The article is a subjective view on this topic written by writers specializing in medical writing.
It may reflect on a personal journey surrounding struggles with an illness or medical condition, involve product comparisons, diet considerations, or other health-related opinions.
Although the view is entirely that of the writer, it is based on academic experiences and scientific research they have conducted; it is fact-checked by a team of degreed medical experts, and validated by sources attached to the article.
The numbers in parenthesis (1,2,3) will take you to clickable links to related scientific papers.
Low Cholesterol Diet For Beginners 2023: Foods To Lower Cholesterol
High cholesterol threatens lives worldwide. According to the latest data in 2022, almost 2 of 5 people in the USA have a total cholesterol level above the normal level of less than 200 mg/dL.
High cholesterol increases the risk of heart failure and stroke. But there’s a simple but powerful solution for lowering cholesterol levels without medication; it is your dietary habits.
The problem is more complicated than just a high total cholesterol level, however. Low-cholesterol diets limit the foods that impact cholesterol. It is the “bad” cholesterol, called low-density lipoprotein (LDL cholesterol, LDL-C), that is important to lower. (Alternatively, “good” cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein, or HDL-C, is an indicator of cardiovascular protection.) Several functional foods that include antioxidants and healthy fatty acids may help to reduce blood cholesterol levels.
Let’s start from the beginning; What is cholesterol and a low-cholesterol diet?
Healthy Foods You Should Add To Your Low Cholesterol Diet
Cholesterol-lowering foods are many common foods that are deemed healthy. Here are the best foods that help you lower your cholesterol level.
- Soluble fiber sources: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, pulses
- Unsaturated oil sources: nuts and seeds, fish oil, olive oil, avocados
- Spices and herbal teas
What Is A Low Cholesterol Diet?
Cholesterol is a type of molecule that we produce in our body or get from animal-based foods. You may wonder if we’re producing it because we need it. Yes, we do need a certain amount of cholesterol in our body for several functions.
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a type of fat found in the body. It is found in most body tissues. Cholesterol and other organic substances produced from cholesterol are in the structure of cell membranes. It is also the molecular basis of all our hormones and the insulation over nerves.
We need cholesterol to produce many hormones such as sex hormones, estrogen, testosterone, or other steroid hormones, for example, cortisol. These are essential hormones for many physiological functions.
Cholesterol also helps transport fats to other body parts and organs where they are needed.
There are two main cholesterol types–high-density lipoproteins and low-density lipoproteins. These lipoproteins help to transport fat products in the blood. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the lipoprotein type that transmits fats to several tissues. On the other hand, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) transports the fat from these tissues to the liver. These, in simple terms, are the functions of the LDL-C and HDL-C, respectively: LDL accumulates fat, and HDL clears it–very important when you’re talking about the insides of arteries.
This is why we call HDL cholesterol “a good cholesterol,” as it prevents the accumulation the fat products in vessels or organs, called atherosclerosis. LDL cholesterol is bad cholesterol; thus, it leads to cholesterol accumulation, mainly in vessels (atherosclerosis) and organs (“fatty infiltration”).
One of many low-cholesterol diet benefits includes reducing LDL-C and, thereby, total cholesterol levels in the blood; another benefit, ideally, is raising HDL-C. Triglycerides are the third player in this Good, Bad, and Ugly trio.
Lowering Cholesterol With The Diet
It should also be mentioned that there is no “low cholesterol diet.” There are several dietary approaches to lower blood cholesterol. You can apply these approaches to your daily diet and create your own “low cholesterol diet.”
If you consume excessive nutrients (carbohydrates, fat, or proteins), your body converts these nutrients into fat. When this becomes continuous, your blood fat levels may increase. Therefore, losing weight is beneficial for lowering your high cholesterol levels if you are overweight.
However, the calorie source is also important. Suppose these excessive calories come from sugar, saturated and trans fats. In that case, it may affect your blood cholesterol level badly. Your LDL cholesterol can even be oxidized, making it more unstable. This oxidized LDL cholesterol may damage several tissues, especially the heart and vessels.
