7 Superfoods That Fight Cholesterol
If you’ve been dealing with high cholesterol, your doctor has likely stressed the importance of doing what you can to bring your levels down. One of the most doable changes? Focusing on eating more foods that promote healthy cholesterol levels—and ditching the foods that can contribute to high cholesterol. But, are there any foods that are better at lowering cholesterol than others and why does it even matter? “Cholesterol levels matter because high cholesterol can lead to health issues including heart attacks and strokes,” says Linzy Ziegelbaum, C.D.N., a registered dietician in Port Washington, NY. “High cholesterol is worth addressing because making diet and lifestyle changes can often reverse high cholesterol and prevent heart disease.”
A Quick Refresher on Cholesterol
There are two types of lipoproteins, substances that transport fat in the blood, that make up blood cholesterol levels: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL is known as “bad” cholesterol, because it can build up in the arteries; HDL is known as “good” cholesterol, because it carries the cholesterol in your body back to the liver so it can be flushed from the body.
“In general, when HDL levels are low and LDL levels are high, your heart’s health is at risk,” says Kari Pitts, R.D.N., an in-house registered dietician for Preg Appetit. This situation can lead to a buildup of cholesterol in the arteries, which makes it harder for blood to pump through them. Genetics, inactivity, and an unhealthy diet can all contribute to high cholesterol.
Why Diet Matters
“Eating a diet high in saturated fats and trans fats can lead to high levels of LDL (bad cholesterol),” Ziegelbaum says. Saturated fats are found in animal products, and some fried and prepackaged foods—and are solid at room temperature. Trans fats form when liquid oils are turned into solid fats during food processing. They both increase LDL and decrease HDL. On the flip side, eating so-called “heart-healthy foods” (like the ones you’ll see in this slideshow) can impact your cholesterol levels for the better by increasing “good” cholesterol or lowering “bad” cholesterol.
Oats and Barley
“Fiber, especially soluble fiber, is important to look for,” Ziegelbaum says. “Soluble fiber binds to cholesterol in the intestines and removes it from the body.” Two particularly great options: Oats—rolled, crushed, or steel cut—and barley on its own or in bread or cereal. In fact, a review published in the British Medical Journal found just three servings of whole grain intake per day was associated with a 19% decrease in the risk of coronary heart disease, which is usually caused by cholesterol build-up in the arteries.
Salmon (and other fatty fish like mackerel and anchovy) is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids “Omega-3 fatty acids improve the HDL cholesterol in our body,” Pitts says. “They also help [to reduce] inflammation in the body.” Multiple studies have connected omega-3 fatty acids and heart benefits including lower levels of triglycerides, reduced risk of arrhythmia, and a slower rate of plaque buildup. Because of all the potential benefits, the American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish (particularly fatty fish) per week. A serving is 3.5 ounces cooked, or about 3/4 cup. Salmon is even better pick because it’s also really high in protein—about 20 grams per serving.
Lots of fruits have heart-healthy soluble fiber, but berries are a standout for a few reasons. Both raspberries and blackberries contain a whopping 8 grams of dietary fiber per 1-cup serving. Blueberries have 3.6 grams—which is still pretty good. Both raspberries and blackberries are also packed with vitamin C, providing over 50% of the recommended daily intake. Among many other benefits, vitamin C has been shown to lower triglycerides and prevent free radical damage associated with LDL cholesterol.
Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart….but seriously. Part of the reason beans are great is because they are full of protein, so they can be eaten as a source of the important nutrient instead of meat, which has saturated fats. They’re also full of cholesterol-lowering fiber, making them an all-around great. All beans are good for you, but pinto beans are especially high in fiber, which make them superior for heart health. A small animal study in the Journal of Nutrition suggests that pinto beans, in particular, may actually decrease cholesterol synthesis in the liver and cholesterol absorption in the small intestine.
Flaxseed might help lower cholesterol levels in several ways. First, it’s high in soluble fiber, Ziegelbaum says. Second, research suggests that alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid that is found in flaxseed and flaxseed oil, might also help lower blood pressure and reduce LDL cholesterol levels. One double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study published in 2015 in The Journal of Nutrition found that milled flaxseed lowers both LDL and total cholesterol in patients with peripheral artery disease, which happens when cholesterol builds up on the artery walls and makes it hard for blood to flow through.
