calories from added sugars can raise cholesterol levels and more than double your risk of dying from heart disease. Cut back by choosing foods without added sugars as much as possible.
7. Try the Mediterranean diet
One of the easiest ways to incorporate the above lifestyle changes is to follow a Mediterranean-style diet.
Mediterranean diets are rich in olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and fish and low in red meat and dairy. Alcohol, usually red wine, is consumed in moderation with meals (38Trusted SourceTrusted Source).
Since this eating style includes many cholesterol-lowering foods and avoids many cholesterol-raising foods, it’s considered heart-healthy.
Research has shown that following a Mediterranean-style diet for at least three months reduces LDL cholesterol by an average of 8.9 mg per deciliter (dL).
It also reduces the risk of heart disease by up to 52% and death by up to 47% when followed for at least four years.
Summary: Mediterranean meals are rich in fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, fiber, and unsaturated fats. Following this diet can reduce cholesterol levels and lower your risk of heart disease.
8. Eat more soy
Soybeans are rich in protein and contain isoflavones, plant-based compounds similar in structure to estrogen.
Suggested read: Soy: Good or bad?
Research has found that soy protein and isoflavones have powerful cholesterol-lowering effects and can reduce your risk of heart disease.
Eating soy every day for at least one month can increase “good” HDL cholesterol by 1.4 mg/dL and reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol by about 4 mg/dL.
Less processed forms of soy — such as soybeans or soy milk — are likely more effective at lowering cholesterol than processed soy protein extracts or supplements.
Summary: Soy contains plant-based proteins and isoflavones that can reduce LDL cholesterol levels, lowering your risk of heart disease when eaten regularly.
9. Drink green tea
Green tea is made by heating and drying the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant.
The tea leaves can be steeped in water to make brewed tea or ground into powder and mixed with liquid for matcha green tea.
A review of 14 studies found that consuming green tea daily for at least two weeks lowers total cholesterol by about 7 mg/dL and “bad” LDL cholesterol by roughly 2 mg/dL.
Animal studies show that green tea may lower cholesterol by reducing the liver’s production of LDL and increasing its removal from the bloodstream.
Green tea is also rich in antioxidants, preventing LDL cholesterol from oxidizing and forming plaques in your arteries.
Drinking at least four cups daily protects against heart disease, but enjoying just one cup daily can reduce your risk of heart attack by nearly 20%.
Summary: Drinking at least one cup of green tea daily can reduce LDL cholesterol levels and lower your risk of heart attack by nearly 20%.
10. Try cholesterol-lowering supplements
In addition to diet, some supplements can help lower cholesterol levels naturally.
- Niacin: Daily supplements of 1–6 grams of niacin can lower LDL cholesterol levels up to 19% over one year. However, it can cause side effects and should only be taken under medical supervision.
- Psyllium husk: Psyllium husk, rich in soluble fiber, can be mixed with water and consumed daily to lower cholesterol. Research has found that psyllium husk complements cholesterol-lowering drugs.
- L-carnitine: L-carnitine lowers LDL levels and reduces oxidation for people with diabetes. Taking 2 grams daily for three months can lower oxidized cholesterol levels five times more than a placebo.
Always consult with your doctor before starting a new diet or supplement regimen.
Summary: Supplements such as niacin, psyllium husk, and L-carnitine can help reduce cholesterol levels, but consult your physician before consuming.
High levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol — especially small, dense oxidized LDL — have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
Diet changes, such as eating more fruits and vegetables, cooking with herbs and spices, consuming soluble fiber, and loading up on unsaturated fats, can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce these risks.
Avoid ingredients that increase LDL cholesterol, like trans fats and added sugars, to keep cholesterol in healthy ranges.
Certain foods and supplements like green tea, soy, niacin, psyllium husk, and L-carnitine can also lower cholesterol levels.
Overall, many small dietary changes can significantly improve your cholesterol levels.