Cholesterol — a waxy substance made by the body and found in some foods — is something the body needs, at least in small amounts.
Still, not all cholesterol is created equal. Increased blood levels of cholesterol — particularly the LDL or "bad" cholesterol — have been linked to a greater risk of heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Cutting back on dietary cholesterol is a great place to start in lowering your LDL, but ensuring you eat more of the right foods is also important.
For a low-cholesterol diet, you'll want to include a variety of foods that are linked with better heart health.
Learn more about these 11 cholesterol-lowering foods below, which also provide a bevy of other pros good for your heart.
Nuts are a great source of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats — heart-healthy fats that help improve cholesterol levels — as well vitamins and minerals, fiber, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While many nuts are known for their heart-health benefits, eating peanuts, tree nuts and walnuts one or more times per week was associated with a 13 to 19 percent lower risk of heart disease and a 15 to 23 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease, a November 2018 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found.
Sprinkle some nuts on your morning yogurt for a low-cholesterol breakfast.
Read more: 9 Healthy Nuts That May Help You Live Longer
Whole-grain oats, including oatmeal, oat flour and oat bran, are also well-known for their cholesterol-lowering properties, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Oats are rich in beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber that is known for its metabolic health benefits, according to a 2011 article in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism.
Populations with low incidents of coronary heart disease and cholesterol tend to eat diets generally low in total fat (especially saturated fat and cholesterol) and high in fiber-rich foods like fruits, veggies and grain products, like whole oat foods, according to the FDA.
Other grain sources of soluble fiber to add to your breakfast, lunch or dinner include wheat bran, wheat germ, whole-wheat spaghetti and whole-wheat bread.
Whole-grain barley is also rich in beta-glucans and has similar LDL-lowering properties to oats, according to the Whole Grains Council. Of all the common cereals, barley has the largest seed amount of beta-glucans, totaling three to 11 percent, whereas the seed total is only about three to seven percent in oats, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Barley is also known for its ability to reduce blood pressure and may be able to help control blood sugar, according to the Whole Grains Council. Plus, it also has more protein than corn, brown rice or millet.
Get 50 percent more fiber by eating this one thing every day.
There are so many reasons to eat avocado. It's rich in monounsaturated fats, fiber and phytonutrients like phytosterols and polyphenols — all of which are linked to improved blood cholesterol levels.
In participants following a moderate-fat diet including one avocado daily, a January 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found a reduction in cholesterol — especially for small, dense LDL. These small LDL particles are harmful because they encourage plaque buildup in the arteries.
Whole soy foods, including edamame, tofu or soy milk, are known for their high-quality plant protein, antioxidants, fiber and estrogen-like compounds.
The cholesterol benefits from this legume may seem modest: People saw a 4- to 5-percent reduction in LDL from 25 grams of soy protein, or the amount found in 10 ounces of tofu or 2 and 1/2 cups of soy milk, according to a December 2016 article published in Nutrients.
Soy can be a great option for cholesterol-lowering breakfasts. Add soy milk instead of cow's milk to your cereal or oatmeal, and consider trying a tofu scramble for breakfast as a cholesterol-lowering alternative to scrambled eggs.
6. Beans, Peas and Lentils
Beans, peas and lentils (also categorized as legumes) have many qualities that make them an asset to a cholesterol-lowering diet. Legumes are naturally low in fat, high in soluble and insoluble fiber and particularly good sources of protein, folate, iron and magnesium, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Legumes are also known for their potential ability to reduce LDL cholesterol levels, according to a May 2014 review published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. After analyzing 26 different studies, researchers found that diets rich in legumes (about one serving per day) significantly lowered LDL cholesterol compared to other control diets.
Here's another reason to toss some berries into your meals: Daily consumption of berries, berry juice or berry extract was associated with a nearly four-point reduction in LDL, according to a March 2016 analysis published in Scientific Reports.
Although this may appear to be a small change, berries — and many whole plant foods — can benefit more than just your cholesterol levels.
Berries are also high in fiber, which can help lower blood sugar, according to the Mayo Clinic. Despite their sweet taste, berries have a low glycemic load, which means they digest slowly and don't affect blood sugar too strongly.
8. Fruits and Vegetables
Here's one that should come as no surprise: A diet that emphasizes all fruits and vegetables can help lower LDL cholesterol and reduce heart disease risk, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Fruits and vegetables are abundant in vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients, which provide anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.
