Reducing cholesterol to a healthy level can seem like an overwhelming task. It may easier than you think. Carefully choosing certain foods can help you cut cholesterol, keep your heart healthy and avoid medication.
In addition to regular exercise, the foods we choose have a substantial impact on cholesterol, which can produce significant benefits, particularly for the heart. High LDL, or "bad" cholesterol can significantly heighten the risk of heart attack.
Carol Wolin-Riklin, a registered dietitian at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School, urged avoiding prepared, packaged foods that tend to be high in transfat.
Also avoid frying. Instead choose preparation methods such as broiling, baking or grilling, using spices instead of high-fat sauces and marinades to add flavor.
"Think of foods that are closer to natural and nature. You want a good mix of whole grains, oats, fruits and vegetables, and choose lean meats. Also low fat or skin dairy products," Wolin-Riklin said. "Even if it is genetic, you can impact it. You might need only one medication instead of two or three."
This can significantly cut medication side effects, benefiting the patient.
"The last thing you want to do is narrow those arteries," she said. "The more active you are in lowering cholesterol levels, the more proactive you are in lowering the risk of heart disease."
Top 10 Foods to Lower LDL Cholesterol
1. Oats, oatmeal or oat-based cereal like Cheerios
Oatmeal helps reduce cholesterol because it is considered a soluable fiber, which helps reduce absorption of cholesterol in the blood stream.
Consuming at least five grams of soluable fiber each day can decrease your total cholesterol. A bowl of a cup and a half of cooked oatmeal would easily fill this requirement, as would two daily bowls of Multigrain Cheerios.
Oats also can be incorporated into breads, muffins and a variety of cold cereals. High-fiber veggie burgers made from oatmeal also could help you meet your daily fiber intake. Try experimenting with a variety of hot and cold varieties of oatmeal to find one you like.
2. Beans, such as kidney, chickpea, pinto and navy
Beans are high in protein and contain no cholesterol. They are also a soluable fiber. A 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture study showed that eating as little a half a cup each day could help lower cholesterol. A separate study showed beans could cut cholesterol by up to 8 percent, though additional research is needed to determine the mechanism for lowering cholesterol.
Add beans as a side dish, such as a marinated bean salad, or try adding beans to chili. Beans also can be used instead of meats for tacos, and other Mexican-style dishes. Pita dipped in hummus or grilled black bean burgers also make it easy to consume plenty of beans.
3. Whole grains, such as barley and flaxseed
Whole grains contain the entire grain including the bran, germ and endosperm. Examples include whole-wheat flour, oatmeal, whole cornmeal, brown rice and bulgur.
Dietary fiber from whole grain can help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. Whole grains are a type of Insoluble fiber, and are also particularly good at slowing the progression of heart disease in those most at risk.
Try replacing regular pasta with the whole wheat variety, and choose whole grain bread, rice and cereal. Barley soup is another way to incorporate whole grains.
4. Fatty fish and omega-3 fatty acids
Fatty fish contains high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which can aid in reducing blood pressure, and also the risk of blood clots in addition to cholesterol benefits. It also can prevent sudden death for those who have previously suffered a heart attack.
The Mayo Clinic recommends at least two servings of baked or grilled fish each week. Those with the highest omega-3 fatty acids include albacore tuna, salmon, halibut, lake trout, mackerel and herring.
Omega-3 or fish oil supplements are available, but they don't provide the same nutrients found in the fish such as selenium. Eat lean meats instead if you decide to try supplements instead of fatty fish.
5. Citrus fruits, apples, tomatoes, spinach, grapes, pears, prunes and strawberries
Fruits and vegetables are a rich source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, carbohydrates and complex phytochemicals. Adding as little as one extra daily serving of a fruit or vegetable could help lower cholesterol.
Dark leafy green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli, and red, yellow and orange varieties including tomatoes and citrus fruits appear to offer the greatest heart benefit.
Eat a raw piece of fruit as a snack, or add strawberries to yogurt for a light dessert. Broccoli can be tasty when cooked with lean beef, and raw spinach can be used to enhance the flavor of many green salads.
6. Nuts, particularly walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds
Numerous studies have indicated a positive link between a variety of nuts and lower cholesterol, so much so that several scientists have encouraged that nuts be included as part of therapeutic dietary intervention to improve cholesterol levels.
A 2010 Loma Linda University study showed that nuts could help reduce "bad" cholesterol by about 7 percent, and total cholesterol by about 5 percent..
Limit your intake of nuts to three ounces per day because of their high fat and calorie contents. Most nuts seem to offer similar benefits. Try an afternoon snack of a handful of pistachios, walnuts, pecans or peanuts.
7. Vegetables such as okra and eggplant
Okra and eggplant come from a cholesterol-lowering category called viscous fibers. It is a sticky type of soluable fiber that helps to bind the cholesterol in the digestive track, and remove it from the body. This ensures that it is not absorbed.
Including 10 grams a day of viscous fiber has been shown in studies to reduce "bad" cholesterol by about 5 percent.
Try incorporating roasted eggplant or sauteed okra as a side dish. Eggplant can also be added to pasta instead of fattier meats. Eggplant parmesan is another idea for an entree.
8. Olive oil, and some vegetable oils such as canola, soybean, sunflower, safflower and corn
Some oils such as olive oil contain a strong mix of antioxidants that help lower LDL cholesterol, while leaving your "good" HDL cholesterol untouched.
It is high in fat so avoid using more than the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recommendation of two tablespoons. It can be used for sauteeing meats and vegetables, in salad dressings or even with seasonings as a dip for bread. Extra virgin olive oil is less processed and includes even more heart-healthy antioxidants, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Canola oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, corn oil and safflower oil also are beneficial because they consist of mono- and polyunsaturated fats that are more heart friendly than oils based in saturated fats. Canola oil also has the added benefit of omega-3 fatty acids.
9. Soy, such as soy milk and tofu
Soy products may be able to lower cholesterol because soy is the only source of genistein, a natural estrogenic compound. Previous research has shown that genistein may be able to significantly reduce "bad" cholesterol while also increasing "good" cholesterol.
Try incorporating tofu into a stir-fry of vegetables. Soy milk can easily be substituted for traditional milk by adding it to cereal and coffee, and also drinking it alone.
10. Foods with added plant sterols or stanals, such as margarine, orange juice and granola bars
Some foods are fortified with sterols or stanals, a substance found in plants that aids in blocking the absorption of cholesterol. A range of foods is including in this category including orange juice, chocolate, yogurt drinks and margarine.
Adding such foods can help cut LDL cholesterol by more than 10 percent, according to the Mayo Clinic. Consume at least two grams daily to see cholesterol-lowering benefits. Two 8-ounce glasses of orange juice every day would easily fill this requirement. Sterols and stanals do not cause any impact to "good" cholesterol.
Putting it Together
Though foods can work in conjunction with lifestyle changes such as exercise to lower cholesterol, there still is no magic food that can reduce cholesterol alone. For example a variety of nuts can be beneficial in helping to reduce cholesterol, but they are also high in fat. Consuming excessive amounts could cause weight gain.
"They're healthy in moderation. Grazing all day and finishing a large bag is not," Wolin-Riklin said. "Everything acts together. There's no one food you can point to. It's a combined effort that reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke."
She also suggested that patients consider keeping a food diary or using new apps for smartphones that allow individuals to track what they're eating and the fat content. It has proved beneficial for many of her patients who can evaluate what diet changes they might need to make. But it has another hidden benefit.
"You might type a food (into your smartphone) and see that it has a lot of fat. Maybe you didn't realize because it was hidden fat," said Wolin-Riklin, who noted it could prompt app users to instead choose a healthier option.