Let’s get real: when was the last time you thought about your cholesterol? It can be easy to forget about unless you’ve recently been to the doctor, since high cholesterol doesn’t usually come with noticeable symptoms. Unfortunately, you might want to start thinking about it: the CDC stipulates that roughly 30% of American women have high cholesterol—dramatically increasing their risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. While medication may be necessary in some situations, making dietary changes is often enough to manage cholesterol naturally. We’ve put together a list of the nine best foods to lower your cholesterol, in addition to a little preface on the difference between “good” cholesterol (HDL) and “bad” cholesterol (LDL).
“Good” Cholesterol vs. “Bad” Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that’s found in our cells. You may have heard people use the terms “good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol. They’re referring to HDL and LDL. Because cholesterol can’t dissolve in the blood, it has to be carried through your blood by lipoproteins. There are two types of lipoproteins that transport the cholesterol to and from cells: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
LDL is labeled the “bad” cholesterol because it creates plaque, which clogs your arteries. If a major clog occurs, it can result in stroke or heart attack. The “good” cholesterol in your body is your HDL. HDL is good because it helps remove LDL from your arteries and transport it back to your liver, keeping your arteries clear. You also have triglycerides, which are fats carried in the blood from the food you eat—you want your triglyceride count to be low, like your LDL cholesterol.
What Is Considered High Cholesterol? And Why Is It Dangerous?
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, high cholesterol is one of the leading causes of heart disease. And by now you probably know that heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States. High cholesterol itself usually doesn’t cause symptoms, so the best way to diagnose it is with a blood test at your doctor’s office called a lipid panel. A lipid panel is usually administered after a 9-12 hour fasting window to get an accurate read of your total cholesterol.
In addition to giving you a total cholesterol reading, this will also tell you what percentage of that number is LDL (bad cholesterol) and HDL (good cholesterol) and your triglyceride count. It’s important to not only know your total blood cholesterol level, but to ask your doctor to break down what amount is LDL and what amount is HDL.
Overall, a desirable total blood cholesterol level is less than 200 mg/dL. Your cholesterol may be borderline high if it is 200-239 mg/DL; and 240 mg/dL and above is generally considered high. Again, these are guidelines for your total number; you still want to ask your doctor what percentage is HDL and what percentage is LDL. (Remember you want more HDL and less LDL!)
What Foods Can Help Lower Cholesterol?
You’ve now learned about what cholesterol is and the different lipoproteins that it contains; so what foods can you eat to lower your cholesterol naturally?
1. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are not only delicious; it turns out they’re a major source of soluble fiber, which is bad cholesterol’s worst nightmare. Soluble fiber helps the body excrete cholesterol by binding to bile acids. Sweet potatoes are loaded with soluble fiber, especially the peel—so if you want to maximize its benefit, go ahead and eat the skin, too!
There’s a reason oatmeal is touted as one of the healthiest ways to start your day; it’s been proven that eating oats regularly can lower your LDL (bad cholesterol) by 5.3% in only 6 weeks. In addition to its high soluble fiber content, oats also contain something called beta-glucan, which works to absorb LDL from the blood. Get creative with your morning oatmeal: add chia seeds, berries, cinnamon, almonds, and more!
3. Olive Oil
Make the switch from butter to olive oil and your cholesterol levels will thank you. Olive oil is a healthy fat that plays a big part in most Mediterranean diets, keeping your heart healthy with monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), which naturally lower LDL cholesterol. Healthy fats can also help you naturally lose weight.
Instead of lasagna, go ahead and make that Healthy Eggplant Parmesan—you won’t regret it! Eggplant is loaded with fiber, which you’ve now learned is key to reducing LDL levels. Try one of our favorite recipes—Eggplant Parmesan Chips—for a savory snack that’s low on fat. Okra is another underrated veggie which has cholesterol-lowering capabilities.
Studies have shown people can lower their LDL cholesterol by up to 20% by simply adding grapefruit to their diet. Grapefruit contains antioxidants and fiber, as well as a flavonoid called naringenina, which has been shown to prevent plaque buildup and lower both LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
Again with the healthy fats! The Omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon and other fish can boost your HDL levels (good cholesterol) in addition to warding off heart disease and dementia. To get the most benefit, The American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice a week, particularly salmon, tuna, sardines, or mackerel.
7. Dark Chocolate
Ahh, chocolate. We knew you loved us as much as we loved you. Loaded with antioxidants, dark chocolate increases your HDL (good!) cholesterol levels and keeps blood platelets from sticking together. Of course, remember everything in moderation—and stick with organic dark chocolate as an occasional indulgence, not milk chocolate candy bars.
Eating peanuts, almonds, or walnuts can lower your LDL cholesterol; one study in particular found that a handful of walnuts per day can decrease their LDL cholesterol by as much as 10%, all while increasing their HDL, too. Their high calorie count means it’s important to keep portion sizes small—around one to one and a half ounces per day—to get the most benefit.
Garlic is amazing for many reasons; it has immune-boosting properties and adds a burst of flavor to some of our favorite dishes. But it’s also a great cholesterol-lowering food to stock up on next time you’re at the grocery store. Research sows it can prevent LDL particles from clogging up artery walls. Try a few fresh cloves per day!