Find out which foods help lower bad cholesterol and support healthy cholesterol.

<p>Tanja Ivanova/Getty Images</p>

Tanja Ivanova/Getty Images

As a common contributor to heart disease, unhealthy cholesterol levels are top of mind for many healthcare professionals and patients alike. But when it comes to this kind of fat, it’s easy to get confused, because there is dietary cholesterol, cholesterol found in the body, and even different types within these categories, some beneficial and others more harmful. Here’s a handy guide to navigating all things cholesterol, and a list of some healthy food options to lower bad cholesterol and keep your levels in check for long-term health.

Related: The 8 Worst Foods for High Cholesterol

What Is Cholesterol? (It’s Not All Bad)

Cholesterol is a waxy fat that actually plays a number of important roles throughout the body, including hormone, vitamin D, and digestive fluid production. It’s also an integral part of our cell membranes. In fact, this nutrient is so important that the body makes the majority of it (80 percent) internally. That means only about 20 percent of the cholesterol found in our body comes from food.

HDL vs. LDL Cholesterol

To make for more seamless transport throughout the body, cholesterol circulates in smaller packages of protein-covered fat molecules called lipoproteins. While several different kinds of lipoproteins exist, there are two types that you’ll hear of the most: high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL).

“HDL is known as ‘good’ cholesterol, and LDL is ‘bad’ cholesterol,” says Megan Hilbert, MS, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist at Top Nutrition Coaching. HDL cholesterol is beneficial in that it acts as a clean-up crew in the body, removing some of the cholesterol from our blood and artery walls that can lead to plaque build-up, bringing it to the liver to be excreted from the body.

LDL is the cholesterol that HDL is trying to clear up and is often to blame for atherosclerosis, or the build-up on arteries that contributes to heart disease, earning it the nickname of “lousy cholesterol.”

Only about 20% of the cholesterol found in our body comes from food.

What Are Healthy Cholesterol Levels?

Because of this, doctors typically like to see LDL blood levels of less than 100 milligram per deciliter (mg/dL), but under 70 is even better. On the HDL, or good cholesterol side of things, at least 40 mg/dL is ideal, but over 60 mg/dL is linked to even more optimal heart health outcomes.

What Nutrients Influence Cholesterol Levels?

When it comes to nutrition and cholesterol, there are some nutrients to look out for, some of which will support healthy cholesterol levels while others will increase harmful cholesterol.

Primary nutrients that positively affect cholesterol levels:

  • Soluble Fiber: When it comes to lowering cholesterol, one of the first dietary recommendations is usually to reach for more fiber—and soluble fiber specifically. This is due to several mechanisms, the most notable of which is its ability to “bind to bile (which contains LDL cholesterol) and remove it from your body during bowel movements,” Hilbert explains. There are many varieties of soluble fiber, including pectin, fructan, and beta glucan. Within the 25 to 38 grams of fiber recommended for adults per day, about a fourth of that should be soluble fiber, anywhere from six to 10 grams. Though if you’re generally meeting your daily fiber needs, you’ll almost certainly be getting enough soluble fiber.

  • Unsaturated Fats: Both mono- and polyunsaturated fats are well-known to help improve cholesterol levels, especially by lowering LDL cholesterol. Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of unsaturated fat that are particularly beneficial in this regard.

  • Plant Compounds: There are many plant compounds that are also linked to improved LDL cholesterol levels, including plant stanols and sterols and catechins. In fact, research tells us that consuming two grams of plant stanols and sterols every day can lower LDL cholesterol but up to 12 percent! Meanwhile, flavonoids have been shown to improve HDL’s function within the body while also working to reduce LDL.

Nutrients that can negatively impact cholesterol levels:

For nutrients that will negatively impact cholesterol levels in the body, those typically fall under the fat category, including trans fats, saturated fats, and dietary cholesterol.

  • Trans Fats: These mostly human-made fats both increase LDL levels and decrease HDL levels at the same time. These fats will be found mostly in processed foods. Look out for the word “hydrogenated” on the ingredients list to be sure you’re steering clear of them.

