What to eat on a low cholesterol diet

Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on April 5, 2021. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Cholesterol is actually a necessary component for your body. Synthesized in the liver, cholesterol helps to build cells and vitamins, and it is even a component in bile. Keeping your cholesterol in check is one of the keys to maintaining good health and reducing your risk of heart disease. Some people with high cholesterol do require medication to control their cholesterol levels, but others can promote good cholesterol through some simple changes in lifestyle.

Diet is one of the most important aspects of promoting levels of good cholesterol, but figuring out the right foods can be confusing. So what is considered a low cholesterol diet? Read on to learn more.


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What is good cholesterol?

Cholesterol appears in two forms. LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is considered the “bad” cholesterol because it directly contributes to the formation of plaques within the blood vessels, which can contribute to heart attack, stroke, and other heart diseases. By comparison, HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is referred to as the “good” cholesterol. HDL cholesterol absorbs LDL cholesterol and sends it to the liver. The liver breaks the LDL cholesterol down and flushes it out of the body.

Normal or healthy cholesterol levels will differ based on your age, gender, and health factors. For adults, HDL levels that are 60 mg/dL or more are considered optimal for protecting against heart disease, but at least 40 to 50 mg/dL is considered good. Healthy adults should aim for an LDL level of 100 mg/dL or less. However, for people with heart or blood vessel disease or other risk factors, a healthcare provider may recommend LDL levels that are under 70 mg/dL.

Numbers aside, you generally want to aim for high HDL and low LDL levels.

Foods for low cholesterol

The food that you eat has a significant effect on both your HDL and LDL cholesterol levels. The right foods will provide a good balance while supporting your general heart health. Consult your doctor before you make any significant changes to your diet. Here are some foods that you should eat for low cholesterol.

Oatmeal and oat bran

If you are concerned about your cholesterol, oats, and oatmeal are a good place to start. Foods in general that are high in soluble fiber should be one of your main focuses for low cholesterol. Soluble fiber offers a whole host of health benefits, including improved digestion and improved blood glucose control. It can also decrease your LDL cholesterol levels and reduce the amount of cholesterol absorbed into your bloodstream via your digestive tract.

One serving of oat bran, oatmeal, or even oat-based cereal contains about three to four grams of soluble fiber. Add fruit, like bananas or blueberries, for even more fiber. Based on current nutritional guidelines, you should be eating up to 35 grams of fiber per day. At least five to 10 grams should be soluble fiber. The average American consumes about half that amount.

Fatty fish and omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that play an important role in your health. They are an important component of cell membranes, and they can contribute to various facets of heart health. Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood that can contribute to plaque buildup in the blood vessels. They may also reduce high blood pressure and prevent the formation of blood clots. Some evidence suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may also lower cholesterol.

Omega-3 fatty acids come in three forms:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

ALA mainly comes from plant-based sources, like soybeans, canola oil, and flaxseed. EPA and DHA most commonly come from fatty fish and other seafood, including:

  • Tuna
  • Mackerel
  • Salmon
  • Herring
  • Sardines

Your body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, but only in small amounts, meaning that the most practical way to supply your body with EPA and DHA is to eat seafood or take a fish oil supplement.

Along with its omega-3 fatty acid content, fatty fish can be good for your blood cholesterol levels by acting as a substitute for high-cholesterol proteins. Red meat and processed meats, including bacon and sausage, tend to be higher in saturated fat, which can increase your LDL cholesterol and lower your HDL cholesterol.

Avocados

Avocados are an excellent source of monounsaturated fatty acids, which are known to help reduce LDL cholesterol levels. One study even suggests that eating an avocado a day may help to reduce LDL cholesterol, specifically oxidized LDL cholesterol. Avocados are also rich in vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, and several B vitamins.

Of course, what you eat with your avocados is just as important. Most people usually associate avocados with guacamole eaten with corn chips that tend to be high in sodium and saturated fats. If you go the route of guacamole, consider eating them with cucumber slices or other cut veggies. You can also add avocado to your salads or sandwiches or enjoy some avocado slices on a piece of whole wheat toast.

Plant sterols and stanols

Sterols and stanols are substances found in plants that can actively prevent your body from absorbing dietary cholesterol found in food. They are most commonly found in nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils, but many foods these days are fortified with plant sterols and stanols, including orange juice, granola bars, and even chocolate. Sterols and stanols are also available as supplements, but you should consult your doctor before you even consider incorporating these supplements into your diet.

About two grams of sterols or stanols per day can reduce LDL cholesterol by 10 percent. However, there isn’t any evidence to suggest that plant sterols and stanols affect triglycerides or HDL cholesterol.

Almonds and tree nuts

Almonds and other tree nuts are packed with protein, fiber, and a rich assortment of vitamins and minerals. They are also a rich source of monounsaturated fats, and they may help to lower LDL cholesterol levels. Evidence suggests that nuts can also reduce your risk of heart complications, particularly if you have a history of heart attacks.

Foods to avoid

Along with including more of the above foods, consider limiting your intake of certain foods. The two most prominent contributors to high cholesterol are trans fats and saturated fats. Both can increase your LDL cholesterol while lowering your HDL cholesterol. Trans fat mostly appears in foods that are made with shortening, margarine, and other hydrogenated oils. Saturated fats are commonly found in meats (especially processed meat), dairy products, and fried foods. You should also be wary about the amount of cholesterol in eggs.

Remember that a healthy diet is just one part of the equation for better cholesterol. Regular exercise is one of the best ways to increase your HDL cholesterol while keeping your heart and muscles healthy.

It’s also a good idea to know your own cholesterol numbers. This can be done in a doctor’s office, but with the Everlywell cholesterol and lipids test, you can determine your cholesterol level in the comfort of your own home. The test offers measurements for your total cholesterol, HDL and LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. Each test also comes with a telehealth consultation with a doctor who can go over your results and provide guidance for any next steps toward better health.

Interested in learning more about cholesterol, such as the symptoms of high cholesterol and what causes high cholesterol? Check out our latest blogs on the topic here.

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