Lowering your cholesterol through diet is not as complicated as one may think! The basic principles of nutrition will get you pretty far when it comes to eating for heart health, and with a little bit of planning you are well on your way to managing your health for the long-haul.
How to Lower Cholesterol Naturally Through Diet
While high cholesterol levels can be genetic, many will find their high cholesterol is due to lifestyle choices including lack of physical exercise, poor weight management, or unhealthy eating.
The good news is that because high cholesterol is often caused by poor dietary choices, changing your diet can be a very effective approach to managing your condition and improving your overall heart health.
Luckily a generally healthy diet high in nutrient dense whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins is fairly sufficient in managing cholesterol levels. A DASH diet, designed to help manage blood pressure has also been associated with favorable impacts to blood cholesterol.
Foods to Avoid with High Cholesterol
Contrary to what some may believe, it is unlikely that dietary cholesterol in food is what causes your blood cholesterol to increase (1). And high cholesterol is not typically the result of a single food or food component.
Thus, it is not that certain foods need to be avoided completely, as much as they should be limited or decreased. It is entirely possible to enjoy your favorite foods and manage your cholesterol levels with a healthy, thoughtful approach to eating.
Additionally, even though some of the nutritional components in foods may contribute to increased cholesterol, these foods can also provide essential nutrients - making them not all bad or all good either.
The key is being mindful of your intake and focusing on overall balance.
It is essential to note that altering your blood cholesterol through diet requires a total dietary approach, not just changing one or two foods you consume.
Research suggests that eating too much of the following is associated with higher cholesterol levels:
Saturated fat has long been associated to increased blood cholesterol levels, specifically LDL "bad" cholesterol. This, limiting your intake of saturated fat is a common approach to cholesterol management (2).
Nutrition guidelines suggest that you should limit your intake to less than 10% of your daily calories.
|Daily Calorie Intake||Saturated Fat Intake|
|1500 calories/day||<17 grams|
|1800 calories/day||<20 grams|
|2000 calories/day||<23 grams|
|2200 calories/day||<25 grams|
Saturated fat primarily comes from animal based foods like meat and dairy, but can also be found in plant based sources like coconut. The top sources in the diet include:
- Red Meat: Beef, Lamb
- Whole and 2% Milk
- Full fat and low fat Yogurt
- Butter and Lard
- Palm Oil and Kern Oil
Not wanting to give up meat and dairy? Opting for grass-fed or low fat meat and dairy is one way to limit your intake and still enjoy these foods on occasion.
Use these healthy food swaps to help manage how much saturated fat you get in your diet.
|20% fat ground beef||97% lean ground beef|
|Prime Rib, New York Strip, Porterhouse, Filet Mignon, Skirt Steak, or T-Bone Steak||Top Round, Bottom Round, Eye of Round, Top Sirloin, Sirloin Tip, or Grass-fed cuts|
|Pork Bacon||Turkey Bacon|
|Chicken Thighs w/ skin||Skinless Chicken Breast|
|Pork Belly, Pork Butt, Ribs, or Pork Shoulder||Pork Tenderloin or Pork Loin Chop|
|Full Fat Dairy||Fat Free Dairy|
|Coconut Oil||Olive Oil|
Trans are even more strongly associated with increased cholesterol levels than saturated fat (3). Luckily, the FDA has taken steps to help remove added trans fats (aka partially hydrogenated oils) from a majority of the food supply.
You can still get some trans fats from deep fried foods, animal based proteins, and processed foods like some of the following:
- Buttery Crackers
- Coffee Creamer
- Frozen Pies
- Frozen Pizza
- Frosting (ready-to-use)
- Microwave Popcorn
- Packaged Cookies
- Refrigerated Dough Products
- Shelf Stable Cakes
- Vegetable Shortenings
An easy way to cut back on trans fats is to limit your overall intake fried foods and heavily processed foods altogether.
There may also be a correlation between sugar intake and heart health, especially when decreased saturated fat is replaced with sugar intake.
Studies suggest that too much sugar might help raise total cholesterol, decrease HDL "good" cholesterol, and increase LDL "bad" cholesterol (4). With fructose primarily in the form of added table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup having the largest impact.
But finding added sugar in foods can feel pretty difficult - especially since it is not required to be listed on the nutrition facts label. Moreover, there are over 50 different names for added sugar as an ingredient.
Common foods high in added sugar include:
- Sweetened Drinks and Teas
- Sports Drinks
- Granola Bars
- Boxed Cereals
- Prepared Sauces
- Breads and Baked Goods
- Flavored Yogurt
- Flavored Milk
To help cut back on your intake of added sugar, be sure to check the ingredients label of packaged foods. They are listed by weight and anything that ends in -syrup or -ose are also typically a form of sugar.
You can also avoid packaged foods and aim to eat more whole foods, and items made from scratch where you can control all of the ingredients at home.
Foods that Help Lower Cholesterol
Even more importantly than what to limit in your diet, is what you replace these food with. Including more nutritious, cholesterol lowering foods is one of the best approaches to managing your blood levels over time.
Aim to get more foods high in the following:
It is thought that fiber binds to cholesterol in the gut, preventing its absorption into the blood stream. Where other evidence points to high fiber diets juts naturally being lower in saturated fat and cholesterol int he first place (9).
Regardless, high fiber diets may offer some serious cholesterol lowering benefits. Foods that are naturally high in soluble fiber include:
- Whole Grains
A low fat diet is often recommended as a dietary approach to lowering cholesterol, but certain types of healthy fat may have unique benefits.
High intakes of omega-3 fatty acids from supplements or seafood has been linked to better blood cholesterol levels, and in s some cases, omega-3 supplementation may reduce blood triglycerides (10). Omega-3s also contribute to higher HDL levels.
Foods high in omega-3s include:
- Sea Vegetables
Aim to get 2 to 3 servings of fatty fish a week to grab the potential benefits of omega-3s.
Plants can contain their own version of cholesterol called "phytosterols" that when eaten, can interfere with the absorption of cholesterol in the body. These sterols (also called stanols) are commonly added to foods like margarine, bars, or oils and marketed as "heart healthy" functional foods.
Specific plant foods high in phytosterols include:
- Corn Oil
- Olive Oil
- Canola Oil
- Sunflower Seeds
- Wheat Germ
- Wheat Bran
- Brussels Sprouts
Phytosterols have shown promising results, and some argue that they are being underutilized as a dietary approach to cholesterol management. Several large studies have shown that eating 2 to 3 servings a day has the ability to lower total cholesterol by 10% and LDL cholesterol by 14% (11).
Starting a Low Cholesterol Meal Plan
Building your optimal cholesterol lowering diet is not different than starting any new healthy eating plan. Here are the key steps to get you going:
- Figure out how many calories you need a day
- Estimate how many times you want to eat each day and then calculate how many calories you need per meal
- Choose cholesterol lowering foods you enjoy eating to build your menu
- Make a plan and stick to it
For example, if you need 2,000 calories a day to lose weight and support good health and eat 4 meals a day (including snacks), you can shoot for recipes or options that provide you around 500 calories.
These meals should also include plenty of nutrient dense whole foods like fruits and vegetables, as well as a source of lean protein.
Then to help keep you on track, you can use a food tracking app toe ensure you are hitting your daily needs and sticking to your diet over time.
Want even more support with your diet? How about having the experts do all the shopping, planning and cooking for you, so you can focus on everything else? Like getting back into the gym or quitting smoking.
Check out our perfectly portioned, nutritious meal plans to make living healthier feel so much easier.