High LDL cholesterol levels increase the risk for high blood pressure as it damages blood vessel elasticity. This can lead to further vascular lipid accumulation in vessel walls.
In addition, other factors that increase cholesterol include low physical activity, a sedentary lifestyle, and smoking. Exercise is very beneficial in terms of the cardiovascular system because while it lowers LDL-C, it also increases HDL-C.
Also, exercise helps to increase your calorie expenditure and contributes to weight loss. It is a plus for regulating your blood cholesterol levels.
What Causes High Cholesterol & How To Lower It?
According to results from a meta-analysis study in 2021 (shown in Figure 1), sugar, solid dietary fats, and unfiltered coffee were found to be risk factors for high cholesterol. Researchers mentioned that unfiltered coffee showed an association with high cholesterol levels because coffee products are often consumed with excessive sugar and cream.
However, plant-based foods such as whole grains, flax seeds, fibrous foods, unsaturated oils, nuts, avocados, and tomatoes were found to be beneficial in lowering blood cholesterol. Also, some functional products such as green tea and turmeric have a role in lowering cholesterol.
A low-cholesterol diet for diabetics is also important, as those with diabetes are already at a higher risk of heart disease, so high cholesterol presents a double-whammy.
Low Cholesterol Foods You Should Try
Cholesterol-lowering foods are many common foods that are deemed healthy. Low cholesterol diet plans or diet food lists are very similar to healthy diet plans such as the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet or Mediterranean diets, both of which help you to lower your cholesterol level via the types of foods that are emphasized.
Soluble Fiber Sources
The Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease Guideline of the American College of Cardiology concluded that people with high cholesterol benefit from more plant-based foods rather than animal-based ones.
Soluble fiber binds bile, which constitutes an important part of cholesterol in the body. Bile helps to remove cholesterol from the body, thus reducing the amount of cholesterol absorbed.
Most of the bile in the body is transported to the intestines to facilitate fat digestion. When bile is excreted from the body, the liver has to use the cholesterol in the body to produce bile again. This then further lowers cholesterol levels.
A cholesterol-lowering diet should include foods high in soluble fiber, such as whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and fruits.
Studies investigating the effect of whole grain consumption on blood fats were evaluated. Consuming whole grains like oats, quinoa, and brown rice has been shown to reduce both LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol levels. HDL cholesterol did not change. It has been determined that the most effective food among these whole grain group foods is oats.
Fruits And Vegetables
Consumption of vegetable-based diets was associated with lower cholesterol levels than other animal-based diets.
Based on the literature, the cholesterol-lowering effect of vegetable proteins is due to their positive effects on gut health. In most cases, shifts in gut microbiota composition, such as increases in probiotics (healthy bacteria like Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria), support the health-promoting role of plant-derived proteins.
According to the PREVIEW intervention study with 710 pre-diabetic persons designated as either overweight or obese, dietary fruit consumption was associated with lower total blood cholesterol and LDL cholesterol.
The results of twenty publications reported improvements with the consumption of 150 g daily of dietary pulses such as beans and legumes. Improvements were seen in blood lipid profile, blood pressure, body composition, and markers of inflammation.
Unsaturated Oil Sources
A moderate amount of healthy fat in the diet benefits our bodies. However, the question is which type of fat is best?
According to World Health Organization data, an important reduction in blood cholesterol levels was seen by replacing saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats. These healthy unsaturated fats are found in nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocados.
Nuts And Seeds
Dietary nut intake is associated with reduced fat mass and lower total cholesterol and LDL-C levels.
Fish provides an excellent alternative to meat in the diet. In particular, fish is lower in saturated fat and contains omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids suppress the liver’s synthesis of fat and cholesterol and may also support weight loss.
We know that the Mediterranean diet is well known for lowering cholesterol, and olive oil is also the basis of a Mediterranean-style diet. A meta-analysis study showed that olive oil was found to be effective in lowering LDL-C, total cholesterol, and total fat in the blood. At the same time, it increased HDL-C compared to other oils. It is the unprocessed “extra virgin” olive oil that has these benefits.
