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10 Foods to Lower Cholesterol

Contributor: Romit Bhattacharya, MD
8 minute read
A spread of healthy foods including vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fruits

While your body requires cholesterol to survive, you likely have a lot more of it than you need. The average American has somewhere between 2 to 5 times the amount of cholesterol than is biologically necessary, according to Romit Bhattacharya, MD.

Dr. Bhattacharya is a Mass General Brigham cardiologist and the associate director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cardiac Lifestyle Program. He explains that the best way to lower your cholesterol is to reduce your cholesterol intake and production. That means eating less sugar, saturated fat, and cholesterol itself. These three things act as building blocks for your body to make cholesterol.

What reduces cholesterol quickly?

Research has proven that when people modify their diets in a healthy way, they see a dramatic decrease in cholesterol levels. But these changes probably won’t happen overnight.

“Imagine that you have a leaky tub, and that tub is filled with cholesterol,” says Dr. Bhattacharya. “Nothing can make it drain faster, but you can turn down or turn off the faucet to add less cholesterol.”

Dr. Bhattacharya recommends 10 changes you can make in your diet to lower cholesterol successfully.

  1. Substitute butter with healthier oils.

In technical terms, replace saturated fats with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. Out of all the building blocks, saturated fat tends to be converted most efficiently into cholesterol.

“Butter is essentially pure saturated fat,” says Dr. Bhattacharya. Tropical plant-based oils, such as coconut oil and palm oil, also have a significant amount. If you do have saturated fat, aim to eat no more than 2 grams in one serving.

Dr. Bhattacharya suggests using oils with less saturated fat, such as:

  • Avocado oil

  • Canola oil

  • Flax seed oil

  • Olive oil

  • Sunflower seed oil

But these healthier oils are still high in calories, so don’t have too much, he cautions.

If we’re overeating—even healthy foods—that can lead to weight gain. That can cause problems with our metabolism and cholesterol.

Romit Bhattacharya, MD
Mass General Brigham

  1. Reach for zero-fat dairy.

“Dairy is one of the biggest sources of saturated fat in our diet,” says Dr. Bhattacharya. “Research has shown that we shouldn’t be ingesting dairy fat. A lot of dairy products, especially full-fat dairy, are made for growing calves, not growing Americans.”

As a result, dairy products are among the worst foods for high cholesterol. You can swap out full-fat dairy for zero-fat dairy or dairy alternatives. But be wary of coconut milk (a common substitute in dairy-free products), which has a uniquely high amount of saturated fat for a plant product.

  1. Replace red meat with lean proteins.

“Making a switch from red meats to fish or plant-based protein is a surefire way to lower your cholesterol,” says Dr. Bhattacharya.

He recommends replacing meat, which contains a lot of saturated fat, with:

  • Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon

  • Skinless poultry, such as chicken

  • Seitan

  • Tempeh

  • Tofu

  1. Eat fiber or take fiber supplements.

Fiber prevents your body from absorbing cholesterol (and fat) in the first place. It also signals to your body when you’re full so that you don’t overeat.

“If we’re overeating—even healthy foods—that can lead to weight gain,” says Dr. Bhattacharya. “That can cause problems with our metabolism and cholesterol.”

High-fiber foods that lower cholesterol include:

  • Crunchy, green vegetables

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Regular potatoes

  • Whole grains

You can also take fiber supplements found at the drugstore. Just make sure you take them with plenty of water.

  1. Look for whole grains.

Whole grains have zero cholesterol. Their high-fiber content means that they also prevent your body from absorbing cholesterol and fat from the foods you eat. A few great whole grains include:

  • Ancient grains, such as quinoa, farro, and amaranth

  • Brown rice

  • Steel-cut or rolled oats

  • Whole wheat bread (which is different from multigrain or seeded bread)

  1. Snack on fruits and nuts.

Fruits, especially berries, have fantastic benefits that lower cholesterol. While high in fiber, they have no cholesterol or saturated fat.

Dr. Bhattacharya cautions against fruit juices, though, which remove the fiber and leave you with sugar. He also notes that eating fruit whole is better than blending it. “You want to chew it and let your body digest the fiber, which signals to your body to be full,” he says.

Nuts also provide a high-fiber snack that keeps you full for a long time. Plus, nuts are low in saturated fat and packed with healthier polyunsaturated fat.

  1. Incorporate more vegetables.

Tempted to skip over this one? If you don’t like vegetables, ask yourself: Do you treat your vegetables like you treat your meat?

“Very often, it’s not a fair fight,” Dr. Bhattacharya points out. “Do you pick out your vegetables carefully and look for the freshest ones? Do you marinate them in something? Do you have a preferred way to cook or season them?” He notes that seeing, feeling, smelling, and preparing your food plays a big role in how much you enjoy it.

Most vegetables have zero cholesterol or fat, and they’re a great source of fiber. All vegetables help lower cholesterol, but Dr. Bhattacharya gives a special callout to cruciferous veggies and leafy greens, such as:

  • Broccoli

  • Brussels sprouts

  • Cabbage

  • Kale

  • Spinach

  1. Try beans and other high-protein, low-cholesterol foods.

Protein helps you feel fuller and more satisfied. Eating good sources of protein can keep you from overeating throughout the day. Some high-protein, low-cholesterol options include:

  • Black beans, kidney beans, and soybeans

  • Chickpeas

  • Edamame

  • Lentils

  • Tofu

  1. Switch to sugar-free drinks or water.

Sugar makes your body release insulin, a hormone that affects how you process sugar and use energy. Insulin also acts as a signal to your body to make more cholesterol. It plays a key role in how cholesterol is produced in the body.

“Sugar turns up the speed and the amount of cholesterol that we make,” says Dr. Bhattacharya. Choosing sugar-free options instead of sweet drinks can help you keep your cholesterol down.

10. Start your day with a low-cholesterol breakfast.

A quality breakfast can set the stage for the rest of your day. Dr. Bhattacharya suggests a few low-cholesterol breakfast favorites, including:

  • An egg white or well-seasoned tofu scramble on whole wheat toast

  • Greek yogurt with berries, banana, and nut butter

  • Oatmeal with berries, nuts, and chia seeds

At the end of the day, balance is everything.

As you make changes to your diet, remember that balancing (and not overloading) your plate is key—even for healthy foods. Your body needs a balance of nutrients, and in the right amount.

Dr. Bhattacharya recommends filling one-quarter of your plate with lean protein (plant-based, fish, or skinless poultry) and half with non-starchy vegetables. The rest should be whole grains and healthy fats.

To stay balanced and keep from overeating, try to:

  • Drink plenty of water.

  • Eat at the table, not in front of the TV, which can keep you from listening to when your body is full.

  • Track your food with a notebook or digital app to know how much you’re truly eating.

  • Use smaller plates to limit portions.

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Headshot of Romit Bhattacharya, MD