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Cholesterol is a type of lipid or fat that is essential for human life.
It’s a component of cell membranes and is needed to produce vitamin D and sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen.
Your body also needs cholesterol to make bile salt, which helps digest fat and absorb the fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K.
However, high levels of cholesterol are unhealthy and can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Fortunately, you can reduce high cholesterol levels by making some dietary changes.
This article explains what to eat and avoid to lower high cholesterol levels and provides a 3-day sample low-cholesterol diet menu.
What is high cholesterol?
High cholesterol — medically known as hypercholesterolemia — is a condition where your blood cholesterol levels are higher than they should be.
High cholesterol is closely tied to lifestyle factors such as poor diet, lack of exercise, and smoking (1).
While animal-based foods like meat, eggs, and dairy naturally contain cholesterol, consuming these foods has little effect on most people’s blood cholesterol levels (2).
This is because your body tightly balances its production of cholesterol with the amount you consume through your diet.
The higher your dietary intake of cholesterol, the less cholesterol your body produces. The less cholesterol you consume, the more cholesterol your body makes.
However, in some people, eating high-cholesterol foods raise cholesterol levels due to genetic factors (3).
High cholesterol has no symptoms and therefore can go undiagnosed for years.
However, high cholesterol is linked with tinnitus, a condition that causes ringing or other phantom noises that no one else can hear.
Here are the desirable ranges for cholesterol and triglycerides (4):
- Total cholesterol: less than 200 mg/dL
- LDL “bad” cholesterol: less than 100 mg/dL
- HDL “good” cholesterol: 60 mg/dL or higher
- Triglycerides: less than 150 mg/dL
LDL cholesterol is considered bad cholesterol because it transports cholesterol to your arteries, where it can build up and limit or block blood flow to the heart and brain, increasing your risk of heart disease, congestive heart failure, and stroke (4).
On the other hand, HDL cholesterol is considered good cholesterol because it transports cholesterol to your liver to be removed from your body. With healthy HDL cholesterol levels, you can decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke (4).
Triglycerides are a type of fat in your blood, that when elevated, also increases your risk for heart disease.
If your total cholesterol or LDL cholesterol is too high, your doctors will diagnose you with high cholesterol.
Fortunately, by making changes to your diet, you can lower your cholesterol and decrease or eliminate your need for cholesterol-lowering medications.
High cholesterol occurs when you have higher than normal total or LDL “bad” cholesterol. High cholesterol generally has no symptoms and can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke.
How to lower cholesterol with diet
Several diets, including the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol by up to 15% and reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other conditions like gout (4).
These diets share many similarities in that they emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, nuts, seeds, and legumes, and limit processed meats, added sugars, and refined grains.
Other diets like the standard American diet or Western diet — which is low in the foods the Mediterranean and DASH diets emphasize and high in the foods they limit — have been shown to increase cholesterol (5).
Some evidence suggests the ketogenic diet or keto diet temporarily raises cholesterol levels in some people but decreases levels in the long term, likely because the diet can promote weight loss in some people (6, 7).
Diets that have been proven to lower cholesterol like the Mediterranean and DASH diets emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, nuts, seeds, and legumes, and limit processed meats, added sugars, and refined grains.
Foods to avoid
Limit processed meats and refined carbs, as eating them in excess can raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol.
Processed meats are high in saturated fat.
Examples of processed meats include:
- hot dogs
- deli meats
Higher intakes of refined carbs are associated with low HDL cholesterol and high LDL cholesterol (12).
There are two main types of refined carbs:
- Added sugars. These are sugars added during the manufacturing process to enhance flavor, preserve freshness, or provide texture.
- Refined grains. These are grains that have had their fibrous and nutritious parts removed.
Refined carbs contain few nutrients relative to the number of calories they contain. Many refined carbs such as cakes, pastries, potato chips, and crackers also contain saturated fats.
Other sources of refined carbs include:
- regular soft drinks
- fruit drinks
- dairy desserts like ice cream
- syrups and toppings
- condiments like ketchup and barbeque sauce
The American Heart Association recommends a daily limit of 9 teaspoons (36 grams) of added sugar for men and 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women (13).
