Have high cholesterol? You’re not alone. The problem affects some 95 million Americans, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and has been linked to serious health conditions, from heart disease to diabetes.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance found in your cells. Your liver makes it naturally, but it’s also found in animal foods like meat and dairy products. Your body needs some cholesterol to function, but getting more than you need, which can happen from eating too many cholesterol-rich foods, causes plaque to form in the arteries that could lead to dangerous blood-flow blockages.
“High cholesterol is a top risk factor for heart attacks, strokes, and poor circulation,” says Omar Ali, MD, intervention cardiologist at Detroit Medical Center Harper University Hospital. Ideally, this is what healthy cholesterol numbers look like, according to the National Institues of Health:
Medications like statins can help you get there, though most experts recommend trying to make healthy lifestyle changes first. “I always advise people to try and lower their cholesterol through diet and exercise,” says Jennifer Haythe, MD, co-director of the Women’s Center for Cardiovascular Health at New York-Presbyterian.
Cutting back on high-cholesterol foods—like fried foods, sugary desserts, and fatty meats—is a start, but you also need to eat more of the fare that can help lower your cholesterol naturally. Here, 10 picks to add to your grocery list.
Getting 5 to 10 grams of soluble fiber daily could help lower LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol that can build up in your arteries) by as much as 11 points, according to the National Lipid Association. The roughage isn’t well absorbed by your intestine, so it binds to cholesterol in the blood and helps remove it from the body, Dr. Haythe explains. And oats are a top source, delivering around 2 grams of soluble fiber per half-cup cooked.
Try it: These tasty overnight oats recipes will save you tons of time during busy mornings. Simply prep them the night before and enjoy a fiber-rich breakfast the next day.
Aim to eat at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, trout, or herring per week, recommends the American Heart Association. The omega-3 fatty acids found in these swimmers can help improve your triglycerides—a type of cholesterol-like fat found in the blood that can cause your arteries to become hard or thick.
Try it: This honey-spiced salmon with quinoa is loaded with protein and fiber—and takes just 35 minutes to make! If tuna is your go-to, try this tuna salad recipe that subs out mayo for protein-rich Greek yogurt.
Regular consumption of tree nuts like walnuts, almonds, and pistachios is tied to lower levels of total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, found an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition review of 61 studies. “This is likely because they contain unsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, vitamin E, and plant sterols,” Dr. Haythe explains. Just watch your portions, since nuts are high in calories. A small handful or two tablespoons of nut butter is all you need, says Dr. Haythe.
A Japanese study of more than 40,000 adults found that those who drank more than five cups of green tea daily were 26 percent less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke compared to folks who rarely sipped the stuff. Experts suspect that’s because the grassy brew is rich in catechins, a family of flavonoids that have been shown to thwart the production of cholesterol as well as block it from being absorbed.
Try it: Drink it straight—or amp up the flavor of your brew with this iced lemon and ginger green tea recipe.
Having a daily half-cup serving of beans or legumes could lower your LDL cholesterol by an average of 5 percent in just six weeks, according to a review of 26 studies. Like oats, beans are packed with soluble fiber that helps sweep cholesterol out of the bloodstream, Dr. Ali explains. Hummus, anyone?
Try it: Add beans to your tacos, salads, and soups for extra plant-based protein and fiber. You can add your favorites to this vegetable chili for a hearty dinner.
Who says treats can’t also be good for you? In a British study, participants who sipped a cocoa drink twice daily for a month lowered their LDL cholesterol and raised their HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol that helps prevent plaque from building up in your arteries). Chalk it up to dark chocolate’s flavonoids, beneficial compounds that have an antioxidant effect. Just stick with chocolate that’s 70 percent cocoa or higher—it contains more antioxidants and less sugar than the lower percentage stuff.
Try it: Sprinkle a serving of dark chocolate over your oats or eat on its own with a cup of tea as a post-dinner sweet treat.
This neutral-flavored oil is rich in phytosterols—cholesterol-blocking plant compounds that could lower your LDL cholesterol by as much as 14 percent, according to the Cleveland Clinic. In fact, regular consumption of safflower oil is tied to lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol compared to regular consumption of olive oil, according to a recent Journal of Lipid Research review.
Try it: Safflower oil has a mild flavor and high smoke point, making it easy to cook with. Drizzle over your favorite veggies before roasting or use it in a DIY salad dressing.
The leafy veggie (along with cousins collard and mustard greens) has been shown to bind to bile acid. What good does that do, exactly? “That helps the liver burn more fat, which in turn lowers cholesterol,” Dr. Ali says. For the biggest benefit, opt for lightly cooked greens over raw ones. Steaming in particular seems to boost bile acid binding, research shows.
Thanks to their fiber and monounsaturated fat, avocados could help lower your total cholesterol by 18 points, your LDL cholesterol by 16 points, and your triglycerides by 27 points, suggests an analysis of 10 studies. The key is using them in place of foods containing less healthy fats, like saturated fat. Think sliced avocado instead of mayo on a sandwich, or diced avocado rather than cheese in a burrito bowl.
Having one every day really might help keep the (heart) doctor away. Apples are one of the best sources of pectin, a type of fiber that’s been shown to lower levels of LDL cholesterol. They’re also chock-full of antioxidants like polyphenols, which an Ohio State University study found can help keep LDL cholesterol from oxidizing, which can cause arteries to become inflamed and clogged.
Try it: Enjoy as a snack or whip up a batch of these apple oatmeal muffins for a grab-and-go breakfast in the morning.