Nearly 2 in 5 adults in the United States have high cholesterol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and this can increase the risk of the leading killer of Americans: heart disease. Worse, because there are no symptoms of high cholesterol, many people are unaware of their status. Indeed, just 55 percent of adults with high cholesterol are treated for the condition, notes the CDC.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that’s made by the liver and circulated in the blood. It’s also found in foods that come from animals, including meat and full-fat dairy. More importantly, these foods contain saturated fat, which has been linked to higher cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol isn’t necessarily “bad” — the American Heart Association (AHA) points out that it’s an essential building block that our body needs to build cells — but because our body produces all the cholesterol it needs, experts advise eating as little saturated and trans fat (found in partially hydrogenated oils) in your diet as possible, since these cause your body to produce excess cholesterol.
If you haven’t been screened for high cholesterol, or you’re not sure what your levels are, ask your doctor about whether you should take a blood test. If you know that your levels are too high, talk to your provider about how you can bring them down — either through dietary and other lifestyle changes or with the help of medications.
In the meantime, here are eight changes you can make to your diet to lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease.
1. Cut Back on Meat and Full-Fat Dairy Products
Saturated fat — which is found in animal products such as ground beef, pork, and any fatty cut of meat, as well as full-fat dairy, cream, and butter — is a huge contributor to high levels of LDL cholesterol, says Beth Bluestone, RD, a registered dietitian and nutritionist based in the Cleveland area. Standing for low density lipoprotein, LDL is called “bad” cholesterol because it increases your risk of heart disease, according to the CDC. (As opposed to HDL “good” cholesterol, which can actually lower your risk of heart disease.)
The AHA tells people to limit their calories from saturated fat to about 5 to 6 percent of their daily intake. For example, if you eat 2,000 calories a day, that means no more than 120 calories, or about 13 grams (g), should come from saturated fat. As one example, a McDonald’s Big Mac (just the sandwich, not including fries) has 11 g of saturated fat.
2. Limit Your Intake of Butter and Tropical Oils
Swap coconut oil, palm oil, and cottonseed oil (all of which are sources of saturated fats and should be used sparingly) for avocado, sunflower, and olive oil, which are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats; both these fats help lower LDL cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease, according to the AHA.
“You don’t have to say goodbye to all fats,” says Bluestone. “Rather, pick and choose healthier fats while avoiding saturated and trans fats.”
But, she warns, even though monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are healthier oils, you don’t want to slather them on. After all, everything in moderation.
3. Eat More Omega-3s
Found in nuts, seeds, and seafood, omega-3 fatty acids can help fight inflammation, which is a suspected contributor to heart disease and stroke, according to the AHA.
Omega-3s are present in flaxseeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds; they’re also found in fatty cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout, sardines, and anchovies, says Bluestone. Although some of these fish contain mercury, the risk of getting too much mercury is thought to be outweighed by the overall health benefits in most people, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
If you don’t like fish or you’re allergic to seafood, try seeking out plant-based sources of the fatty acid, including seaweed and algae, or in dietary supplements, says Bluestone.
4. Fill Your Plate With Fiber
Fiber, particularly soluble fiber, can help lower your cholesterol levels, says Bluestone. “Fiber can bind to the cholesterol and help excrete it before it’s digested and absorbed into the body,” she says.
Unfortunately, just 7 percent of Americans get the recommended amount of daily dietary fiber, as detailed in a study from 2021. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent nutrition guidelines, women younger than 51 should try to eat 25 g of fiber a day, whereas women over 51 should aim for 21 g; and men under 51 should aim for 38 g a day, while men 51 and older should try to eat 30 g.
You can incorporate fiber into your diet by eating fruits and vegetables like apples, oranges, prunes, broccoli, and sweet potatoes. Eating the fruit with the skin (after you’ve washed it) can be a good way to add extra fiber, too, says Bluestone. Other sources include oats, barley, bran, whole grains, beans, and lentils, she says. “Beans and lentils are also great meat replacers,” she says. “Instead of eating your typical burger, you can have a black bean burger.”
Replacing less-than-healthy foods with heart-healthy choices is beneficial in other ways, too, she says. Take the beans-for-burgers example: The soluble fiber in beans can help lower bad cholesterol, but you’ll also avoid that dose of saturated fat from the burger. Plus, the fiber in beans takes longer to digest, which can boost your satiety levels. “You’re going to feel fuller much longer, which could help you delay or even skip a snack or dessert you might typically have,” says Bluestone.
5. Swap Saturated Fat for Soy
Contrary to popular belief, eating soy does have heart benefits, says Bluestone (though the benefits might not be as robust as once believed, she notes). For example, if you’re craving a high-protein meal, go for tofu or tempeh instead of steak or beef.
According to research published in The Journal of Nutrition, replacing saturated fat from animal products with soy foods was associated with a 7.9 to 10.3 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol levels.
Here again, it’s not always just about the benefits of what you’re adding to your diet, it’s also about avoiding the negative health consequences of the food you’re replacing, Bluestone says. So if you’re eating a soy product like tofu or tempeh rather than red meat or pork, you’re getting the benefit of the soy while avoiding the harmful effects of saturated fat, she says.
6. Pay Attention to Condiments and Dressings
Sometimes little things can add up: “Limit your use of condiments like mayonnaise and add a little avocado to your sandwich instead,” says Bluestone. “An avocado has monounsaturated fat, fiber, and potassium, which all offer good, heart-healthy benefits, but it still contains fat, which can help satisfy our taste buds.” Hummus is another healthy option to replace a traditional condiment, she says.
Another suggestion: Cut back cream-based dressings, which can be high in unhealthy fats. “If you have to pour on lots of ranch dressing to enjoy a salad, maybe you should consider replacing that salad with another vegetable that you like instead,” says Bluestone.
7. Eat the Rainbow
Eating a variety of vegetables and fruits can help lower your cholesterol levels, says Bluestone, who tells her clients to eat at least five different colors of vegetables each day. The reason: Vegetables contain phytosterols (called plant sterols and plant stanols) which work in much the same way as soluble fiber. Sterols can help block the absorption of cholesterol from your meal, she says. Rather than causing damage to the blood vessels, the cholesterol gets excreted as waste.
According to the National Institutes of Health, a diet with the recommended amount of plant sterols (2 g) may lower your LDL cholesterol level by about 15 percent.
In general, vegetables have more plant sterols than fruits, she says. Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, apples, avocados, and blueberries are all good options.
8. Sync Your Meals With Your Natural Circadian Rhythms
Try to finish eating two to three hours before bedtime, suggests Bluestone. Eating within your body’s natural circadian rhythms — that is, between when the sun comes up and the sun goes down — hasn’t necessarily been shown to lower LDL, she says, but it can help with controlling weight and sleeping better, which both affect heart health.
Plus, people don’t usually make the best food choices late at night, says Bluestone. “Nighttime food often means chips, junk food, ice cream, and sweets — foods that are not heart healthy,” she says. If you’re feeling hungry at night, try to stick to a bowl of berries or a few apple slices with a nut butter.
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