“Avocados are great to include in the diet to fight high cholesterol,” Ziegelbaum says. They may help lower LDL cholesterol, thanks to fiber and monounsaturated fatty acids, another type of heart-healthy fat that has been shown to help reduce LDL cholesterol levels in the body and lower the risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association. The best way to eat them? In place of spreads that contain saturated fat, like mayonnaise or butter. A 2016 research review published in the Journal of Clinical Lipidology found that substituting avocados for other dietary fats may significantly decrease LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Walnuts are a powerhouse of nutrients, including high amounts of both polyunsaturated fat (omega-3s) and monounsaturated fat. They also contain vitamin E, which may help prevent cholesterol plaques from forming in the arteries; plant sterols, which have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol; and L-arginine, an amino acid that may also contribute to heart health. You can get similar benefits from other nuts, including almonds and macadamia nuts, but walnuts are the only nut shown to improve functioning of the cells that line the blood vessels. The American Heart Association recommends eating a small handful each day—unsalted and raw or dry-roasted nuts are best.
LDL Explained: Medline Plus. (2020). “LDL: The ‘Bad’ Cholesterol.” medlineplus.gov/ldlthebadcholesterol.html
Causes of High Cholesterol: American Heart Association. (2020). “Causes of High Cholesterol.” heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/causes-of-high-cholesterol
Omega-3s and Heart Health: American Heart Association. (2017). “Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids.” heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/fish-and-omega-3-fatty-acids
Whole Grains and Cholesterol: British Medical Journal. (2016). “Whole grain consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all cause and cause specific mortality: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4908315/
Whole Grains nNtritional Benefits: American Heart Association. (2016). “Whole Grains, Refined Grains, and Dietary Fiber.” heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/whole-grains-refined-grains-and-dietary-fiber
Vitamin C and LDL: Journal of Chiropractic Medicine. (2008). “Vitamin C supplementation lowers serum low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and triglycerides: a meta-analysis of 13 randomized controlled trials.” sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0899346708000281
Pinto Beans and Cholesterol: The Journal of Nutrition. (2019). “Lower Non-HDL Cholesterol in Hamsters Fed a Diet Rich in Saturated Fat and Act on Genes Involved in Cholesterol Homeostasis.” doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxz044
Fiber Content in Foods: The Mayo Clinic. (2021). “Chart of high-fiber foods.” mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/high-fiber-foods/art-20050948
Flaxseed and Cholesterol: The Journal of Nutrition. (2015). “Dietary flaxseed independently lowers circulating cholesterol and lowers it beyond the effects of cholesterol-lowering medications alone in patients with peripheral artery disease.” academic.oup.com/jn/article/145/4/749/4644334
Potential Benefits of Flaxseed: The Mayo Clinic. (2020). “Flaxseed and flaxseed oil.” mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-flaxseed-and-flaxseed-oil/art-20366457
Monounsaturated Fats: American Heart Association. (2015). “Monounsaturated Fat.” heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/monounsaturated-fats
Avocados and Cholesterol: Journal of Clinical Lipidology. (2016). “Impact of avocado-enriched diets on plasma lipoproteins: A meta-analysis.” sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1933287415004274
Plant Sterols: Nutrients. (2018). LDL-Cholesterol Lowering of Plant Sterols and Stanols—Which Factors Influence Their Efficacy? [ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6163911/#:~:text=The%20LDL%2Dcholesterol%20(LDL%2D,by%207.5%25%20to%2012%25](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6163911/#:~:text=The%20LDL%2Dcholesterol%20(LDL%2D,by%207.5%25%20to%2012%25)
Nuts and Heart Health: The Mayo Clinic. (2019). “Nuts and your heart: Eating nuts for heart health.” mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/nuts/art-20046635
Walnuts ALA Content: Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. (2018). “Beneficial effects of walnut consumption on human health.” journals.lww.com/co-clinicalnutrition/Fulltext/2018/11000/Beneficial_effects_of_walnut_consumption_on_human.15.aspx