Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in your blood. It’s produced naturally in the liver. Everyone has cholesterol. We need it to stay healthy because every cell in our body uses it. Some of this cholesterol comes from the food we eat.
Cholesterol travels through the blood on proteins called lipoproteins. One type, LDL, is the “bad” cholesterol. A high LDL level leads to a buildup of cholesterol in your arteries. Another type, HDL, is the “good” cholesterol. It carries cholesterol from other parts of your body back to your liver. Then your liver removes the cholesterol from your body.
High cholesterol is when you have too much LDL cholesterol in your blood. Too much LDL cholesterol can be harmful because it sticks to the inside walls of your arteries. This can lead to fatty material (atheroma) building up. This process is known as atherosclerosis. It makes it harder for blood to flow through, which can lead to a heart attack or a stroke.
If your total cholesterol is high, it can mean that you have a lot of bad (LDL) cholesterol in your blood. A high level of good (HDL) cholesterol can help keep that bad cholesterol in check and remove it from your body.
Causes of High Cholesterol
Anyone can get high cholesterol, and it can be caused by many different things. Some things you can control like lifestyle habits, others you can’t. As long as you take care of the things you can control, you’ll help lower your risk.
Things that cause high cholesterol you can control:
- eating too much saturated fat
- not being active enough
- having too much body fat, especially around your middle.
Smoking can lead to high cholesterol levels, and the build-up of tar it causes in your arteries makes it easier for cholesterol to stick to your artery walls.
If you are overweight or have diabetes, you are at greater risk of having high cholesterol.
Things that cause high cholesterol you can’t control:
- getting older
- if you were born male or female
- ethnic background
- familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH), a form of high cholesterol you are born with
- kidney or liver disease
- endocrine disorders including hypothyroidism, which is also called underactive thyroid (when not enough of the thyroid hormone is made) and growth hormone deficiency (when not enough of the growth hormone is made).
Foods to Lower Cholesterol
Eating a healthy balanced diet, low in saturated fat can help you lower cholesterol levels. Along with healthy lifestyle choices such as being active, you can also add cholesterol-lowering foods to your diet to maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
Oatmeal includes a special type of fiber known as beta-glucan, which increases the elimination of cholesterol-rich bile from the body. This can help reduce cholesterol levels by as much as 15 percent.
Just one cup contains 1.8 grams of soluble fiber, which is enough to cut LDL (bad) cholesterol while helping to maintain HDL (good) cholesterol. Soluble fiber also slows digestion and helps control blood sugar levels. A diet rich in soluble fiber has been shown to lower cholesterol more effectively than statin drugs—without any side effects!
A 2014 meta-analysis involving 28 controlled trials found that consuming at least 3 mg of beta-glucan in the diet reduces total cholesterol and LDL without any change in HDL.
In another study, combining beta-glucan with vitamin C was shown to prevent LDL oxidation which increases the progression of heart disease. To benefit from this combination, always include fruits in your oatmeal.
Many medical associations, including the American Heart Association, recommend beans as part of a heart-healthy diet.
In a randomized control trial published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, researchers gave participants just a half cup of pinto beans per day. After eight weeks, their total cholesterol dropped an average of nearly 20 points, and their LDL cholesterol levels dropped 14 points — as much as the level induced by the leading prescription cholesterol drugs.
In another study published by Public Health Reports, people without legumes in their diets were at quadruple the risk of suffering from high blood pressure.
Some fats are healthier than others. Among the healthy kinds are monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. Walnuts are one of the top cholesterol-lowering foods you can eat as a source of that good polyunsaturated fat, according to MedlinePlus.
Alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, is a type of omega-3 fatty acid known to reduce inflammation. Walnuts are a major source of ALA. A 2020 study, published in the journal Nutrients, assessed the effects of walnut consumption on the omega-3 fatty acid profile of healthy adults over a four-week period. Researchers found that after a month of consuming a few ounces of walnuts daily, the subjects’ omega-3 status improved. They also experienced reductions in body weight and body fat, plus gains in lean body mass and body water.
Increasing the amount of ALA in your diet is associated with a 10% lower risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a 2022 article published in Advances in Nutrition. And the same article reported that ALA can also lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure and can have positive effects on other diseases, like diabetes.
Salmon is one of the best sources of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) as well as potassium.
Unlike most other fats, omega-3 fats are considered “essential,” meaning you must get them from your diet since your body cannot create them.
