Eat to Lower Cholesterol: 5 Diet Rules That Work

Eat to treat high cholesterol with these diet tweaks.

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When it comes to your cholesterol levels, “you are what you eat,” says Paul Knoepflmacher, MD, a clinical instructor in medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

High cholesterol occurs when there is too much “bad” fat in the blood. It can be treated with medication, but not everybody with elevated cholesterol needs drugs to lower their cholesterol, especially at first, says Michelle Weisfelner Bloom, MD, a cardiologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center. Depending on your cholesterol level and other heart disease risk factors, you may be able to lower your cholesterol with lifestyle changes—starting with what you eat.

“When you are diagnosed with high cholesterol or even borderline high cholesterol, the first thing you want to do is really focus on your diet,” says Rachel Bond, MD, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital. “If we can change our diet, we have the ability to reduce our cholesterol numbers, and by doing so you may avoid the need to be started on a medication.”

Here are five key diet changes that can lower your cholesterol levels significantly.

1. Eat less fast food. French fries, burgers, pizza—all of these are high in saturated and trans fats, which are both culprits for increasing “bad” cholesterol in the blood. Saturated fats mostly come from animal products, like beef, butter, and cheese. “Saturated fat does increase LDL cholesterol,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a nutritionist and cookbook author in New York City.

Trans fats are made from adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. They raise “bad” LDL cholesterol and decrease “good” HDL cholesterol, and are found in fried foods, pizza dough, cookies, and crackers. For people who need to lower their cholesterol, the American Heart Association recommends avoiding trans fats and reducing saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 percent of total daily calories.

2. Choose lower-fat meat and dairy. Another way to lower your saturated fat intake is to limit your intake of fattier red meats, like steak and ground beef. Stick to lean meats, like turkey or chicken, and switch your dairy to fat-free or low-fat varieties.

3. Boost your “good” fat intake. Good fats—such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—can help lower your cholesterol levels, as well as your risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Diabetes Association. These fats can be found in foods like avocado, nuts, extra virgin olive oil, and in these other heart-healthy eats.

4. Serve yourself soluble fiber. “We should be focusing on getting more soluble fiber, because that is the type that reduces our “bad” LDL cholesterol and takes it out of the body,” says Largeman-Roth. Adding more fiber to the diet can actually decrease cholesterol by 10 percent, she says. Certain foods are soluble fiber superstars, so do your research. “Fruits that have [the soluble fiber] pectin in them can actually lower your LDL, so that includes apples, grapes, strawberries, and citrus fruits,” says Largeman-Roth. Beta-glucan, which a soluble fiber found in oats and barley, is specifically beneficial for lowering cholesterol too, she says.

5. Think plant based. For lowering cholesterol, a good rule of thumb is to incorporate as many fruits and vegetables into your diet as possible, says Michelle Weisfelner Bloom, MD, a cardiologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center.  “A lot of people, especially in cardiology, are big advocates of plant-based diets, because you’re not putting processed sugar [or] processed carbohydrates in your diet that can shoot up your blood sugar levels, and also can shoot up your cholesterol levels.”