And there's one fruit, in particular, that may help you drop your cholesterol levels. In a small December 2019 study, researchers found a cause-and-effect relationship between eating two apples a day and lowering cholesterol in people with mildly high cholesterol, per research in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Diets rich in plant-based foods are associated with decreased total cholesterol, according to a September 2017 review of more than 8,000 studies published in Nutrition Reviews. To experience the benefits yourself, fill each of your meals with a variety of vegetables alongside whole grains and protein.
9. Dark Chocolate
Good news for your sweet tooth: Daily chocolate — 1/4 cup cocoa or 100 grams of dark chocolate — may decrease LDL levels by about 6 percent, according to a May 2011 meta-analysis of 10 clinical trials published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. You'll want to keep calorie counts in mind, however, especially keep if your goal is weight loss.
On the upside, chocolate appears to have heart-health benefits that go beyond lowering LDL. Eating 25 grams of chocolate (a bit less than a full ounce) per day is linked to lowering the risk of heart attack and stroke, presumably due to cocoa's flavonoid content, which provides antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, according to a 2015 study published in the British Medical Journal.
10. Fatty Fish
Wondering sushi can be good for your cholesterol?
As it turns out, eating more fatty fish, including salmon, tuna, sardines and halibut, may also help get your cholesterol to a healthier range. These types of fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
People who eat a diet high in omega-3 fats tend to have higher levels of HDL cholesterol — the good cholesterol — lower triglycerides and lower total cholesterol, according to the Mayo Clinic. In addition, the fish may reduce your intake of saturated fat by acting as a protein replacement for your steak.
The American Heart Association suggests you eat fish twice a week for heart health.
11. Fortified Orange Juice
Looking for a low-cholesterol breakfast option? Drink a glass of orange juice fortified with the cholesterol-lowering plant sterols and stanols.
These naturally occurring substances are very similar in structure to your body's own cholesterol and compete with your cholesterol for absorption in your digestive tract. This competition prevents the absorption of your cholesterol and helps lower your numbers.
Getting 2 grams of these plant sterols and stanols each day can lower your cholesterol by 10 percent, according to the Harvard Health Publishing.
Just be mindful that orange juice can be very high in sugar; you can always cut OJ with club soda or water to get its benefits (and sweetness) while reducing your sugar intake.
Here's a handy cholesterol-lowering foods chart when you want to remember the foods that do it best.
Low Cholesterol Foods Chart
- Dark chocolate
- Fatty fish
- Fortified orange juice
- Mayo Clinic: "Nuts and your heart: Eating nuts for heart health"
- Journal of the American College of Cardiology: "Nut Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Whole-grain oats: Best bet for lowering cholesterol"
- Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism: "Beta Glucan: Health Benefits in Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome"
- US Food & Drug Administration: "CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21"
- Whole Grains Council: "BARLEY – FEBRUARY GRAIN OF THE MONTH"
- Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada: "Oat and Barley ß‐Glucans"
- Journal of the American Heart Association: "Effect of a Moderate Fat Diet With and Without Avocados on Lipoprotein Particle Number, Size and Subclasses in Overweight and Obese Adults: A Randomized, Controlled Trial"
- Nutrients: "Soy and Health Update: Evaluation of the Clinical and Epidemiologic Literature"
- Mayo Clinic: "Beans and other legumes: Cooking tips"
- Canadian Medical Association Journal: "Effect of dietary pulse intake on established therapeutic lipid targets for cardiovascular risk reduction: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials."
- Scientific Reports: "Effects of Berries Consumption on Cardiovascular Risk Factors: A Meta-analysis with Trial Sequential Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials"
- Mayo Clinic: "Berries and Health"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "11 foods that lower cholesterol"
- Nutrition Reviews: "Association between plant-based diets and plasma lipids: a systematic review and meta-analysis"
- European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Effects of cocoa products/dark chocolate on serum lipids: a meta-analysis"
- British Medical Journal: "Habitual chocolate consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease among healthy men and women"
- New England Journal of Medicine: "Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Two Apples a Day Lower Serum Cholesterol and Improve Cardiometabolic Biomarkers in Mildly Hypercholesterolemic Adults: a Randomized, Controlled, Crossover Trial"
- Mayo Clinic: "Cholesterol: Top foods to improve your numbers"
- American Heart Association: "Eating fish twice a week reduces heart stroke risk"
- Todays Dietitian: Betting on Beta-Glucans