The omega-3 and -6 fatty acids combined with potassium greatly contribute to heart health, as they reduce artery inflammation, lower cholesterol levels, and maintain blood pressure levels. Potassium helps to control blood pressure and prevent excess fluid retention. Thus, regular salmon intake can significantly reduce heart-related medical conditions, including heart attacks, strokes, arrhythmia, high blood pressure, and high triglycerides.
5. Olive Oil
Observational studies conducted a few decades ago showed that heart disease is less common in Mediterranean countries. This led to extensive research on the Mediterranean diet, which has now been shown to significantly reduce heart disease risk. Extra virgin olive oil is one of the key ingredients in this diet, protecting against heart disease in several ways.
Regardless of the type, olive oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids, containing about 75% by volume. When substituted for saturated fat, monounsaturated fats help lower your “bad” LDL cholesterol, making olive oil one of the best cholesterol-lowering foods.
In a study, people who ate a Mediterranean-style diet that included extra virgin olive oil had a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, and their combined risk for heart attack, stroke, and death from heart disease was around a 30% lower than people who ate a low-fat diet.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says there’s credible evidence to support the claim that consuming 1 ½ tablespoons of oleic acid-rich oils, including olive oil, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, provided they replace fats/oils higher in saturated fat and do not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.
One of the foods that lower cholesterol is avocado. The vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and fiber found in avocados all play a role in keeping the cardiovascular system healthy.
Study findings suggest that an avocado-rich diet may help improve heart disease risk factors, which may help prevent the onset of heart disease.
Eggplants have long been recognized as a powerful heart-healthy food. Thanks to their antioxidant content, some studies suggest that eggplants may help reduce the risk of heart disease.
In one study, rabbits with high cholesterol were given 0.3 ounces (10 ml) of eggplant juice daily for two weeks.
At the end of the study, they had lower levels of both LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, two blood markers that can lead to an increased risk of heart disease when elevated.
Eggplants are also high in soluble fiber, which has been shown to lower cholesterol levels and prevent the reabsorption of bile which helps lower cholesterol levels.
Research suggests that noshing on vegetables is a solid way to reduce your risk of heart disease.
Okra is one of best foods to lower cholesterol because it contains a thick gel-like substance called mucilage, which can bind to cholesterol during digestion, causing it to be excreted with stools rather than absorbed into your body.
In a 2014 study of mice, the ones that were fed okra powder eliminated more cholesterol in their poop than the other animals.
Lentils are a plentiful source of fiber, folic acid, and potassium. These nutrients all support heart health.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), increased fiber intake can reduce levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or bad cholesterol.
One 8-week study in 39 people with overweight or obesity and type 2 diabetes found that eating 1/3 cup (60 grams) of lentils each day increased levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and significantly reduced levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides.
Lentils are one of the best cholesterol-lowering foods to add to your diet.
The aromatic contains allicin, for example, a cardioprotective, sulfur-containing compound released when raw garlic is chewed, chopped, or crushed, and responsible for garlic’s signature aroma and flavor. In addition to its numerous other medicinal properties, allicin’s cholesterol- and blood pressure-reducing effects are beneficial to the cardiovascular system.
11. Green tea
Green tea also increases the antioxidant capacity of the blood, which protects the LDL (bad cholesterol) particles from oxidation, which is one part of the pathway toward heart disease.
Given the beneficial effects on risk factors, it may not be surprising that people who drink green tea have up to a 31% lower risk of dying from a cardiovascular disease.
Cholesterol has many important functions in the body. For instance, it is used to make bile acids, which is are substances that help the body digest fats. The liver turns cholesterol into bile acids, which are then released into the digestive system whenever you eat a fatty meal. When all the fat has been absorbed and the bile acids have served their purpose, they are reabsorbed into the bloodstream and used again.
Substances called bile acid sequestrants can bind bile acids in the digestive system and prevent them from being reabsorbed. This reduces the total amount of cholesterol in the body. Kale contains bile acid sequestrants, which make kale one of the best foods to eat to lower cholesterol. This might lead to a reduced risk of heart disease over time.
One study found that drinking kale juice every day for 12 weeks increased HDL (the “good”) cholesterol by 27% and lowered LDL levels by 10%, while also improving antioxidant status.
According to one study, steaming kale dramatically increases the bile acid binding effect. Steamed kale is 43% as potent as cholestyramine, a cholesterol-lowering drug that functions in a similar way.