Heart disease is the world’s leading cause of death.
Having high cholesterol levels — especially “bad” LDL — is linked to an increased risk of heart disease (1).
Low “good” HDL cholesterol and high triglycerides are also linked to increased risk (2).
Your diet has a powerful effect on your cholesterol and other risk factors.
Here are 13 foods that can lower cholesterol and improve other risk factors for heart disease.
Legumes, also known as pulses, are a group of plant foods that includes beans, peas and lentils.
Legumes contain a lot of fiber, minerals and protein. Replacing some refined grains and processed meats in your diet with legumes can lower your risk of heart disease.
A review of 26 randomized controlled studies showed that eating a 1/2 cup (100 grams) of legumes per day is effective at lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol by an average of 6.6 mg/dl, compared to not eating legumes (3).
Other studies link pulses to weight loss — even in diets that do not restrict calories (4).
Summary Legumes like beans, peas and lentils can help lower “bad” LDL levels and are a good source of plant-based protein.
Avocados are an exceptionally nutrient-dense fruit.
They're a rich source of monounsaturated fats and fiber — two nutrients that help lower “bad” LDL and raise “good” HDL cholesterol (5).
Clinical studies support the cholesterol-lowering effect of avocados.
An analysis of 10 studies determined that substituting avocados for other fats was linked to lower total cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides (7).
Summary Avocados provide monounsaturated fatty acids and fiber, two heart-healthy and cholesterol-lowering nutrients.
Nuts are another exceptionally nutrient-dense food.
What’s more, nuts provide phytosterols. These plant compounds are structurally similar to cholesterol and help lower cholesterol by blocking its absorption in your intestines.
Calcium, magnesium and potassium, also found in nuts, may reduce blood pressure and lower your risk of heart disease.
In an analysis of 25 studies, eating 2–3 servings of nuts per day decreased “bad” LDL cholesterol by an average of 10.2 mg/dl (10).
Summary Nuts are rich in cholesterol-lowering fats and fiber, as well as minerals linked to improved heart health.
Fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel, are excellent sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3s bolster heart health by increasing “good” HDL cholesterol and lowering inflammation and stroke risk.
In one large, 25-year study in adults, those who ate the most non-fried fish were the least likely to develop metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms that includes high blood pressure and low “good” HDL levels (11).
In another large study in older adults, those who ate tuna or other baked or broiled fish at least once a week had a 27% lower risk of stroke (12).
Keep in mind that the healthiest ways to cook fish are steaming or stewing. In fact, fried fish may increase your risk of heart disease and stroke (13).
Some of the heart-protective benefits of fish may also come from certain peptides found in fish protein (16).
Summary Fatty fish offers high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and is linked to a decreased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Extensive research ties whole grains to lower heart disease risk.
In fact, a review of 45 studies linked eating three servings of whole grains daily to a 20% lower risk of heart disease and stroke. Benefits were even greater when people ate more servings — up to seven — of whole grains per day (17).
Whole grains keep all parts of the grain intact, which provides them with more vitamins, minerals, plant compounds and fiber than refined grains.
While all whole grains may promote heart health, two grains are particularly noteworthy:
- Oats: Contain beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber that helps lower cholesterol. Eating oats may lower total cholesterol by 5% and “bad” LDL cholesterol by 7% (18).
- Barley: Also rich in beta-glucans and can help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol (19).
Summary Whole grains are linked to a lower risk of heart disease. Oats and barley provide beta-glucan, a soluble fiber that is very effective at lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol.
Fruit is an excellent addition to a heart-healthy diet for several reasons.
It does this by encouraging your body to get rid of cholesterol and stopping your liver from producing this compound.
One kind of soluble fiber called pectin lowers cholesterol by up to 10%. It's found in fruits including apples, grapes, citrus fruits and strawberries (21).
Fruit also contains bioactive compounds that help prevent heart disease and other chronic diseases due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Summary Fruit can help lower cholesterol and improve heart health. This is largely caused by its fiber and antioxidants.
Cocoa is the main ingredient in dark chocolate.
In one study, healthy adults drank a cocoa beverage twice a day for a month.
They experienced a reduction in “bad” LDL cholesterol of 0.17 mmol/l (6.5 mg/dl). Their blood pressure also decreased and their “good” HDL cholesterol increased (24).
However, chocolate is often high in added sugar — which negatively affects heart health.
Therefore, you should use cocoa alone or choose dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 75–85% or higher.
Summary Flavonoids in dark chocolate and cocoa can help lower blood pressure and “bad” LDL cholesterol while raising “good” HDL cholesterol.
Garlic has been used for centuries as an ingredient in cooking and as a medicine (26).
It contains various powerful plant compounds, including allicin, its main active compound (27).
Because relatively large amounts of garlic are needed to achieve this heart-protective effect, many studies utilize aged supplements — which are considered more effective than other garlic preparations (30).
Summary Allicin and other plant compounds in garlic may help lower LDL cholesterol and reduce other heart disease risk factors.
Soybeans are a type of legume that may be beneficial for heart health.
While study results have been inconsistent, recent research is positive.
The effect seems strongest in people with high cholesterol.
Summary There is some evidence that soy foods can reduce heart disease risk factors, especially in people with high cholesterol.
Vegetables are a vital part of a heart-healthy diet.
They're rich in fiber and antioxidants and low in calories, which is necessary for maintaining a healthy weight.
Some vegetables are particularly high in pectin, the same cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber that occurs in apples and oranges (21).
Pectin-rich vegetables also include okra, eggplants, carrots and potatoes.
Vegetables also deliver a range of plant compounds which offer many health benefits, including protection against heart disease.
Summary Vegetables are high in fiber and antioxidants and low in calories, making them a heart-healthy choice.
Tea harbors many plant compounds that improve your heart health.
While green tea gets a lot of attention, black tea and white tea have similar properties and health effects.
Two of the primary beneficial compounds in tea are:
- Catechins: Help activate nitric oxide, which is important for healthy blood pressure. They also inhibit cholesterol synthesis and absorption and help prevent blood clots (32, 33).
- Quercetin: May improve blood vessel function and lower inflammation (34).
Though most studies associate tea with lower total and “bad” LDL cholesterol, research is mixed on its effects on “good” HDL cholesterol and blood pressure (35).
Summary Drinking tea may help lower cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease.
While all vegetables are good for your heart, dark leafy greens are particularly beneficial.
Carotenoids act as antioxidants to get rid of harmful free radicals that can lead to hardened arteries (37).
One study suggested that lutein lowers levels of oxidized “bad” LDL cholesterol and could help prevent cholesterol from binding to artery walls (39).
Summary Dark leafy greens are rich in carotenoids, including lutein, which are linked to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.
One of the most important foods in the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet is extra virgin olive oil.
One five-year study gave older adults at risk of heart disease 4 tablespoons (60 ml) a day of extra virgin olive oil alongside a Mediterranean diet.
The olive oil group had a 30% lower risk of major heart events, such as stroke and heart attack, compared to people who followed a low-fat diet (40).
Olive oil is a rich source of monounsaturated fatty acids, the kind that may help raise “good” HDL and lower “bad” LDL cholesterol.
Summary Olive oil, a primary component of the Mediterranean diet, provides monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants that boost your heart.