While cholesterol is a necessary substance in the body, too much can have negative effects. Changing what you eat is one part of managing high cholesterol levels.
This article reviews nutrients that can help improve your cholesterol levels, such as choosing more unsaturated fats and less saturated and trans fats. In addition, heart-healthy meal plan examples are provided along with budget and time-saving tips for following a diet to lower your cholesterol.
Healthy Nutrients on Low Cholesterol Diet
Despite the phrasing “low cholesterol diet,” a dietary pattern designed to lower cholesterol does not necessarily focus on the amount of dietary cholesterol you eat. Dietary cholesterol was previously thought to significantly raise blood levels of cholesterol. However, research has shown that it may not have as much of an effect as once thought.
Because of this, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025, does not include a recommended intake or daily limit of dietary cholesterol.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in the bloodstream and cells in the body. Cholesterol is an essential part of the body, helping to make hormones, cells, and vitamins. However, too much can lead to negative health consequences.
The types of cholesterol in the bloodstream are:
Triglycerides are not cholesterol but are often measured in conjunction with cholesterol levels. They are a type of fat found in the body that is made from the food you eat or made in the liver. They are transported in the blood by VLDL. Too much can increase the risk of heart disease.
Instead of focusing solely on restricting dietary cholesterol, adding foods to your diet that are beneficial for heart health is a good way to lower your cholesterol and your overall risk for heart disease. Dietary patterns that promote heart health include the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets.
These dietary patterns are largely based on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein sources, low-fat dairy, and liquid plant-based oils.
Below are some heart-healthy foods that may help lower your cholesterol:
- Fatty fish, such as salmon, albacore tuna, sardines, mackerel, herring, and lake trout, are high in omega-3 fatty acids, in particular, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which have been shown to improve heart health. The American Heart Association recommends eating two (3-ounce) servings of fish per week to help decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke.
- Oats and barley are high in soluble fiber, which may help decrease low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. Just one serving of oatmeal for breakfast has 4 grams of dietary fiber.
- Beans are another great source of soluble fiber. Black, kidney, garbanzo, navy, and other varieties, are all heart-healthy additions to your diet.
- Nuts like almonds, pecans, walnuts, and others contain heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Walnuts, in particular, contain ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), another type of omega-3 fat that can help improve heart health.
- Seeds, including flaxseeds and chia seeds, are packed with nutrients such as fiber and ALA omega-3 fats. Other nutritious seeds include sunflower, hemp, pumpkin, and sesame seeds.
- Avocados contain many nutrients, including heart-healthy dietary fiber and monounsaturated fat. A 2022 study found that people who ate avocados regularly had a lower risk for heart disease than those who rarely ate them.
- Olive oil has been widely studied for its effect on heart health, partly because it is a major component of the Mediterranean diet. Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fats, which can help lower LDL cholesterol levels.
- Berries, such as raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries, contain a type of soluble fiber called pectin, which may help reduce LDL cholesterol. Berries also contain polyphenols, which are beneficial plant compounds with antioxidant properties.
- Apples are also rich in pectin. A 2020 study concluded that eating two apples daily improved total and LDL cholesterol levels.
- Garlic contains an active plant compound called allicin, which is suggested to be responsible for some of garlic’s health benefits. One review study found that garlic may help regulate cholesterol levels. However, it’s important to note that these studies used garlic supplements and that it would be difficult to achieve these same results by adding fresh garlic alone to your diet.
- Lentils are a good source of fiber, particularly soluble fiber, which may help improve cholesterol levels. In addition, lentils and other legumes are plant-based protein sources, which is a good dietary substitute for meats high in less healthy saturated fats.
- Leafy green vegetables such as kale, spinach, collard greens, and broccoli contain fiber, polyphenols, and antioxidants. Specifically, lutein, a carotenoid and antioxidant found in many green, leafy vegetables, may help decrease the risk of heart disease.
- Okra and eggplant are high in dietary fiber and notably rich in pectin, which can help decrease cholesterol levels.
- Soy foods, such as soy milk, soy yogurt, tofu, tempeh, and edamame, are excellent plant-based sources of proteins and may help lower cholesterol. A 2019 meta-analysis of 46 studies concluded that soy foods can help decrease total and LDL cholesterol levels.
- Dark chocolate contains flavonoids, natural plant compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Flavonoids found in cocoa have been shown to benefit heart health. To reap the benefits of dark chocolate, enjoy it in moderation and choose varieties that have a 75% or higher cocoa content and are lower in added sugars.
Unhealthy Nutrients on Low Cholesterol Diet
Adding beneficial foods and nutrients to your diet can aid in lowering cholesterol. However, you won’t be successful unless you also limit or avoid certain unhealthy nutrients. Below are nutrients that can have negative effects on cholesterol levels.
Saturated fats are known as the less healthy fats. This is because they can increase cholesterol levels.
