Lowering cholesterol naturally isn’t impossible. This is especially true if you know what to do.
High cholesterol is a common affliction today, contributing to dangerous conditions like heart disease.
Most people turn to medication to lower their cholesterol levels instead of turning to the real culprits: diet and activity (or lack thereof).
With today’s discoveries in nutrition, we know that some specific foods can help lower cholesterol. In addition to making simple lifestyle changes, achieving healthy cholesterol naturally is completely possible.
If you’re trying to avoid taking statins, here’s a list of foods that lower cholesterol naturally:
1. Choose Good Fats
The first step to lowering cholesterol naturally is taking control of your diet, starting with fat. Fat has been unfairly demonized in recent decades as being the root cause of America’s obesity epidemic (1). Dietary fats are essential for our bodies to function at full capacity since it is a major energy source (2). However, not all fats are created equal. There are four main types of fats in our diets (in order from best to worst): monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and trans fats (3).
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are known as good fats, and come mainly from nuts, seeds, fish, and vegetables. A cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, monounsaturated fats are associated with a very low risk of heart disease (4). Olive oil, avocado, and most nuts are rich sources of this kind of fat. Polyunsaturated fats are an essential fat – meaning your body needs them and must get them from foods. These fats can help lower bad cholesterol and triglyceride levels (5). Salmon, flaxseeds, and walnuts are good sources of polyunsaturated fats.
Whenever possible, replace unhealthy fats and carbohydrates in your diet with the mono- or polyunsaturated fats. Research studies show this helps to lower total cholesterol levels and reduce the associated risk of heart disease.
Saturated fats are ok when eaten sparingly, but trans fats should be completely avoided. Diets high in these two types of fat – such as the standard American diet – raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (6).
2. Eat Soluble Fiber-Rich Foods
A fiber-rich diet is helpful in so many ways: keeps you full, helps you lose weight, prevents blood sugar spikes, and is very effective in lowering cholesterol naturally (7). Clinical studies show that consuming a diet rich in soluble fiber helps lower both total and LDL cholesterol levels (8). It does so by preventing cholesterol absorption in your intestines, after it forms into gel-like substance in your stomach (9).
There are a few different types of fiber, so you want to aim for soluble fiber foods. Insoluble fiber isn’t bad for you, but soluble fiber-rich foods are really the best foods to lower cholesterol. Per recommendations from health agencies like the National Cholesterol Education Program, you should try to get between 25-30 grams of fiber every day (10). This might mean quite the change in your diet, so start off with 5-10 grams/day and work up from there. Foods with high soluble fiber content include oat bran, fruits, legumes, and barley (11). Try to get at least one serving of whole grain with every meal.
3. Look Into Phytosterol-Rich Foods
Phytosterols are naturally occurring plant compounds that have a very similar structure to cholesterol. Supplementing with phytosterols in clinical trials is found to effectively reduce LDL cholesterol levels (12). This seems to be because the lower intestines absorb these molecules instead of cholesterol during digestion. Increasing your phytosterol intake to just 2 g/day lowers LDL cholesterol by up to 10% (13)!
Just as with any nutrient, it’s best to get phytosterols from whole foods instead of supplements whenever possible (14). Since they are plant compounds, vegans and vegetarians consume the highest amounts of phytosterols. They also have correspondingly low cholesterol levels (15). Soybeans, cashews, peas, lentils, and sesame oil are all rich in phytosterols and easy additions to your diet.
4. Lose As Much Excess Weight As Possible
It is a well-established fact that being overweight or obese increases your risk of hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol). In fact, only 1 out of every 7 obese individuals has a normal cholesterol level (16). One of the reasons that obesity is associated with higher cholesterol levels is the poor dietary decisions that often lead to excess weight (17).
Carrying excess weight can also change the way your body reacts to cholesterol. Over time, your body becomes less efficient at removing LDL cholesterol, often due to a combination of factors that include insulin resistance and inflammation. Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is the most effective road to lowering cholesterol naturally, even if you require temporary medication to get there (18). Even modest weight loss will improve cholesterol levels.
5. Cut Down on Sugar and Refined Carbs
Medical research continues to make connections between sugar and cholesterol levels. More specifically that simple and refined carbohydrates contribute to LDL and total cholesterol levels (19). Complex carbs – such as the fiber-rich grains previously mentioned – have the opposite effect (20).
Kicking a sugar habit is tough, so start with small steps (21). Instead of ice cream for dessert, have some fresh fruit with a little whipped cream. Replace the white bread in your pantry with 100% whole grain. Eventually it will be second nature!
6. Lower Alcohol Consumption
Both alcohol and cholesterol are filtered through your liver, so it would stand to reason that one would affect the other (22). Research suggests that moderate alcohol consumption can reduce your risk of coronary heart disease (23). The catch: these results are seen in parts of the world where wine is the alcohol of choice, and drinking to excess isn’t common. These results aren’t limited to red wine, either. White wine seems to work just as well (24).
