If you have high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, the tried-and-true ways to lower it without medication are to limit saturated fat (such as in fatty meat) and trans fat (as in highly processed or fast foods) and to lose excess weight. But eating more of the following foods, most rich in fiber, can also help. We rate them with one to four stars—and also include two supposed “cholesterol busters” that don’t live up to their hype.
Many are rich in soluble fiber, which helps lower total and LDL cholesterol. These include apples, citrus fruit, berries (especially strawberries), carrots, apricots, prunes, cabbage, sweet potatoes, okra, and Brussels sprouts. Aim to eat at least four or five cups of produce a day; a large apple, banana, orange, tomato, or sweet potato counts as a cup.
Lima, kidney, black, and other beans, along with lentils, are some of the best sources of cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber. Studies show that even half a cup of beans a day can help reduce total and LDL cholesterol.
The unsaturated fats, fiber, sterols, and other compounds in nuts help lower cholesterol, especially when substituted for sources of saturated fat, such as meat or cheese. Studies have found that a daily intake of 1 to 3 ounces of nuts—just about any kind—has a significant effect. Nuts are calorie-dense, so keep moderation in mind. And look for unsalted varieties, when possible.
More commonly consumed as a laxative and as a soluble-fiber supplement, this grain husk is found in some breakfast cereals and baked goods. Studies show that the powder, taken two or three times a day before meals, can lower LDL cholesterol by 10 to 15 percent, on average. Thus, FDA allows psyllium labels to claim that its fiber can lower cholesterol. Other types of soluble-fiber supplements, such as beta glucan and methylcellulose, may have similar effects but have been less studied.
Corn, soybean, safflower, and other highly polyunsaturated oils lower LDL cholesterol impressively, especially when they replace foods like butter and lard. But watch out: All oils have about 120 calories per tablespoon, so don’t go overboard with them. And while they are often used in highly processed (“junk”) foods and fast foods, that’s not a good way to consume them! Best advice: Use them in salad dressing and for sautéing veggies; don’t get them from chips and cookies.
Rich in monounsaturated fat, these oils lower LDL, but not as much as polyunsaturated oils do. They may also help maintain or raise levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, though research about this has been inconsistent. Because of its high polyphenol content, extra-virgin olive oil may have cardiovascular benefits beyond its effect on blood cholesterol. Similarly, the alpha-linolenic fat (similar to the omega-3s in fish) in canola oil may have additional heart benefits.
These whole grains are the best sources of a type of soluble fiber called beta glucan, which helps lower cholesterol. Thus, products that contain enough oats or barley are allowed to bear a heart-healthy claim. But it takes a fair amount of oat or barley fiber—the amount found in about 1 1/2 cups of oatmeal, for instance, or 3 cups of dry oat cereals—to have a significant effect. Whole wheat and other whole grains also lower cholesterol, but to a lesser extent.
The FDA allows soy foods to carry a heart-healthy claim if they contain at least 6.25 grams of soy protein per serving. But no one knows whether it’s the protein or other substances in soy (notably fiber, unsaturated fat, or compounds called isoflavones) that help lower cholesterol. As with oats and barley, you have to eat a fair amount of soy (25 grams, found in 2 cups of soy milk or 4 ounces of tofu) to get an effect. The benefit is usually modest, and may be significant only when soy protein replaces animal protein.
This is the best source of lignans, which provide fiber and alpha-linolenic acid, as well as other compounds that also may have modest anti-cholesterol effects. Some researchers and marketers claim that flaxseed and its oil are special—that their health effects are greater than those of other seeds and oils, but research on this has been inconsistent.
Some early studies found that fatty fish lowers cholesterol, but most later ones have not. If you substitute fish for meat (or for other sources of saturated fat), you’ll lower your cholesterol. When researchers control for saturated fat intake, the effect of fish on cholesterol often turns out to be minimal, at best. Fish can, however, lower triglycerides, the major type of fat that circulates in the blood. And there are other ways that fish may help promote heart health.
Probably the No.1 claim made for garlic is that it lowers blood cholesterol. Studies using raw garlic or supplements have been inconsistent, but the better ones have found little or no effect on cholesterol. Despite the deluge of advertising, wishful thinking, and misinformation, there’s no clear evidence that garlic improves heart health.
None of these foods, even the best, are magic bullets against blood cholesterol that will cancel out the adverse effects of an otherwise unhealthy diet. Add them to a good diet, along with increased exercise, and you’ll get the biggest cholesterol-lowering effect—along with other health benefits. For the greatest effect, eat them instead of foods high in saturated fat, trans fat, or highly refined carbohydrates.