Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by your liver and obtained by eating animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs.
Your liver will produce less cholesterol if you consume a lot of this substance from food, so dietary cholesterol rarely has a great impact on total cholesterol levels.
However, eating large amounts of saturated fat, trans fat and sugars can raise cholesterol levels.
Bear in mind that there are different types of cholesterol.
While “good” HDL cholesterol may be beneficial for your health, high levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, particularly when oxidized, have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke (1, 2, 3, 4).
That’s because oxidized LDL cholesterol is more likely to stick to the walls of your arteries and form plaques, which clog these blood vessels.
Here are 10 tips to lower cholesterol with your diet and help reduce your risk of heart disease.
Soluble fiber is found in large quantities in beans, legumes, whole grains, flax, apples and citrus (5).
Humans lack the proper enzymes to break down soluble fiber, so it moves through your digestive tract, absorbing water and forming a thick paste.
As it travels, soluble fiber absorbs bile, a substance produced by your liver to help digest fats. Eventually, both the fiber and attached bile are excreted in your stool.
Bile is made from cholesterol, so when your liver needs to make more bile it pulls cholesterol out of your bloodstream, which lowers cholesterol levels naturally.
Regular soluble fiber consumption is associated with a 5–10% reduction in both total cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol in as little as four weeks (5).
Summary Soluble fiber lowers cholesterol by preventing reabsorption of bile in your gut, which leads to the excretion of bile in the feces. Your body pulls cholesterol from the bloodstream to make more bile, therefore reducing levels.
Studies show that adults who consume at least four servings of fruits and vegetables each day have roughly 6% lower LDL cholesterol levels than people who eat fewer than two servings per day (8).
Together, these cholesterol-lowering and antioxidant effects can reduce your risk of heart disease.
Research has found that people who eat the most fruits and vegetables have a 17% lower risk of developing heart disease over 10 years compared to those who eat the fewest (11).
Summary Eating at least four servings of fruits and vegetables daily can lower LDL cholesterol levels and reduce LDL oxidation, which may reduce your risk of heart disease.
Herbs and spices are nutritional powerhouses packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
In addition to lowering cholesterol, herbs and spices contain antioxidants that prevent LDL cholesterol from oxidizing, reducing the formation of plaques within your arteries (15).
Even though herbs and spices are not typically eaten in large quantities, they can contribute significantly to the total amount of antioxidants consumed each day (16).
Summary Both fresh and dried herbs and spices can help lower cholesterol levels. They contain antioxidants that prevent LDL cholesterol from oxidation.
Two main kinds of fats are found in food: saturated and unsaturated.
On a chemical level, saturated fats contain no double bonds and are very straight, allowing them to pack together tightly and stay solid at room temperature.
Unsaturated fats contain at least one double bond and have a bent shape, preventing them from joining together as tightly. These attributes make them liquid at room temperature.
Research shows that replacing most of your saturated fats with unsaturated fats can reduce total cholesterol by 9% and “bad” LDL cholesterol by 11% in just eight weeks (18).
Longer-term studies have also found that people who eat more unsaturated fats and fewer saturated fats tend to have lower cholesterol levels over time (19).
Summary Eating more unsaturated fats and fewer saturated fats has been linked to lower total cholesterol and “bad” LDL levels over time. Avocados, olives, fatty fish and nuts are especially rich in unsaturated fats.
While trans fats occur naturally in red meat and dairy products, most people’s main source is artificial trans fat used in many restaurants and processed foods (24).
Artificial trans fats are produced by hydrogenating — or adding hydrogen to — unsaturated fats such as vegetable oils to change their structure and solidify them at room temperature.
Trans fats make a cheap alternative to natural saturated fats and have been widely used by restaurants and food manufacturers.
However, substantive research shows that eating artificial trans fats increases “bad” LDL cholesterol, lowers “good” HDL cholesterol and is linked to a 23% greater risk of heart disease (25, 26, 27, 28).
Watch out for the words “partially hydrogenated” in ingredients lists. This term indicates that the food contains trans fat and should be avoided (27).
