How Can Lower High Cholesterol?

Too much cholesterol in the blood can lead to heart disease and stroke — America’s No. 1 and No. 4 killers.

You can reduce your cholesterol by eating healthful foods, losing weight if you need to and being physically active. Some people also need to take medicine because changing their diet isn’t enough. Your doctor and nurses will help you set up a plan for reducing your cholesterol — and keeping yourself healthy!

Most heart and blood vessel disease is caused by a buildup of cholesterol, plaque and other fatty deposits in artery walls. The arteries that feed the heart can become so clogged that the blood flow is reduced, causing chest pain. If a blood clot forms and blocks the artery, a heart attack can occur. Similarly, if a blood clot blocks an artery leading to or in the brain, a stroke results.

For some people, diet tweaks are enough to lower cholesterol naturally without medication, while others will need drugs, or a combination of diet and medication

Diet can play an important role in lowering your cholesterol.

Here are some foods that can lower your cholesterol and protect your heart:

Can a bowl of oatmeal help lower your cholesterol? How about a handful of walnuts or even a baked potato topped with some heart-healthy margarine? A few simple tweaks to your diet — like these, along with exercise and other heart-healthy habits — may be helpful in lowering your cholesterol.

1. Oatmeal, oat bran and high-fiber foods

Oatmeal contains soluble fiber, which reduces your low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the "bad," cholesterol. Soluble fiber is also found in such foods as kidney beans, apples, pears, barley and prunes.

Soluble fiber can reduce the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream. Five to 10 grams or more of soluble fiber a day decreases your total and LDL cholesterol. Eating 1 1/2 cups of cooked oatmeal provides 6 grams of fiber. If you add fruit, such as bananas, you'll add about 4 more grams of fiber. To mix it up a little, try steel-cut oatmeal or cold cereal made with oatmeal or oat bran.

2. Fish and omega-3 fatty acids

Eating fatty fish can be heart healthy because of its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce your blood pressure and risk of developing blood clots. In people who have already had heart attacks, fish oil — or omega-3 fatty acids — reduces the risk of sudden death.

The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fish a week. The highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids are in:

  • Mackerel
  • Lake trout
  • Herring
  • Sardines
  • Albacore tuna
  • Salmon
  • Halibut

You should bake or grill the fish to avoid adding unhealthy fats. If you don't like fish, you can also get small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids from foods like ground flaxseed or canola oil.

You can take an omega-3 or fish oil supplement to get some of the benefits, but you won't get other nutrients in fish, such as selenium. If you decide to take a supplement, just remember to watch your diet and eat lean meat or vegetables in place of fish.

3. Walnuts, almonds and other nuts

Walnuts, almonds and other nuts can reduce blood cholesterol. Rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, walnuts also help keep blood vessels healthy.

Eating about a handful (1.5 ounces, or 42.5 grams) a day of most nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, some pine nuts, pistachio nuts and walnuts, may reduce your risk of heart disease. Just make sure the nuts you eat aren't salted or coated with sugar.

All nuts are high in calories, so a handful will do. To avoid eating too many nuts and gaining weight, replace foods high in saturated fat with nuts. For example, instead of using cheese, meat or croutons in your salad, add a handful of walnuts or almonds.

4. Olive oil

Olive oil contains a potent mix of antioxidants that can lower your "bad" (LDL) cholesterol but leave your "good" (HDL) cholesterol untouched.

Try using about 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil a day in place of other fats in your diet to get its heart-healthy benefits. To add olive oil to your diet, you can saute vegetables in it, add it to a marinade or mix it with vinegar as a salad dressing. You can also use olive oil as a substitute for butter when basting meat or as a dip for bread. Olive oil is high in calories, so don't eat more than the recommended amount.

The cholesterol-lowering effects of olive oil are even greater if you choose extra-virgin olive oil, meaning the oil is less processed and contains more heart-healthy antioxidants. But keep in mind that "light" olive oils are usually more processed than extra-virgin or virgin olive oils and are lighter in color, not fat or calories.

5. Foods with added plant sterols or stanols

Foods are now available that have been fortified with sterols or stanols — substances found in plants that help block the absorption of cholesterol.

Margarines, orange juice and yogurt drinks with added plant sterols can help reduce LDL cholesterol by more than 10 percent. The amount of daily plant sterols needed for results is at least 2 grams — which equals about two 8-ounce (237-milliliter) servings of plant sterol-fortified orange juice a day.

