The best and worst foods to eat to lower cholesterol — and how the Mediterranean diet can help you
- Foods that lower cholesterol include fresh fruits, leafy green vegetables, whole grains, and fish.
- The worst foods for high cholesterol are filled with saturated and trans fats - like fried foods, baked goods, and fatty meats.
- Overall, the Mediterranean diet is a healthy eating plan that can help you lower cholesterol.
- This article was medically reviewed by Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert with a private practice based in New York City.
- Visit Business Insider South Africa for more stories.
Your diet has a large impact on your cholesterol. In fact, the foods you eat can directly affect HDL and LDL levels, which are the two main types of cholesterol:
- LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, is considered "bad cholesterol." You want lower LDL levels, otherwise it can lead to plaque formation and build up to clog your arteries. High cholesterol - defined as LDL levels above 160 mg/dl - is a major risk factor for heart disease.
- HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, is known as "good cholesterol." You want higher HDL levels, as HDL transports LDL cholesterol from your bloodstream to your liver, where the cholesterol is cleared from the body.
A healthy diet can reduce your bad cholesterol and increase your good cholesterol, while an unhealthy diet will raise your bad cholesterol. Here's what foods you should eat - and which you should avoid - if you're hoping to lower your LDL cholesterol levels.
What foods lower cholesterol?
"In general, eating foods high in fiber and low in saturated fat can reduce your cholesterol," says Shoshana Ungerleider, MD, an internist at Crossover Health in San Francisco.
These types of foods can include:
- Fresh fruits like apples, bananas, and berries.
- Vegetables like leafy greens, carrots, and potatoes.
- Fish like salmon and cod.
- Whole grains like brown rice and whole-wheat bread.
A 2019 study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics found that eating fish twice a week and eating "plenty of fruits and vegetables" can lower LDL cholesterol over 12 weeks.
Moreover, a 2020 study published in the journal Lipidology found that eating fish (especially those rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, sardines, and oysters), low-fat dairy, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables can also reduce LDL cholesterol. Specifically, eating these foods as part of the Mediterranean diet as recommended.
The Mediterranean diet can help lower cholesterol
The Mediterranean diet emphasises plant-based foods, fish, and healthy fats like olive oil - all of which can help reduce cholesterol levels.
In fact, a 2020 study published in BMJ found that following the Mediterranean diet for eight weeks lowered LDL cholesterol levels in obese patients.
But it's not just about lowering LDL - it's also about increasing HDL levels. A 2017 study published in the journal Acta Diabetologica found that when people lost weight following a Mediterranean diet, they also experienced increases in the level of good cholesterol, which lowers the bad cholesterol in your blood.
"A traditional Mediterranean Diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean meats, and olive oil is a great one to follow if you are trying to lower cholesterol," Ungerleider says.
A day on the Mediterranean diet might include the following meals:
- Breakfast: Oatmeal with nuts and berries
- Lunch: Salad with vinaigrette dressing and walnuts, fresh fruit, eggs, or whole-grain bread
- Dinner: Fish with brown rice and vegetables like broccoli or zucchini
What are the worst foods for high cholesterol?
People who are trying to lower their cholesterol should avoid or limit the following foods:
Saturated fats are most common in animal products, such as meat and full-fat dairy. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6% of your calories from saturated fat, which equates to 13 grams of saturated fat for a 2,000-calorie diet.
These are common examples of foods high in saturated fats:
- Full-fat dairy: One cup of full-fat milk has about 4.5 grams of saturated fat
- Fried foods: One donut has about 6 grams of saturated fat
- Fatty meats: A four-ounce serving of pork ribs has about 6 grams of saturated fat
Trans fats, or partially hydrogenated oils, are man-made fats found in commercial foods. The American Heart Association recommends avoiding trans fats as much as possible, as they can both raise bad cholesterol and also lower good cholesterol.
These are common examples of foods that contain trans fats:
- Fried foods like donuts or fried chicken
- Baked goods like cakes and pie crusts
- Non-dairy coffee creamers like Coffee-mate
Can dietary cholesterol raise blood cholesterol?
There isn't a direct relationship between dietary cholesterol - the cholesterol found in food - and blood cholesterol - the cholesterol in your body. Essentially, research hasn't found that eating foods high in dietary cholesterol alone raises your blood cholesterol.
In fact, a 2018 study published in the journal Nutrients concluded that foods that are high in dietary cholesterol alone don't increase risk for cardiovascular disease. However, eating foods high in saturated fats does raise cholesterol and increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, and many of those foods are also high in cholesterol, the study noted.
On the other hand, foods like eggs, which contain lots of dietary cholesterol but are otherwise healthy and nutrient-rich, are not a concern, the study indicated. So while eggs aren't bad for cholesterol, their typical American breakfast counterparts - like bacon or sausage, which are high in saturated fats - are much worse for cholesterol.
Overall, if you want to lower cholesterol, it's important to be conscious of your eating habits and develop a plan that focuses on the foods that can lower it, while limiting the foods that raise it.
"The idea is, the more you focus on these healthy foods in your diet, the less likely you are to eat meats that are higher in saturated fat and unhealthy carbohydrates," Ungerleider says.
For more information, read about how to lower cholesterol with the right diet and exercise regimens.
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