Moderate alcohol intake seems to improve HDL (good) cholesterol levels It should also be noted that moderate alcohol intake is only recommended for those who don’t already have high cholesterol. Anything more than moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with higher rates of heart disease, obesity, liver disease, and high blood pressure. No more than one drink per day (two for men), with approval from your doctor, is recommended (25). Should you find yourself unable to limit yourself, then it’s best not to drink at all.
7. Exercise Regularly
Similar to many other recommendations in this article, exercise will improve almost all aspects of your health, including cholesterol. Exercise literally gets your blood pumping, which can help reduce plaque build-up in your blood vessels in the short term (26). In the long term, exercise improves cardiovascular fitness and reduces both LDL and total cholesterol levels (27). You’ll also notice a positive difference in your weight and body composition. It’s truly a key to lowering cholesterol naturally.
Nervous about going to the gym? First off, don’t be. You should only ever feel good about taking control of your health. Secondly, it’s ok to start slow. Begin by incorporating a walk into your schedule 3-4 days a week (or daily, preferably) (28). Move on to a more rigorous plan when daily walks are no longer a struggle.
8. Increase Omega-3s In Your Diet
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat usually found in salmon, chia seeds, and walnuts (to name a few). Like all polyunsaturated fats, Omega-3 sources help lower cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease. This is confirmed by multiple clinical studies, in both controlled and cohort research approaches (29,30).
Omega-3-rich foods really are some of the best foods to lower cholesterol levels, but that’s not all. There are additional benefits associated with Omega-3 intake. These include reduced inflammation, lower triglyceride levels, and lower blood pressure. In addition, omega-3 supplements are widely available.
9. Eat Your Probiotics and Prebiotics
With all of the emphasis placed on healthy eating, one might forget the importance of the delivery system: a healthy gut. Also known as the second brain, it’s only been in the last several years that researchers and scientists realize the true impact of healthy intestinal flora (31). The bottom line: the naturally occurring bacteria in your gut can make all the difference in how well your body functions.
Probiotics are live, healthy bacteria that you can find in fermented products like yogurt and kimchi. They control the growth of bad bacteria and encourage a healthy digestive system. Prebiotics are what probiotics feed off of – carbohydrates that the human body does not digest. Asparagus, oatmeal, and bananas all contain prebiotic carbohydrates (32).
In regards to lowering cholesterol naturally, studies show that probiotic/prebiotic consumption can help reduce triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol levels. Exactly how probiotics and prebiotics make this happen isn’t fully understood, but many scientists believe it is through improved liver and bile duct function (33). Positive results do appear to be dependent on the strain of probiotic bacteria. If you choose to supplement, make sure to look for digestive-specific strains (such as Lactobacillus gasseri) or ask your doctor for a prescription probiotic.
10. Stick to Black Coffee and Avoid Coffee Creamers
Coffee is basically a cornerstone of American living, and the health benefits of moderate coffee consumption are well documented (34). If you can drink your coffee black, continue on! This section is for the rest of us. Adding a little bit of actual cream or sugar to your coffee (assuming you only drink one or two cups per day) isn’t all that bad.
Coffee creamers are the easiest way to make your healthy cup of joe an unhealthy, cholesterol-laden fat bomb (35). Synthetic sweeteners, artificial flavorings, and dairy-free additives make up the majority of coffee creamers today. Non-dairy creamers are the worst offenders, as they are notoriously high in saturated fats and sugar (36). In most cases, saturated fats make up around 50% of the total calories in coffee creamers. Three cups of coffee with a hefty serving of creamer can easily take up more than half your recommended daily fat intake.
If you can’t make the leap to black coffee, try some other options like coconut milk creamer. Try using real cream and natural sweetener, or switch to tea after your first cup. If you’d like to make your own, Pinterest is a great source for homemade healthy coffee creamer recipes (37).
11. Lower Your Homocysteine Levels
Homocysteine is a naturally occurring amino acid that, in low levels, does not have any ill health effects. Elevated homocysteine levels are associated with a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease (38). Clinical research shows that homocysteine indirectly increases cholesterol levels and atherosclerosis (39).
Homocysteine is now recognized as an independent marker to evaluate the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The most proven way to reduce or prevent elevated homocysteine levels is to increase your folic acid, B-6, and B-12 intake (40). The fact that most B-vitamin sources are also high on the list of low cholesterol foods is a win-win (41). Dark, leafy greens, whole grains, dark fruits, fish, and poultry are all great B-vitamin-rich foods.
12. Switch To An Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Good news: the best foods to lower cholesterol are all part of an anti-inflammatory diet! Most people who follow an anti-inflammatory diet are fighting inflammatory pain conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, but the benefits are universal (42). Cholesterol is just one aspect of cardiovascular disease – inflammation is just as much of a contributory factor (43).
Some doctors and scientists even assert that an anti-inflammatory diet is better than a low-cholesterol diet for lowering cholesterol naturally (44). Inflammation encourages the absorption of LDL cholesterol, which in turn increases inflammation, and continues in a vicious circle (45). Incorporate items high in Omega-3s, vitamin E, avoid char-grilled meats, reduce intake of nightshade vegetables, and increase your intake of dark berries and leafy green veggies to start (46).
