Our bodies make and need cholesterol, but only in limited quantities. Too much “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL) can clog your arteries and block vital blood flow to organs such as the heart and brain. That can lead to a heart attack or stroke, either of which can be fatal.

Many overlapping factors contribute to high cholesterol levels. A family history of high cholesterol or heart disease makes you vulnerable. People who are overweight, drink too much alcohol (more than one drink a day for women, two for men), smoke tobacco, and don’t get enough exercise are at higher risk.

What you eat has a meaningful effect on your cholesterol levels. Certain foods contain cholesterol, while others contain fats that raise your cholesterol levels. Foods can also raise good cholesterol (HDL).

What Are Healthy Cholesterol Levels?
The National Institutes of Health recommend these cholesterol levels:
  • Total cholesterol: less than 200 mg/dL
  • LDL cholesterol: less than 100 mg/dL
  • HDL cholesterol: 60 mg/dL or higher
  • Eating for Prevention

    Dietary changes can help you reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels, another fat that threatens heart health. In general, a cholesterol-reducing diet should emphasize fiber-rich foods, like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins, and de-emphasize foods with saturated and trans fats.

    The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends specialized diets like Pritikin, Atkins, Mediterranean, and the DASH diet for lowering cholesterol, but notes that results depend on the individual. Get your doctor’s recommendation before making any dietary changes, especially if you’re pregnant.

    How Long Does It Take to Lower Cholesterol? »

    Bad Fat and Better Fat

    Twenty five to 35 percent of your calorie intake should consist of fats. But remember: There are different kinds of fats.

    • trans fats: eliminate
    • saturated fat: limit
    • unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated): healthy
    • omega-3 fatty acids (a type of polyunsaturated fat): healthy

    The Bad Fats

    Trans fats are manufactured fats that have been transformed from unsaturated to partially saturated, thick enough to hold their form at room temperature. They have no nutritional benefit, plus they raise LDL cholesterol and even lower HDL cholesterol. They are considered such a health hazard that certain governments have banned their use.

    Foods containing trans fats include:

    • prepared cookie dough
    • commercial baked goods
    • restaurant-prepared deep fried foods

    The amount of trans fats present in food must be stated on nutrition tables in the United States, but it’s not mentioned on menus.

    Saturated fat is a naturally occurring fat that is found in many foods, especially meats and dairy products. Some foods with saturated fats are:

    • pork
    • fatty beef
    • chicken skin
    • full-fat dairy products, like butter and cream

    The AHA recommends getting no more than 7 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat.

    The Good Fats

    The right kinds of fat can raise HDL cholesterol, lower your blood pressure, and balance your blood sugar. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are found in olive oil, canola oil, and seeds and nuts. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish such as salmon and tuna.

     Some tips and changes to make in fat consumption:

    • Make your own low-fat baked goods like these.
    • Choose nuts as snacks instead of processed foods with hydrogenated fats.
    • Experiment with beans and vegetables in place of meat.
    • Substitute fish or chicken without skin for fattier meats.

    Carbs and Fiber

    A healthy diet includes complex carbohydrates in the form of fiber from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. The fiber in these foods reduces the amount of cholesterol that your body absorbs. On the other hand, refined (simple) carbohydrates can actually lower your HDL levels and raise triglycerides.

    Learn More: Complex vs. Simple Carbohydrates »

    Many commercially prepared foods that contain trans fats also tend to have a lot of refined carbohydrates, like white flour and white sugar. In addition to the trans fat-heavy foods listed above, common foods containing refined carbohydrates include:

    • pancakes and pancake mixes
    • jams and jellies
    • ice cream and frozen yogurt

    Some tips and changes to make in carbohydrate consumption:

    • Choose whole grains like brown rice, whole-grain breads and oatmeal, and stone-ground wheat tortillas.
    • Satisfy your sweet tooth with fruit, and fruit juice-sweetened preserves.
    • If you’re an ice cream fanatic, try frozen bananas instead of ice cream. No, really — Try it.

    Other Facts to Consider

    Salt

    Doctors have long advocated that low-salt diets can help reduce blood pressure. That is a meaningful health benefit, but cutting salt may not be good for cholesterol levels. One study concluded that reducing dietary sodium actually raised LDL and triglyceride levels. If your doctor recommends limiting salt, experiment with spices and herbs to add flavor in home cooking. Consider eating products labeled “reduced sodium” when appropriate.

    Alcohol

    Drinking a moderate amount of alcohol a day may benefit heart health, but that is not a reason to take up drinking. Moderate consumption may increase HDL levels and reduce clotting. Alcohol consumption in excess raises triglyceride levels. Keep your alcohol intake moderate, or cut out drinking altogether.

    Lifelong eating habits could be hard to break, but you’ll thank yourself in the long run. If you find it difficult to make changes, begin by cutting down bit by bit. Marking progress can be great motivation: Have your cholesterol and triglyceride levels checked regularly so you can see how you’re doing. Increasing the amount of exercise you do can also help you reduce your cholesterol. The AHA recommends an average of 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise three to four times a week for reducing cholesterol.