Cholesterol has a reputation for being a bad thing, but it’s necessary for your health. In fact, your liver makes cholesterol, which the body uses in various ways, such as to produce hormones. But consuming too much of some types of fat—saturated and trans fat (found in fatty meats and fried foods, for example)—may raise levels of LDL cholesterol (known as “bad” cholesterol). This type of cholesterol could accumulate in arteries, increasing your risk for heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association. It’s important to note that, in the past, added trans fats were mainly found in processed foods, but the Food and Drug Administration has banned them. However, trans fats can still naturally be found in a few foods.
Optimal Cholesterol Levels
Here are the cholesterol numbers you should aim for, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Total cholesterol: under 150 mg/dL
- LDL cholesterol: under 100 mg/dL
- HDL cholesterol: at least 40 mg/dL for men and 50 mg/dL for women
Limiting sources of saturated and trans fat is key to getting your cholesterol levels in the right range. But there’s a flip side: a number of heart-healthy fats can improve cholesterol levels, either by lowering LDL or raising “good” HDL cholesterol (or both!). These are unsaturated fats, which include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. “Mono- and polyunsaturated fats are found in a wide variety of foods, from animal-based, like fish and seafood, to plant-based, like nuts and seeds, just to name a few,” says Maria Laura Haddad-Garcia, EatingWell’s senior nutrition & news editor. You can easily throw together these foods for a snack this afternoon or put them on your plate tonight.
5 Best Fats for Better Cholesterol Levels
When you’re looking to lower your cholesterol levels, the type of fat you eat matters. Here are five foods that pack key unsaturated fatty acids that research shows can improve your cholesterol.
You’ll want to grab a handful of these for your next snack. A 2021 meta-analysis of 12 randomized controlled trials in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition found that consuming pistachios for about 12 weeks decreased total cholesterol by 7 points; LDL cholesterol was also reduced by 4 points, and there was a decline in triglycerides (another type of fat), too. (The amount of pistachios consumed varied across studies but was as little as 1 ounce daily.) These little nuts may improve the breakdown of fatty acids in the body, and they pack specific nutrients like vitamin E, antioxidants and potassium that may lessen inflammation and improve blood vessel function. Additionally, pistachios contain phytosterols, which are plant compounds known to lower cholesterol. According to the USDA, 1 ounce (49 kernels) of pistachios provides 159 calories and 13 grams of fat. Haddad-Garcia recommends this Pistachio & Peach Toast as a delicious heart-healthy snack for a busy afternoon.
Time to sprinkle some flax on your morning bowl of oatmeal. According to a 2022 clinical trial in Explore, adults with hypertension who consumed about an ounce of flaxseed daily for 12 weeks saw their systolic blood pressure (the top number on a blood pressure reading) decrease by 13 points compared to a placebo group whose blood pressure increased by 2 points. What’s more, the flax-eaters’ total cholesterol also declined by more than 20 points, compared to 12 points in the placebo group. According to the AHA, controlling your cholesterol if you have hypertension is a smart goal: plaque deposits in arteries that build over time from elevated cholesterol make it more difficult for blood to pump through vessels, which results in higher blood pressure. One tablespoon of ground flaxseed offers 37 calories and 3 grams of fat. Next time you’re making banana bread, toss in flaxseed to increase your intake of heart-healthy fats.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 in 5 adults have low HDL cholesterol levels. While this is only one measure of your cholesterol, having higher levels may improve your heart health. HDL is considered the “good” type of cholesterol because it removes LDL from the arteries and zips it back to the liver, where it’s broken down and flushed from the body, explains the AHA. In essence, adding avocado to your next salad or dipping veggie slices into a dish of guac as a snack can pay off for your HDL. A 2018 review and meta-analysis in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating avocados boosted HDL numbers compared to people who avoided them. The creamy fruit (yes, avocado is a fruit!) is rich in plant sterols, fiber and monounsaturated fats, which may work together to benefit cholesterol, the researchers say. A classic Avocado-Egg Toast is a flavorful and heart-healthy way to start your day.
A little drizzle of heart-healthy oil will do it. “Many people think that the only healthy plant-based oil is olive oil, but research shows that’s not true. Consuming other plant-based oils like avocado, sesame, peanut and canola can support your heart health,” says Haddad-Garcia. In fact, plant-based oils rich in cholesterol-controlling antioxidants and plant sterols have been shown to lower total and “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels even better than olive oil, per a 2018 meta-analysis in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. But that doesn’t mean you should leave olive oil off your rotation: The researchers found that olive oil is best for improving “good” HDL cholesterol levels. Other research, such as a 2019 study in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, has shown that regularly consuming olive oil helps bolster the function of HDL cholesterol.
Time to serve up some fish for supper—well, make that fatty fish. People who eat a lot of fatty fish (at least 8 ounces per week) have more favorable cholesterol profiles, including better HDL cholesterol, compared to those who eat the lowest amounts of fatty fish (less than 4 ounces per week), which may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, finds 2020 research in the British Journal of Nutrition. Fatty fish packs omega-3 fatty acids, which can help decrease inflammation and blood pressure, as well as reduce the risk of blood clots. Spicy Sardine Linguine and Sheet-Pan Salmon with Sweet Potatoes & Broccoli are mouthwatering ideas to punch up dinner tonight.
Other Tips to Lower Your Cholesterol
If you have high cholesterol, lifestyle changes and medical treatment, such as the following, can go a long way in helping you drive your cholesterol back into the healthy range, says the AHA:
- Load up on a heart-healthy diet. Along with eating sources of unsaturated fats, a heart-healthy diet is one brimming with fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean meats (e.g., chicken, turkey, fish), nuts and seeds, and legumes.
- Move more. What’s cool about exercise is that it boosts ticker-protective HDL levels.
- Stop smoking and vaping. The CDC’s support line, 1-800-QUIT-NOW, is a great place to start.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Following a heart-healthy diet plan and staying physically active will go a long way toward supporting a healthy weight. A small amount of weight loss—5% to 10% of your current body weight—can make a difference.
- Talk about medications. Ask your doctor if going on a cholesterol-lowering medication, such as a statin—and combining it with the healthy lifestyle choices above—is needed to help improve your cholesterol levels.
The Bottom Line
“Fat usually has a bad reputation, especially when it comes to managing cholesterol levels. But you don’t have to get rid of it completely,” notes Haddad-Garcia. Small dietary changes can help you better manage your cholesterol. One is to limit your intake of saturated fat-rich foods (such as fatty red meats) and include more sources of unsaturated fats, such as nuts and seeds, avocados, certain plant-based oils and fatty fish.