13. Get Better Sleep
Poor sleep – whether in quality, quantity, or both – is bad for you, plain and simple. It makes you feel run down, reduces cognitive function, and affects your health in the short- and long-term. Did you know that lack of sleep also affects your body’s cholesterol levels?
It turns out that, in addition to increasing inflammation and cortisol levels, sleep deprivation decreases HDL levels and increases LDL cholesterol (47, 48). Too much sleep can also decrease HDL levels, so it’s bet to aim for the recommended 7-9 hours per night. Just one week of sleep disruption can have a negative impact.
If you have trouble sleeping, try natural alternatives before turning to pharmaceuticals. Some tips: meditate in the evening; turn off all electronics with a screen at least 60 minutes before bed, and make sure you exercise regularly.
14. Quit Smoking
Unlike alcohol and caffeine, there is no moderate level of smoking that results in health benefits. On your checklist for “how to reduce cholesterol”, quitting smoking should be right at the top. It literally affects every system in your body, and not in a good way (49). Smoking is one of the fastest ways to lower your HDL cholesterol – the good kind that helps prevent heart disease (50).
For smokers who already have high cholesterol and/or coronary artery disease, quitting the habit is the best step you can take for your overall health. Studies show that the blood pressure, cholesterol, and lung function are all markedly improved in as little as 1-3 months (51, 52). Try some natural methods to help you quit, but there are also pharmaceutical options if you need extra help.
Quit smoking. You can do it. Seriously.
15. Reduce Stress
You may wonder exactly how stress can impact your cholesterol levels. Researchers have established an indirect link between stress and high cholesterol levels over the past several years (53). Individuals with higher stress levels are more likely to be diagnosed with high cholesterol levels. Lowering cholesterol naturally by reducing your stress levels makes a lot of sense when you consider the mind-body connection.
The link seems to be more of a correlation than a cause. For example, people who report higher stress levels tend to have more trouble sleeping, make worse food choices, and don’t exercise as much as those with lower stress levels. All of which contribute to higher cholesterol. Taking steps to reduce stress in your life, on the other hand, is associated with higher levels of HDL cholesterol and lower total cholesterol (54).
Consider taking up a hobby, like tai chi. Reconnect with nature through hikes or camping. Bottom line: take care of yourself and take active steps to reduce stress.
16. Avoid Air Pollution
Air pollution is finally getting some much-needed attention from the health research field. Several studies now link air pollution to a number of adverse health effects, including higher cholesterol levels and an increased risk of heart disease (55, 56). Even in areas where the pollution levels are well below government-established safety levels, long-term exposure to air pollution shortens average lifespans.
It’s best to live in regions with cleaner air, but for some that isn’t an immediate option. Wear an air filter mask when you’re out and about in a city if you need to. Take steps to reduce pollution in your home so the air quality in your living space is as good as possible (57). Get an air filter, turn on the vent when you cook, dust/vacuum/mop often, and make sure to regularly replace all air filters.
17. Try Supplements
Supplements are not regulated by the FDA like it does medication, so their effectiveness can be hit or miss. For this reason, it’s always best to get the nutrients you need from food whenever possible. That being said, financial constraints, location, or dietary restrictions can make this hard or impossible to do.
Research the brand of supplement to make sure the company does third party testing for purity (58). Fish oil (Omega-3s), fiber, garlic, red yeast rice, and niacin are all generally well formulated in the supplement world for effectiveness (59, 60). As always, review any supplements with your doctor to avoid medication interactions. In some cases, your doctor may be able to prescribe more effective prescription supplements as well (61).
18. Eat Cholesterol Lowering Foods
It may seem a bit repetitive that diet and good foods to lower cholesterol keep coming up. The fact of the matter is that healthy eating is the best way to heal your body from the inside out. Lowering cholesterol naturally with as little medical intervention as necessary will only benefit you in the long run.
A low saturated fat, high fiber, Omega-3 and B-vitamin rich diet is just the beginning. Here are some general recommendations to get you started: Start your day with oatmeal and oat bran instead of sugary cereal and bacon (62). Add in some fresh fruit and cinnamon for sweetness instead of sugar. Incorporate healthy fats like avocado and olive oil, and opt for 100% whole grain breads and pastas instead of refined (processed) versions. Consider adding green tea and psyllium husks to your daily diet as well (63, 64).
Foods that lower cholesterol naturally are going to be better for you all around, but that doesn’t mean they’re not tasty. There are some wonderful resources online and in print for heart-healthy meals. Take some time to find recipes that you love and are easy to prepare. Cook in bulk and portion out your meals for the week so you don’t grab fast food in a hurry.
How to lower cholesterol levels: there is no wrong starting point with these recommendations. When it comes to your health, it is so important to take control and realize that your actions will determine the outcome. Some of the above recommendations might seem tough, but take it one step at a time. Make small changes at first so you can build on healthy habits. The most important thing is that you get started!