They are usually solid at room temperature and are found in foods such as:
- Poultry (especially the skin)
- Ice cream
- Palm oil
- Palm kernel oil
- Some fried foods and baked goods
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends people 2 years and older limit saturated fat intake to less than 10% of calories per day.
The American Heart Association takes it a step further and recommends that no more than 5% to 6% of daily calories come from saturated fat.
Trans fats are a type of fat that increases LDL cholesterol while also lowering HDL cholesterol, which can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. Experts recommend avoiding trans fat in your diet as much as possible.
In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), or trans fats, are no longer “generally recognized as safe.” Due to this decision, they have phased out the addition of PHOs, or trans fats, in processed foods as of 2021.
To be sure you aren’t consuming trans fats, always check the ingredients list and avoid those that list “partially hydrogenated oil,” which may be found in prepackaged items such as baked goods, snack items, shortening, margarine, or frostings.
While too much sodium may not directly increase cholesterol levels, it can impact heart health by increasing blood pressure. High blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart failure.
Some salty foods are also high in saturated fats, so it’s best to limit your intake of those foods. These include potato chips, corn chips, bacon, hot dogs, sausages, cheese, and some prepackaged frozen and canned dinner products.
When looking at sugar in the diet, there are two main types: natural and added. Natural sugars are mostly found in fruits (as fructose), and dairy (as lactose).
Added sugars are those added to food products to sweeten them, such as in sugar-sweetened beverages, candies, baked goods, ice cream, and other desserts. Added sugars may also be hiding in condiments, sweetened yogurts, pasta sauces, granola bars, and cold breakfast cereals.
A 2016 medical review suggested that as sugar intake increases, LDL cholesterol levels rise, and HDL cholesterol levels decrease, with diets high in added sugars having a threefold increased risk of death due to heart disease.
Added sugars are often called “empty calories” because they add extra calories to foods and offer no beneficial nutrients. Diets high in added sugars can increase caloric intake and lead to obesity, which may decrease heart health, and can increase insulin resistance (when cells no longer respond properly to insulin and can’t take up glucose from your blood), which may be associated with future cardiovascular (heart) events.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 36 grams (150 calories) per day for men and no more than 25 grams (100 calories) per day for women.
(Note that when health authorities and research are cited, the terms for sex or gender from the cited source are used.)
Some alcohol intake, such as light to moderate red wine, has been associated with small increases in HDL cholesterol levels. However, this is not true for all alcohol intake.
Heavy alcohol use has been linked to increased total cholesterol and triglyceride levels, especially from drinking hard liquor, beer, mixed drinks, and excess wine .
To minimize the risk of decreasing heart health from drinking alcohol, limit alcohol intake to less than one drink per day for women and less than two drinks per day for men. The American Heart Association does not recommend drinking alcohol if you don’t already drink, nor does it recommend drinking alcohol to gain health benefits.
Alcoholic Beverage Alternatives
You can still enjoy a fun drink while trying to lower your cholesterol by choosing to drink lower added sugar “mocktails,” naturally flavored sparkling water beverages, kombucha, or water infused with fresh chopped herbs or cut fruit.
What Conditions Can a Low Cholesterol Diet Benefit?
The same foods that help lower your cholesterol level may also benefit other aspects of your health.
A heart-healthy eating pattern may help lower high blood pressure, decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke, and reduce the risk of or help manage type 2 diabetes.
Following a dietary pattern such as the Mediterranean diet or DASH diet may also aid in weight management and improve brain health, slowing cognitive decline and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Whole foods (minimally processed or unprocessed) and plant-forward diets have also been shown to decrease the risk of some cancers.
Low Cholesterol Diet Meal Ideas
Below are sample ideas for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks to eat when trying to lower cholesterol.
- Oatmeal topped with sliced banana and chopped walnuts
- Avocado and hard-boiled egg on 100% whole-grain toast
- Egg scramble with diced tomatoes, mushrooms, onion, and bell peppers and a whole-grain toast on the side
Lunch ideas include:
- Tuna salad made with plain Greek yogurt on a bed of mixed leafy greens, with fresh berries on the side
- Grilled chicken mixed with leafy greens, chopped tomato, cucumbers, garbanzo beans, and a vinaigrette dressing
- Black bean burger on a whole grain bun with a side salad and fresh fruit
Consider these dinner ideas:
- Baked salmon with a side of asparagus and brown rice
- Roasted chicken breast and broccoli with a baked sweet potato
- Grilled sirloin steak with steamed green beans and roasted red potatoes
Snack ideas include:
- Apple and natural almond butter
- Greek yogurt parfait with fresh berries and chopped nuts
- Chopped carrots and celery with hummus
- Whole grain crackers and a part-skim mozzarella string cheese
- Unsalted mixed nuts with unsweetened dried fruit
Other Ways to Manage Cholesterol
You can also help lower your cholesterol through lifestyle modifications or with the addition of certain medications.
Physical activity can help lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and raise HDL cholesterol levels. In general, it’s recommended that most adults participate in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week.