Limit processed meats, added sugars, and refined grains as they can increase bad cholesterol levels and decrease good cholesterol levels.
Foods to eat
Foods emphasized by the Mediterranean and DASH diets contain nutrients like fiber and other plant compounds called phytosterols that block your body from absorbing cholesterol.
Fiber and phytosterols are naturally found in plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds, and nuts.
A review of 124 studies found that eating a diet rich in phytosterols led to a 6–12% reduction in LDL cholesterol (14).
The best sources of fiber and phytosterols to eat to lower cholesterol include (18):
- Fruits: apples, berries, bananas, cherries, oranges, pears, raspberries, etc.
- Vegetables: arugula, asparagus, beets, carrots, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, etc.
- Whole grains: amaranth, barley, buckwheat, brown rice, oats, quinoa, etc.
- Beans, seeds, and nuts: black beans, lima beans, soybeans, sunflower seeds, pistachios, almonds, walnuts
- Oils: extra virgin olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil
In addition to these foods, choose healthy proteins such as skinless poultry, Greek yogurt, fatty fish like salmon or mackerel, and lean cuts of meats that contain the word “loin” or “round.”
In addition to fiber, beans and peas are also healthy sources of protein.
To lower bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol, emphasize fiber- and phytosterol-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Also, fill up on healthy sources of protein like skinless poultry, Greek yogurt, and fish, especially fatty fish like salmon or mackerel.
3-day sample low-cholesterol diet
Here is a 3-day sample low-cholesterol diet that is rich in fiber and phytosterols:
- Breakfast: overnight oats topped with blueberries and chopped walnuts
- Lunch: grilled chicken wrap and strawberries
- Snack: Greek yogurt hummus and veggies for dipping
- Dinner: sheet-pan salmon with brown rice and broccoli
Day 2 (vegan)
- Breakfast: vegan overnight oats
- Lunch: quinoa, avocado, and chickpea salad over mixed greens
- Snack: apple slices and almonds
- Dinner: black bean soup and a side salad
- Breakfast: cottage cheese on whole grain toast with tomato and cucumber
- Lunch: grilled chicken salad and cherries
- Snack: Greek yogurt and walnuts
- Dinner: pork loin and sauteed carrots
Include a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains as well as lean protein sources in your diet to lower cholesterol.
Supplements to lower cholesterol
In addition to diet, supplementing with psyllium husk powder and red yeast rice has been proven to lower cholesterol.
Psyllium husk powder
Psyllium husk powder is a form of soluble fiber sourced from husks of the psyllium (Plantago ovato) seed.
As a significant source of soluble fiber, psyllium binds to cholesterol in your digestive system before it can be absorbed and eliminates it from your body (19).
A review of 28 studies involving 1,924 people with and without high cholesterol demonstrated that supplementing with 10 grams of psyllium daily for three weeks or longer significantly reduced LDL cholesterol by 12.8 mg/dL (20).
Studies have even demonstrated that psyllium has cholesterol-lowering effects similar to statins — a class of medications commonly prescribed to treat high cholesterol (21).
Shop for psyllium husk powder online.
Red yeast rice
Red yeast rice is a type of fermented rice that is produced using a specific species of yeast.
It contains the same active ingredient (monacolin K) as the prescription cholesterol-lowering drug lovastatin, which reduces your body’s natural production of cholesterol (22).
An analysis of 20 studies involving more than 6,600 patients found that supplementing with an average of 10.8 mg of monacolin K from red yeast rice extract daily for at least four weeks significantly lowered LDL cholesterol by 38.7 mg/dL, a decrease similar to prescription statins (23).
Shop for red yeast rice online.
Studies have shown that supplementing with psyllium husk powder and red yeast rice can effectively lower high cholesterol levels.
The bottom line
Cholesterol is essential for maintaining cell membrane structure, making vitamin D and sex hormones, and absorbing fat-soluble vitamins.
However, high cholesterol levels can damage and block blood flow to your heart and brain, increasing your risk for heart disease and stroke.
Eating a diet rich in fiber and phytosterols like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and limiting processed meats and refined carbs can effectively lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol.
Supplementing with psyllium husk powder and red yeast extract can also significantly lower cholesterol, with decreases similar to cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins.