7 foods that lower your cholesterol

There’s good evidence that following a heart-healthy diet can improve your blood cholesterol and heart health. Find out which foods are best at helping to lower your cholesterol.

Heart healthy foods on table

What is cholesterol

Cholesterol is a type of fat in your blood which is produced naturally by your body. It’s also found in some foods like eggs, offal (such as kidney and liver) and shellfish. Your body needs some cholesterol for it to work properly.

When you have high cholesterol levels in the blood (also called hyperlipidaemia) it speeds up the process of atherosclerosis. This is when plaque builds up in your artery walls, making them narrower. This makes it hard for blood to flow through them, and over time it can cause a heart attack or stroke.

Types of cholesterol

High cholesterol doesn’t show any symptoms. You need a blood test to find out if you have it. The blood test will tell you the levels of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol in your blood (explained below).

Cholesterol is carried around the body by different ‘carriers’ (also called lipoproteins). The two most common are:

  • Low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol: the ‘bad’ cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is ‘bad’ because if you have too much it gets stuck to the walls of your arteries
  • High density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol: the ‘good’ cholesterol. HDL cholesterol is ‘good’ because it gets rid of ‘bad’ cholesterol from your blood vessels.

Triglycerides are the most common form of fat in your body and store and transport fat in the blood. Any extra energy from food that your body doesn’t need is turned into triglycerides.

High total blood cholesterol is a measure of all the cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood and is a risk factor for developing heart disease1.

Can my diet help my cholesterol?

Eating certain foods can help improve your cholesterol and overall heart health.

The best place to start is to eat a wide variety of plant foods. These include:

  • vegetables
  • fruit
  • legumes
  • whole grains
  • nut
  • seeds.

Eating plant foods will help you get a range of nutrients, heart-healthy fats and fibre. These all promote optimal heart health.

7 foods that lower your cholesterol

Some foods can actively help to lower your cholesterol and they all work in different ways. Try to include these foods in your meals whenever you can:

1. Oats and barley

Eating whole grain foods reduces your risk of heart disease. Oats and barley are extra special because they are high in a type of soluble fibre called 'beta glucan'. Beta glucan helps to lower 'bad' LDL cholesterol in your blood2,3.

Tip: Flavoured oat products like 'Quick Oats' often contain added salt and/or sugar. Choose products that contain 100% oats (like rolled oats) as they're closest to how they’re found in nature.

oats in bowl with milk and fresh berries

2. Vegetables and fruit

Eating a variety of colourful vegetables and fruit everyday can help protect you against heart disease, stroke and some cancers4,5. Many vegetables and fruit are high in soluble fibre which helps to reduce the absorption of cholesterol and lower 'bad' LDL cholesterol in your blood.

Tip: Leave the skins on vegetables like pumpkin, kūmara and carrot to maximise your intake of fibre. Use orange and lemon peel in dressings and sauces.

vegetables and fruit o ntable and in basket

3. Foods rich in heart-healthy fats

Eating plenty of foods that contain heart-healthy mono and poly-unsaturated fats increases the levels of 'good' HDL cholesterol in your blood. 

These foods contain heart-healthy fats.

  • Avocado
  • Oily fish like mackerel, sardines and salmon 
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Olives
  • Vegetable oils and spreads

Eating these foods instead of foods high in saturated fat (butter, cream, meat fats) improves your cholesterol. It’ll reduce your risk of heart disease too6.

Tip: Coconut, palm oil and many convenience foods are high in saturated fat and increase your ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. Switch to heart-healthy fats and whole foods where possible.

Foods rich in heart healthy fats

4. Legumes and beans

Legumes like chickpeas and lentils are a great source of soluble fibre and plant-based protein. Eating legumes and beans instead of meat (animal protein) can help to lower your 'bad' LDL cholesterol7.

Tip: Choose canned legumes for a quick and easy option. Rinse and drain the salty brine before using them. Use them in salads, sauces, casseroles and when making legume-based dips like hummus.

Legumes and beans on spoons

5. Nuts

Nuts contain heart-healthy fats and fibre which can help to keep your cholesterol in check. Regularly eating nuts is linked to lower levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and triglycerides8.

Tip: Eating a variety of nuts is best because they contain different levels of healthy fats. Choose nuts that are close to how they’re found in nature because they contain more nutrients. Look for nuts that have skins on, are unsalted and unroasted.

nuts in bowls on table

6. Soy products

Soy products include tofu, soy milk, soy beans and edamame beans. Some evidence shows that regularly eating soy products can help to slightly reduce 'bad' LDL cholesterol and triglycerides7,9,10.

Tip: Choose soy products that are close to how they are found in nature, like soy beans, plain unsweetened soy milk and unflavoured tofu.

Types of soy products including tofu, soy milk, edamame beans

7. Plant sterols

Low levels of plant sterols are found in in fruits, vegetables, nuts and cereals. However, some foods (like margarine) have plant sterols added. Eating foods that contain plant sterols as part of a balanced diet can reduce 'bad' LDL cholesterol. This is because they reduce your absorption of cholesterol11.

Tip: Foods with plant sterols added are only effective if you eat them regularly. Remember that these foods are usually much more expensive than everyday foods and your overall diet matters most.

No single food

There is no single food that will help to lower your cholesterol and it's important to focus on the quality of your overall diet.

A diet rich in plant foods like vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds will help to manage your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease.

How to eat for a healthy heartManage your risk of heart disease
Lily Henderson, NZRD

Lily Henderson, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

I am passionate about improving the health of all Kiwis from young through to old. I have enjoyed working in nutrition in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

References:

[1] Peters SA et al. Total cholesterol as a risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke in women compared with men: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Atherosclerosis. 2016; 248:123-31.

[2] Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Systematic Review of the Evidence for a Relationship between Oats, Barley and their derived Beta-glucans on Blood Cholesterol Concentration.2015.

[3] EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA) Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of a health claim related to oat beta glucan and lowering blood cholesterol and reduced risk of (coronary) heart disease pursuant to Article 14 of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006. 2010.

[4] Wang X, Ouyang Y, Liu J et al. Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. British Medical Journal. 2014;349:g4490.

[5] Aune D, Giovannucci E, Boffetta P et al. Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality - a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. International Journal of Epidemiology. 2017;46(3):1029-1056.

[6] Schwab U et al. Effect of the amount and type of dietary fat on cardiometabolic risk factors and risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer: a systematic review. Food and Nutrition Research. 2014. 10;58.

[7] Siying S. Li et al.  Effect of Plant Protein on Blood Lipids: A Systematic Review and Meta‐Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of the American Heart Association. 2017.

[8] Del Gobbo LC et al. Effects of tree nuts on blood lipids, apolipoproteins, and blood pressure: systematic review, meta-analysis, and dose-response of 61 controlled intervention trials. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2015. 102(6): 1347–1356.

[9] Benkhedda K et al. A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of the Effects of Soy Products on Blood Cholesterol Levels. Nutrition. 2015.

[10] Tokede OA et al. Soya products and serum lipids: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Nutrition. 2015. 114:6;831-43.

[11] Ras RT et al. LDL-cholesterol-lowering effect of plant sterols and stanols across different dose ranges: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled studies. British Journal of Nutrition. 2014. 112:2;214-9.