Plant sterols or stanols in fortified foods don't appear to affect levels of triglycerides or of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the "good" cholesterol.

6. Red wine

Scientists are giving us yet another reason to drink to our health. It turns out that high-fiber Tempranillo red grapes, used to make red wine like Rioja, may actually have a significant effect on cholesterol levels. A study conducted by the department of metabolism and nutrition at Universidad Complutense de Madrid in Spain found that when individuals consumed the same grape supplement found in red wine, their LDL levels decreased by 9%. In addition, those who had high cholesterol going into the study saw a 12% drop in LDL.

7. Tea

While tea has become well known for its cancer-fighting antioxidants, it is also a great defense against LDL cholesterol levels. According to research conducted with the USDA, black tea has been shown to reduce blood lipids by up to 10% in only 3 weeks. These findings were concluded in a larger study of how tea may also help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. (Here's how to make the perfect cup of tea every time.)

The Hot and Cool Superdrink Tea, whether it's iced or hot, delivers a blast of antioxidant compounds. Studies prove that tea helps to keep blood vessels relaxed and prevent blood clots. Flavonoids, the major antioxidants in tea, have been shown to prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol that leads to plaque formation on artery walls. These powerful antioxidants may even reduce cholesterol and even lower blood pressure.

How to get some Enjoy a cup of hot or iced tea. Although convenience iced teas still have high antioxidant levels, most homemade iced tea (both hot-brewed and fridge teas) have even more antioxidants. So, if you want the very max, make your own.

Drink this much A cup of hot tea actually contains more antioxidants than a serving of any fruit or vegetable. Both green and black teas have high antioxidant levels. Enjoy at least one cup of tea every day.

8. Beans

Beans, beans—they really are good for your heart. Researchers at Arizona State University Polytechnic found that adding ½ cup of beans to soup lowers total cholesterol, including LDL, by up to 8%. The key to this heart-healthy food is its abundance of fiber, which has been shown to slow the rate and amount of absorption of cholesterol in certain foods. Try black, kidney, or pinto beans; each supplies about one-third of your daily fiber needs.

9. Chocolate

Ah, the sweet side of a heart-healthy diet: This powerful antioxidant helps build HDL cholesterol levels. In a 2007 study published in AJCN, participants who were given cocoa powder had a 24% increase in HDL levels over 12 weeks, compared with a 5% increase in the control group. Remember to choose the dark or bittersweet kind. Compared to milk chocolate, it has more than 3 times as many antioxidants, which prevent blood platelets from sticking together and may even keep arteries unclogged.

10. Margarine

Switching to a margarine with plant sterols, such as Promise activ or Benecol, could help lower cholesterol. Plant sterols are compounds that reduce cholesterol absorption; a study published in AJCN found that women who had a higher plant sterol–based diet were able to lower total cholesterol by 3.5%.

11. Garlic

Aside from adding zing to almost any dish, garlic has been found to lower cholesterol, prevent blood clots, reduce blood pressure, and protect against infections. Now research finds that it helps stop artery-clogging plaque at its earliest stage by keeping cholesterol particles from sticking to artery walls. Try for two to four fresh cloves a day.

12. Olive oil

This common cooking ingredient can help your health. Olive oil is full of heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), which lower LDL cholesterol—and have the welcome side effect of trimming belly fat. Use it to make your own salad dressings, marinate chicken and fish, or roast vegetables.

13. Spinach

This popular green contains lots of lutein, the sunshine-yellow pigment found in dark green leafy vegetables and egg yolks. Lutein already has a "golden" reputation for guarding against age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness. Now research suggests that just ½ cup of a lutein-rich food daily also guards against heart attacks by helping artery walls "shrug off" cholesterol invaders that cause clogging. Look for bags of baby spinach leaves that you can use for salads or pop in the microwave for a quick side dish.

14. Avocado

Avocados are a great source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, a type of fat that may actually help raise HDL cholesterol while lowering LDL. And, more than any other fruit, this delectable food packs cholesterol-smashing beta-sitosterol, a beneficial plant-based fat that reduces the amount of cholesterol absorbed from food. Since avocados are a bit high in calories and fat (300 calories and 30 g fat per avocado), use them in moderation.

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