Avocados are another therapeutic food for cardiovascular disease prevention. It is a good source of unsaturated fatty acids and properties that maintain vascular health. Avocados can help to improve HDL cholesterol levels, according to meta-analysis results. At the same time, they lowered LDL cholesterol levels in a different meta-analysis study.
Spices And Herbal Teas
The antioxidant contents of some spices and herbal teas, such as green tea, also affect the lowering of cholesterol. Active compounds of dietary spices, turmeric (curcumin), red pepper (capsaicin), fenugreek seeds, garlic, and onion are also shown to have cholesterol-lowering effects.
The health benefits of green tea were well-known in specifically diabetic, overweight, and obese adults. While this tea helps promote weight loss and metabolic health, researchers found that it may also help lower total cholesterol and fat. According to the meta-analysis, the type of tea was important: while black tea doesn’t have any effects, green tea reduces the risk of heart disease.
Foods To Avoid
Saturated Fats And Animal-Based Foods
Saturated fat is one of the most harmful fats, along with trans fats. One of the reasons plant-based diets are so good for the heart is that they are low in saturated fat.
However, one animal food that can provide benefits is eggs. Eggs are rich in high-quality protein, and newer research shows eggs may not need to be limited on low-cholesterol diets as once thought. The American Heart Association, as recently as 2020, showed “no significant association between egg consumption and mortality.”
Solid fats in your diet are not the only source of saturated fats. You also get a significant amount of saturated fat when consuming red meat. For this reason, limiting your red meat consumption may be beneficial.
According to the Cochrane group, reducing saturated fat lowers the risk of cardiovascular diseases by reducing blood cholesterol levels.
Saturated fats are bad, but worse are trans fats. Trans fats not only raise blood LDL-C and lipid levels but also oxidize them, rendering them unstable and more prone to damaging blood vessels and cell walls. Therefore, it is a very harmful type of fat from a cardiovascular point of view. Even worse, these fats lower the levels of protective HDL-C. It’s a double danger. The best way to reduce trans fats is to avoid fast food and convenience foods.
Paying attention to your fat consumption to lower your blood cholesterol is not enough. Consumption of refined carbohydrates and especially added sugars (such as sucrose or high fructose corn syrup) are also not good for heart health.
Diets high in sugar increase blood cholesterol (sometimes higher than saturated fats!), insulin, and blood glucose levels. Impaired glucose metabolism causes diseases directly related to cardiovascular diseases, such as fatty liver disease and diabetes. Some diet meals that are “low fat” compensate by adding sugar, which defeats the purpose of trying to mitigate heart disease risk.
Sample Meal Plan Of A Low-Cholesterol Diet
- Breakfast: Oat bowl with yogurt, banana, berries, and nuts as a topping
- Snack: Filtered coffee, pineapple
- Lunch: Whole grain salad with avocado or walnuts and grilled veggies
- Snack: Green tea, almonds, and apple or orange
- Dinner: Grilled salmon, green salad with extra virgin olive oil, hummus
Genetics causes the most lipid problems, it is true, but keeping your blood cholesterol levels healthy is important for health and well-being, especially your heart health. While trying to balance HDL-C, LDL-C, and total cholesterol, it is possible to keep these levels within goal parameters by eating a healthy diet and exercising.
Increasing the sources of unsaturated fat, dietary fiber, and antioxidants in your diet can help control cholesterol levels. You should limit saturated and especially trans fats, refined carbohydrates, and added sugar as much as possible. It is also advised to lose weight if you are overweight to support a healthy heart.
Always speak to your doctor for individual guidelines on the best plan to protect you against your heart disease risk.