As of June 2018, artificial trans fats are banned from use in restaurants and processed foods sold in the US, so they’re becoming much easier to avoid (29).
Naturally occurring trans fats found in meat and dairy products can also raise LDL cholesterol. However, they’re present in small enough quantities to generally not be considered a large health risk (30, 31).
Summary Artificial trans fats are linked to higher LDL cholesterol levels and an increased risk of heart disease. Recently, the US banned their use in restaurants and processed foods, making them easier to avoid.
Even more troubling, fructose increases the number of small, dense oxidized LDL cholesterol particles which contribute to heart disease (34).
Between 2005 and 2010, an estimated 10% of Americans consumed over 25% of their daily calories from added sugars (35).
According to a 14-year study, these people were almost three times more likely to die from heart disease than those getting less than 10% of their calories from added sugars (35).
The American Heart Association recommends eating no more than 100 calories (25 grams) of added sugar per day for women and children, and no more than 150 calories (37.5 grams) per day for men (36, 37).
You can meet these goals by reading labels carefully and choosing products without added sugars whenever possible.
Summary Getting more than 25% of your daily calories from added sugars can raise cholesterol levels and more than double your risk of dying from heart disease. Cut back by choosing foods without added sugars as much as possible.
One of the easiest ways to incorporate the above lifestyle changes is to follow a Mediterranean-style diet.
Mediterranean diets are rich in olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and fish, and low in red meat and most dairy. Alcohol, usually in the form of red wine, is consumed in moderation with meals (38).
Since this style of eating includes many cholesterol-lowering foods and avoids many cholesterol-raising foods, it’s considered very heart-healthy.
In fact, research has shown that following a Mediterranean-style diet for at least three months reduces LDL cholesterol by an average of 8.9 mg per deciliter (dL) (39).
Summary Mediterranean meals are rich in fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, fiber and unsaturated fats. Following this type of diet can reduce cholesterol levels and lower your risk of heart disease.
Soybeans are rich in protein and contain isoflavones, plant-based compounds that are similar in structure to estrogen.
Summary Soy contains plant-based proteins and isoflavones that can reduce LDL cholesterol levels, lowering your risk of heart disease when eaten regularly.
Green tea is made by heating and drying the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant.
The tea leaves can be steeped in water to make brewed tea or ground into powder and mixed with liquid for matcha green tea.
Animal studies show that green tea may lower cholesterol by both reducing the liver’s production of LDL and increasing its removal from the bloodstream (49).
Drinking at least four cups per day provides the greatest protection against heart disease, but enjoying just one cup daily can reduce your risk of heart attack by nearly 20% (52).
Summary Drinking at least one cup of green tea per day can reduce LDL cholesterol levels and lower your risk of heart attack by nearly 20%.
In addition to diet, some supplements can help lower cholesterol levels naturally.
- Niacin: Daily supplements of 1–6 grams of niacin can lower LDL cholesterol levels up to 19% over one year. However, it can cause side effects and should only be taken under medical supervision (53, 54, 55).
- Psyllium husk: Psyllium husk, rich in soluble fiber, can be mixed with water and consumed daily to lower cholesterol. Research has found that psyllium husk complements cholesterol-lowering drugs (56).
- L-carnitine: L-carnitine lowers LDL levels and reduces oxidation for people with diabetes. Taking 2 grams per day for three months can lower oxidized cholesterol levels five times more than a placebo (57, 58).
Always consult with your doctor before starting a new diet or supplement regimen.
Summary Supplements such as niacin, psyllium husk and L-carnitine can help reduce cholesterol levels, but consult with your physician prior to consumption.
High levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol — especially small, dense oxidized LDL — have been linked to increased risk of heart disease.
Diet changes, such as eating more fruits and vegetables, cooking with herbs and spices, consuming soluble fiber and loading up on unsaturated fats, can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce these risks.
Avoid ingredients that increase LDL cholesterol, like trans fats and added sugars, to keep cholesterol in healthy ranges.
Certain foods and supplements like green tea, soy, niacin, psyllium husk and L-carnitine can lower cholesterol levels as well.
Overall, many small dietary changes can significantly improve your cholesterol levels.