8 Foods That Lower Cholesterol
It seems like every six months a new study is released about cholesterol that aggressively contradicts everything we’ve come to know about the fat-like substance in the past. One week, eggs are good for you and the next, you’ll hear that eating a scramble-a-day is like a heart attack on a plate. So, what do we know for sure about cholesterol? And what changes can we make to our lifestyles without worrying about ever-shifting dietary recommendations? Click through for some simple recommendations you can incorporate into your life right now to improve your cholesterol and your overall health.
But first, what is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by the liver and absorbed from food that can be found in every cell of the human body. It serves several important functions, namely the production of sex hormones, the digestion of food, and the building of tissue.
The fact is, we need cholesterol to live; but there are different types of cholesterol that are more or less helpful to us. Think: good and bad cholesterol.
What is the difference between good and bad cholesterol?
The actual name for bad cholesterol is low-density lipoprotein, or LDL. LDL is considered bad cholesterol because it contributes to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, narrowing the artery pathway and putting you at risk for things like heart attack, stroke or artery disease.
Good cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, on the other hand, acts as a defense against bad cholesterol, carrying LDL away from the arteries and into the liver where it is broken down and passed through the body.
According to a 2017 study, around 18% of Americans over the age of 20 had high levels of bad cholesterol and low levels of good cholesterol.
What does a heart-healthy diet look like?
A heart-healthy diet basically means maximizing your intake of good cholesterol and minimizing your intake of bad cholesterol.
“Eat the rainbow—include a wider variety of color in your diet. Consume unprocessed, healthy foods rich in nutrients and vitamins, such as green leafy vegetables, fresh berries, fruits, fish, lean meats, and whole grains,” says Samuel Suede, M.D., chief of cardiology at Englewood Health in New Jersey.
With that in mind, here are some of our favorite heart-smart snacks and foods you can incorporate into your diet today!
Flaxseed, one of the world’s oldest crops, comes in two forms (brown and golden), which are equally jam-packed with protein, fiber, omega 3-fatty acids, vitamins, and important minerals. Flaxseed also contains soluble fiber that helps block the production of bad cholesterol.
Flaxseed has a mild, nutty flavor and must be eaten chopped up, ground, or as an oil. As a powder, flaxseed can be added to muffins, cakes, or anything baked; while in its oil form, it can be drizzled over a salad or put into your morning coffee (weird, but true).
We should be eating oranges for a few different reasons. They are packed with vitamins (including vitamin C), minerals, and antioxidants that boost your overall health, lower your cholesterol, and decrease your risk of developing things like kidney stones.
Oranges also contain a substance called phytosterols (plant sterols), a type of fat that helps block cholesterol from being absorbed in the intestines. Because eating too many oranges has been linked to digestive issues like heartburn and bloating, you should limit your intake to one a day, according to a 2019 study.
“Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart. The more you eat, the more you...”
Anyway! This old playground chant still rings true today. Incorporating a single portion (about a ½ cup) of beans, lentils, chickpeas, and other legumes into your everyday diet has been shown to lower levels of bad cholesterol and boost long-term heart health.
“Legumes are also a very good source of dietary fiber, which is important for maintaining healthy bowel function,” says Guy Crosby, M.D., a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. The fiber contained in beans assist with gut absorption, helping you break down cholesterol and introduce beneficial bacteria into the gut and bowels.
Garlic is one of the most widely incorporated ingredients in home and herbal remedies for lowering cholesterol. Dozens of studies have found a link between garlic and cholesterol.
For instance, the results of a 2014 meta-analysis of garlic’s effect on LDL levels found that in powder form, garlic succeeded in lowering bad cholesterol. Whether or not these effects last long-term is still in question. It’s also suspected that garlic’s ability to lower cholesterol is dose-dependent, meaning the more you eat, the more your cholesterol levels drop. Luckily, those of us who enjoy the taste of garlic already incorporate it into every dish we possibly can.
If you’re looking to improve your cholesterol levels, soy (think: tofu and soymilk) is a great ingredient to incorporate into your diet. It’s low in saturated fat, cholesterol free, and a natural source of protein, fiber, and omega-3s.
Soy protein—the product of dehulled and defatted soybean—has also been found to lower levels of bad cholesterol by 3% to 4% when eaten on an everyday basis. While those may seem like insignificant percentages, no improvement is too small when it comes to heart health.
Tempeh—a traditional Indonesian soy product made from fermented soybeans—can be found in your local grocery store. And soy nuts are great on-the-go.
Apples, the king of fruit, have been and forever will be a staple of any balanced diet. Not only are apples jam-packed with nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, they also contain polyphenols, fiber, and phytosterols, all of which have been shown to improve cholesterol.
Apples are tied with bananas for the “most portable fruit” award and make a great last-minute addition to a lunch or work bag. Give your body what it wants. Eat an apple.
Speaking of highly portable snacks… the almond. Raw, roasted, or candy-coated, almonds are a delicious morning or midday snack that has the added bonus of being great for your body.
Almonds are a super-source of antioxidants, vitamin E, and magnesium. These antioxidants help prevent bad cholesterol from oxidizing in the body and turning into plaque in the arteries. For best use, try eating one or two handfuls of almonds per day and avoid the sweet or savory additions like chocolate or salt.
Cauliflower is in the midst of a culinary renaissance. Suddenly, the vegetable that was once considered a poor-man’s broccoli is now the go-to ingredient for imitation meat dishes. Cauliflower buffalo wings, cauliflower tacos, and cauliflower ground beef are all hugely popular dishes at vegan and vegetarian restaurants.
Like oranges, cauliflower is rich in plant sterols, the fat that helps block cholesterol from absorbing in the intestines. It also contains antioxidants, magnesium, vitamin C, omega 3s, and the inflammation-fighting vitamin K. Cauliflower is also an excellent source of dietary fiber, which was shown in a 2009 study to effectively lower levels of bad cholesterol.
Cardiovascular Disease Prevention: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association. (2019). “Guideline on the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease”. onlinejacc.org/sites/default/files/additional_assets/guidelines/Prevention-Guidelines-Made-Simple.pdf
Cholesterol/Lifestyle Changes: Mayo Clinic. (2018). “Top 5 lifestyle changes to improve your cholesterol.” mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/in-depth/reduce-cholesterol/art-20045935
Garlic Study: The National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubMed. (2014) “Garlic powder intake and cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25489404
Beans Study: The National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubMed. (2014) “Effect of dietary pulse intake on established therapeutic lipid targets for cardiovascular risk reduction: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24710915
Cholesterol Statistics: The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (2017) “Total and High-density Lipoprotein Cholesterol in Adults: United States, 2015–2016.” cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db290.htm
Cauliflower and Fiber Study: Nutrition Reviews. (2009) “Health benefits of dietary fiber.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19335713