+ 27 sources
Health Canal avoids using tertiary references. We have strict sourcing guidelines and rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic researches from medical associations and institutions. To ensure the accuracy of articles in Health Canal, you can read more about the editorial process here
- Tsao, C.W., Aday, A.W., Almarzooq, Z.I., Alonso, A., Beaton, A.Z., Bittencourt, M.S., Boehme, A.K., Buxton, A.E., Carson, A.P., Commodore-Mensah, Y., Elkind, M.S.V., Evenson, K.R., Eze-Nliam, C., Ferguson, J.F., Generoso, G., Ho, J.E., Kalani, R., Khan, S.S., Kissela, B.M. and Knutson, K.L. (2022). Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2022 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association. Circulation, [online] 145(8). doi:10.1161/cir.0000000000001052.
- CDC (2022). Cholesterol. [online] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/cholesterol/index.htm.
- Schade, D.S., Shey, L. and Eaton, R.P. (2020). Cholesterol Review: A Metabolically Important Molecule. Endocrine Practice, 26(12), pp.1514–1523. doi:10.4158/ep-2020-0347.
- Illingworth, D.R. (1993). Lipoprotein Metabolism. American Journal of Kidney Diseases, 22(1), pp.90–97. doi:10.1016/s0272-6386(12)70173-7.
- Stein, R., Ferrari, F. and Scolari, F. (2019). Genetics, Dyslipidemia, and Cardiovascular Disease: New Insights. Current Cardiology Reports, [online] 21(8). doi:10.1007/s11886-019-1161-5.
- Schoeneck, M. and Iggman, D. (2021). The effects of foods on LDL cholesterol levels: A systematic review of the accumulated evidence from systematic reviews and meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, [online] 31(5), pp.1325–1338. doi:10.1016/j.numecd.2020.12.032.
- Carson, J.A.S., Lichtenstein, A.H., Anderson, C.A.M., Appel, L.J., Kris-Etherton, P.M., Meyer, K.A., Petersen, K., Polonsky, T. and Van Horn, L. (2020). Dietary Cholesterol and Cardiovascular Risk: A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation, [online] 141(3). doi:10.1161/cir.0000000000000743.
- Arnett, D.K., Blumenthal, R.S., Albert, M.A., Buroker, A.B., Goldberger, Z.D., Hahn, E.J., Himmelfarb, C.D., Khera, A., Lloyd-Jones, D., McEvoy, J.W., Michos, E.D., Miedema, M.D., Muñoz, D., Smith, S.C., Virani, S.S., Williams, K.A., Yeboah, J. and Ziaeian, B. (2019). 2019 ACC/AHA Guideline on the Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: A Report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines. Circulation, [online] 140(11). doi:10.1161/cir.0000000000000678.
- Pezzali, J.G., Shoveller, A.K. and Ellis, J. (2021). Examining the Effects of Diet Composition, Soluble Fiber, and Species on Total Fecal Excretion of Bile Acids: A Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, [online] 8. doi:10.3389/fvets.2021.748803.
- Hollænder, P.L., Ross, A.B. and Kristensen, M. (2015). Whole-grain and blood lipid changes in apparently healthy adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies1–3. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, [online] 102(3), pp.556–572. doi:10.3945/ajcn.115.109165.
- Hui, S., Liu, K., Lang, H., Liu, Y., Wang, X., Zhu, X., Doucette, S., Yi, L. and Mi, M. (2018). Comparative effects of different whole grains and brans on blood lipid: a network meta-analysis. European Journal of Nutrition, [online] 58(7), pp.2779–2787. doi:10.1007/s00394-018-1827-6.
- Yokoyama, Y., Levin, S.M. and Barnard, N.D. (2017). Association between plant-based diets and plasma lipids: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition Reviews, [online] 75(9), pp.683–698. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nux030.
- Busnelli, M., Manzini, S., Sirtori, C., Chiesa, G. and Parolini, C. (2018). Effects of Vegetable Proteins on Hypercholesterolemia and Gut Microbiota Modulation. Nutrients, [online] 10(9), p.1249. doi:10.3390/nu10091249.
