What you eat is one piece of the puzzle that makes up your cholesterol numbers. Even though it’s only one piece, it’s an important piece. Cholesterol has a big impact on your total health picture.
Healthy foods are part of overall good health, but some foods can be especially helpful for keeping your cholesterol numbers in the healthy range.
Follow Your Heart
You can’t go wrong by looking for heart-healthy foods. The Harvard Heart Letter has a list of foods that help lower cholesterol levels. Some of their top picks include:
- Oats, including oatmeal and cereals containing oats
- Whole grains like barley
- Beans, which also make you feel full and take a long time to digest
- Okra and eggplant
- Nuts — aim for 2 ounces each day
- Vegetable oils in place of butter and lard
- Fruits like apples, grapes, strawberries and citrus
- Soybeans and foods made with soy, like tofu and soy milk
- Fatty fish — eat them two or three times each week
Start small by adding a few of these heart healthy foods to what you currently eat. You may even find that some of them are already in your pantry or fruit bowl.
In addition to adding these healthy foods to your diet, you may need to take some other foods out, or at least cut back on them.
Avoid saturated fat. It is found in meats, whole milk dairy products and some ready-made foods. Check out nutrition labels to figure out what’s in the foods you buy.
Also, watch the amount of alcohol you drink. Alcohol adds calories. That can lead to weight gain. And having that extra weight can raise your cholesterol level. It can also raise your blood pressure, putting your heart even more at risk.
And don’t forget to take a look at how much salt you use. Aim for a total of 1 teaspoon of salt each day, including all sources. Curbing salt won’t lower your cholesterol. But it can help lower your risk of heart diseases by lowering your blood pressure.
The DASH eating plan is one good example of a heart healthy diet.
Why Is Cholesterol Important?
Nearly 1 in 3 Americans has high cholesterol, which can clog blood vessels and lead to heart disease. In fact, people with high total cholesterol have about twice the risk for heart disease as people with healthy levels. Along with family history, unhealthy diet, weight gain and lack of exercise are contributing causes of high cholesterol for most people.
Cholesterol numbers can be confusing. And healthy numbers for LDL (bad) cholesterol and total cholesterol differ from person to person. Your doctor can tell you what your ideal cholesterol numbers should be.
If you have high cholesterol, your doctor may prescribe medicine to lower it. You and your doctor will decide what you need by checking your test results and your other risk factors.
What Else Can You Do?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says you can work to lower your cholesterol levels by:
- Eating low-fat and high-fiber foods
- Getting at least two and a half hours of moderate physical activity a week
- Keeping a healthy weight
- Not smoking
Talk to your doctor. To help keep your heart healthy, the American Academy of Family Physicians says to ask your doctor:
- Am I at risk for heart disease?
- How often should I have my cholesterol tested?
- What are my cholesterol levels? What do the numbers mean?
- What changes do I need to make to help my levels?
- Will I need a cholesterol-lowering drug?
- What are the benefits and risks of taking the medicine?
Learn more about cholesterol and other heart health topics in the American Heart Association’s interactive Watch, Learn and Live library.
Sources: Food Labeling, How to Lower Cholesterol with Diet, DASH Eating Plan, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 2019; 11 foods that lower cholesterol, Harvard Heart Letter, Harvard Medical School, 2019; Lifestyle Changes to Improve Your Cholesterol, American Academy of Family Physicians, 2017; What Your Cholesterol Levels Mean, American Heart Association, 2017; Watch, Learn and Live, American Heart Association; Cholesterol, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2019; Preventing High Cholesterol, CDC, 2017; Knowing is Not Enough — Act on Your Family Health History, CDC, 2018; Medical history: Compiling your medical family tree, Mayo Clinic, 2018