Start small by choosing something you enjoy and slowly increase your time as you build up stamina. Before starting any exercise routine, be sure to talk with a healthcare provider about what level of physical activity is right for you, especially if you haven’t been active in a while or have a chronic health condition.
Research has shown that chronic stress can sometimes increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol levels.
Smoking lowers HDL, particularly in women, and raises LDL. In addition to quitting smoking, take care of your heart by avoiding secondhand smoke exposure and quitting vaping.
Getting to or maintaining a healthy weight can help improve and manage cholesterol levels. Overweight and obesity can increase triglyceride and LDL cholesterol levels and also lower HDL cholesterol levels.
Studies show that adults with overweight or obesity can raise HDL and lower LDL levels by losing just 3% to 5% of their weight. Further weight loss of between 5% to 10% may benefit cholesterol even more.
If you are overweight or have obesity, it’s important to follow a healthcare provider’s recommendations for losing weight. A healthy weight loss goal is gradual and steady, about 1 to 2 pounds per week.
Get Enough Quality Sleep
Sleep is needed to help your body rest and recover from the day. During your sleep, your body has a chance to heal and repair your blood vessels and heart. It’s recommended that adults get seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night.
To help get a better night’s rest, avoid eating and turn off electronics within a few hours of bedtime, stick to a regular sleep schedule, and keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet.
Sometimes, despite making lifestyle changes, cholesterol levels remain high. In addition to continuing healthy lifestyle habits, you may be prescribed a medication to help lower your cholesterol. A class of drugs called statins are usually prescribed to help lower cholesterol.
Adjusting to a Low Cholesterol Diet
Although some people can lower cholesterol levels by making healthy food choices, sometimes diet alone isn’t enough. If you are only making dietary changes and not other lifestyle modifications, you may need to change your treatment plan. Managing cholesterol is often multifaceted, with diet playing just one role.
Working closely with a team of healthcare providers can help you adjust your treatment plan as needed. For example, a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) may be able to help pinpoint surprising foods in your diet that could be contributing to high cholesterol, or a healthcare provider could prescribe or adjust medications as needed.
In addition, people who may require medications to treat high cholesterol levels include those with:
- Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is a genetic disorder that causes very high LDL cholesterol levels. If left untreated, cholesterol levels will only get worse. This considerably raises the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke at a young age.
- People with heart disease may have plaque buildup in their arteries, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
- Type 2 diabetes can lower HDL cholesterol levels and raise LDL cholesterol levels, raising the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Budget and Time-Saving Tips for a Low Cholesterol Diet
Sometimes it seems that eating healthy is time-consuming and expensive, but it doesn’t have to be this way. The following budget and time-saving tips can help you eat well and lower cholesterol at the same time:
- Meal plan: Take inventory of what you have on hand and start planning your meals with that in mind. Then add in foods with healthy nutrients.
- Make a grocery list and stick to it: Utilizing a list will help you shop faster and decrease the chance of impulse buys.
- Stock your pantry with staples: Keeping some staple foods on hand can help in a dinnertime pinch. Foods you might want to keep in your pantry include oats, canned or dried beans, lentils, nuts, nut butter, seeds, canned tuna, salmon and chicken, dried whole grain pasta, rice, quinoa, vegetable or olive oil, vinegars, and dried spices and herbs.
- Don’t shop when hungry: Hunger will increase the likelihood of straying from your shopping list and spending money on more expensive items.
- Buy in bulk, prepare in bulk: If you have a little extra cash, buying in bulk usually saves money in the long run. When you get home, you can prepare a big batch at the beginning of the week to use all week long or to freeze, such as rice, beans, cooked chicken, chopped vegetables, or hard-boiled eggs.
- Comparison shop: Besides comparing weekly ads and sales, looking at the unit price of similar items can help you save money. Only buy something you will actually use and eat—don’t purchase it just because it is on sale.
- Cook once, eat twice: Similar to preparing in bulk, cook a double batch of a meal and store half in the freezer for an easy-to-grab dinner in the future.
- Buy frozen or canned: Frozen and canned items like fruits and vegetables are picked and packed at their peak ripeness. Plus, they last longer and usually cost less. Opt for those with no added salt or sugar.
- Go meatless: You don’t have to stop eating meat completely, but plant-based proteins such as beans and lentils are inexpensive and nutritious alternatives. Start by choosing one day a week to eat meatless or swap half of the meat in a recipe for a plant-based alternative.
Diet can play a big role in lowering cholesterol levels. Choose foods that are higher in fiber and unsaturated fats. Limit those high in saturated fats, trans fats, refined carbohydrates (including added sugars), and sodium, and limit alcohol intake.
Other ways to help lower cholesterol include being physically active, getting enough quality sleep each night, managing stress, maintaining a healthy weight, and quitting smoking. When lifestyle modifications are enough, medications like statins can be prescribed to help decrease cholesterol levels.