- Zhu, R., Fogelholm, M., Poppitt, S.D., Silvestre, M.P., Møller, G., Huttunen-Lenz, M., Stratton, G., Sundvall, J., Råman, L., Jalo, E., Taylor, M.A., Macdonald, I.A., Handjiev, S., Handjieva-Darlenska, T., Martinez, J.A., Muirhead, R., Brand-Miller, J. and Raben, A. (2021). Adherence to a Plant-Based Diet and Consumption of Specific Plant Foods—Associations with 3-Year Weight-Loss Maintenance and Cardiometabolic Risk Factors: A Secondary Analysis of the PREVIEW Intervention Study. Nutrients, [online] 13(11), p.3916. doi:10.3390/nu13113916.
- Ferreira, H., Vasconcelos, M., Gil, A.M. and Pinto, E. (2020). Benefits of pulse consumption on metabolism and health: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, [online] 61(1), pp.85–96. doi:10.1080/10408398.2020.1716680.
- Mensink, R.P. (1993). Effects of the individual saturated fatty acids on serum lipids and lipoprotein concentrations. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 57(5), pp.711S714S. doi:10.1093/ajcn/57.5.711s.
- Brouwer, I. (n.d.). Effects of trans- fatty acid intake on blood lipids and lipoproteins: a systematic review and meta-regression analysis. [online] Available at: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/246109/9789241510608-eng.pdf.
- Backes, J., Anzalone, D., Hilleman, D. and Catini, J. (2016). The clinical relevance of omega-3 fatty acids in the management of hypertriglyceridemia. Lipids in Health and Disease, [online] 15(1). doi:10.1186/s12944-016-0286-4.
- Ghobadi, S., Hassanzadeh-Rostami, Z., Mohammadian, F., Nikfetrat, A., Ghasemifard, Raeisi Dehkordi, H. and Faghih, S. (2018). Comparison of blood lipid-lowering effects of olive oil and other plant oils: A systematic review and meta‐analysis of 27 randomized placebo‐controlled clinical trials. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, [online] 59(13), pp.2110–2124. doi:10.1080/10408398.2018.1438349.
- Mahmassani, H.A., Avendano, E.E., Raman, G. and Johnson, E.J. (2018). Avocado consumption and risk factors for heart disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, [online] 107(4), pp.523–536. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqx078.
- Peou, S., Milliard-Hasting, B. and Shah, S.A. (2016). Impact of avocado-enriched diets on plasma lipoproteins: A meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Lipidology, [online] 10(1), pp.161–171. doi:10.1016/j.jacl.2015.10.011.
- Srinivasan, K. (2015). Anti-cholelithogenic potential of dietary spices and their bioactives. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, [online] 57(8), pp.1749–1758. doi:10.1080/10408398.2014.1003783.
- Asbaghi, O., Fouladvand, F., Moradi, S., Ashtary-Larky, D., Choghakhori, R. and Abbasnezhad, A. (2020). Effect of green tea extract on lipid profile in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research & Reviews, [online] 14(4), pp.293–301. doi:10.1016/j.dsx.2020.03.018.
- Xia, P., Pan, X., Chen, C., Wang, Y., Ye, Y. and Pan, A. (2020). Dietary Intakes of Eggs and Cholesterol in Relation to All‐Cause and Heart Disease Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study. Journal of the American Heart Association, [online] 9(10). doi:10.1161/jaha.119.015743.
- Hooper, L., Martin, N., Jimoh, O.F., Kirk, C., Foster, E. and Abdelhamid, A.S. (2020). Reduction in saturated fat intake for cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. [online] doi:10.1002/14651858.cd011737.pub2.
- Takeuchi, H. and Sugano, M. (2017). IndustrialTransFatty Acid and Serum Cholesterol: The Allowable Dietary Level. Journal of Lipids, [online] 2017, pp.1–10. doi:10.1155/2017/9751756.
- DiNicolantonio, J.J., Lucan, S.C. and O’Keefe, J.H. (2016). The Evidence for Saturated Fat and for Sugar Related to Coronary Heart Disease. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, [online] 58(5), pp.464–472. doi:10.1016/j.pcad.2015.11.006.