  • Saturated Fats: Similarly, saturated fat has also been linked to raising LDL cholesterol levels. “Eating over five to six percent of your calories from high saturated fat sources has been shown to negatively impact cholesterol levels,” Hilbert says. While this fact is true, research is inconclusive about whether saturated fat intake has a direct correlation to heart disease risk. Some studies have found a correlation between saturated fat intake and heart disease, while others have not. Despite these conflicting findings, it’s best to keep your saturated fat intake to a minimum as it can still affect our cholesterol levels. This type of fat is most commonly found in animal-based sources like fatty cuts of meat and poultry as well as in full-fat dairy products like cheese.

  • Dietary Cholesterol: Dietary cholesterol can also negatively impact your overall cholesterol levels. However, like saturated fats, emerging studies are finding that there isn’t as much of a direct correlation between dietary cholesterol and heart disease risk as once previously thought. Again, despite this, however, it’s still wise to be mindful of how much dietary cholesterol you’re consuming. Classic examples of foods high in dietary cholesterol include egg yolks, red meat, full-fat dairy, and shrimp.

Healthiest Foods for Cholesterol


<p>Greg DuPree</p>

Salmon Tacos With Grapefruit Salsa

Fatty fish, like salmon, are so commonly recommended as part of a heart-healthy diet because they’re so full of omega-3 fatty acids. If salmon isn’t your favorite, anchovies, tuna, sardines, and trout are some other great options rich in this cholesterol-lowering fat.


Caitlin Bensel

Caitlin Bensel

Carrot Cake Oatmeal Breakfast Cookies

All whole grains are going to be excellent options when it comes to supporting healthy cholesterol levels, and oats might just be the MVP. This is thanks to the high amounts of soluble fiber, especially beta glucan, they contain.

Related: 7 Delicious RD-Approved Ways to Eat Oats (That Don&#39;t Involve Oatmeal)

Nuts and Seeds

Coffee-Glazed Mixed Nuts

Beyond being super convenient snacks, nuts and seeds are also ideal to lower your LDL cholesterol naturally. While all nuts and seeds will be full of unsaturated fats, almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, and flax are especially fantastic choices due to their omega-3 content. Many of these options are also high in plant sterols and stanols.

Citrus Fruits

Caitlin Bensel

Caitlin Bensel

Every-Citrus Salad With Almonds and Manchego

Whether it be orange, lemon, lime, or grapefruit, all varieties of citrus fruit are going to be super heart-healthy picks. This is primarily due to their high pectin content, helping to sweep away that bad cholesterol during digestion.

Olive Oil

Victor Protasio

Victor Protasio

Fried Herb Salsa

Olive oil has deep ties to heart health, mostly due to its healthy unsaturated fat content. However, the oleic acid found in this popular oil is also important to note, as it’s a potent LDL (and inflammation) reducer. Plus, EVOO is high in plant sterols.

Related: 7 Anti-Inflammatory Foods to Eat Every Day for Long-Term Health


Caitlin Bensel

Caitlin Bensel

Chickpea Spiced Rice

Beans, peas, and lentils (aka legumes) deliver on soluble fiber, making them great additions to a lower cholesterol diet. Soy products, too, like edamame and tofu, earn a special call out as research has found them to be particularly beneficial to both LDL and HDL levels.




Easiest-Ever Homemade Guacamole

Regardless of whether you opt for avocado flesh or avocado oil, both choices are terrific for improving cholesterol, thanks to this fruit’s mostly monounsaturated fat content (yep, avo is botanically a fruit!). Avocado oil is the perfect nutrient-dense, high-heat cooking swap for high saturated fat options like butter, shortening, or lard.


Grace Elkus

Grace Elkus

Homemade Mexican Hot Cocoa Mix

Cocoa (and cacao) is rich in flavonols, a subgroup of flavonoids, that have been found to lower LDL cholesterol levels. As often as you can, opt for cocoa options with as little sugar as possible, like dark chocolate, for the most benefits.


Andrew Purcell

Andrew Purcell

Tangy Broccoli Slaw

No list of cholesterol-lowering foods would be complete without a cruciferous veggie like broccoli. Not only is this flowering favorite high in soluble fiber but it also offers a healthy dose of plant stanols.

Related: 9 Healthiest Vegetables to Eat, According to RDs


Victor Protasio

Victor Protasio

Peach Iced Tea

Tea which is rich in a variety of plant compounds, but especially catechins. Bored of plain water? An unsweetened iced green or black tea is the perfect healthy lunch refreshment that will also help to keep cholesterol levels in check.

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