Heart disease is the world’s leading cause of death.
Having high cholesterol levels — especially “bad” LDL — is linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
Low “good” HDL cholesterol and high triglycerides are also linked to increased risk.
Your diet has a powerful effect on your cholesterol and other risk factors.
Here are 13 foods that can lower cholesterol and improve other risk factors for heart disease.
Legumes, also known as pulses, are a group of plant foods that include beans, peas, and lentils.
Legumes contain a lot of fiber, minerals, and protein. Replacing some refined grains and processed meats in your diet with legumes can lower your risk of heart disease.
A review of 26 randomized controlled studies showed that eating a 1/2 cup (100 grams) of legumes per day is effective at lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol by an average of 6.6 mg/dl, compared to not eating legumes.
Other studies link pulses to weight loss — even in diets that do not restrict calories.
Summary: Legumes like beans, peas, and lentils can help lower “bad” LDL levels and are a good source of plant-based protein.
Avocados are an exceptionally nutrient-dense fruit.
They’re a rich source of monounsaturated fats and fiber — two nutrients that help lower “bad” LDL and raise “good” HDL cholesterol.
Clinical studies support the cholesterol-lowering effect of avocados.
In one study, overweight and obese adults with high LDL cholesterol who ate one avocado daily lowered their LDL levels more than those who didn’t eat avocados.
An analysis of 10 studies determined that substituting avocados for other fats was linked to lower total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides.
Summary: Avocados provide monounsaturated fatty acids and fiber, two heart-healthy and cholesterol-lowering nutrients.
3. Nuts — Especially almonds and walnuts
Nuts are another exceptionally nutrient-dense food.
They’re very high in monounsaturated fats. Walnuts are also rich in the plant variety of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat associated with heart health.
Almonds and other nuts are particularly rich in L-arginine, an amino acid that helps your body make nitric oxide. This, in turn, helps regulate blood pressure.
What’s more, nuts provide phytosterols. These plant compounds are structurally similar to cholesterol and help lower cholesterol by blocking its absorption in your intestines.
Calcium, magnesium, and potassium, also found in nuts, may reduce blood pressure and lower your risk of heart disease.
In an analysis of 25 studies, eating 2–3 servings of nuts per day decreased “bad” LDL cholesterol by an average of 10.2 mg/dl.
Eating a daily serving of nuts is linked to a 28% lower risk of both fatal and nonfatal heart disease.
Summary: Nuts are rich in cholesterol-lowering fats and fiber, as well as minerals linked to improved heart health.
4. Fatty fish
Fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel, are excellent sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3s bolster heart health by increasing “good” HDL cholesterol and lowering inflammation and stroke risk.
In one large, 25-year study of adults, those who ate the most non-fried fish were the least likely to develop metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms that includes high blood pressure and low “good” HDL levels.
In another large study in older adults, those who ate tuna or other baked or broiled fish at least once a week had a 27% lower risk of stroke.
Keep in mind that the healthiest ways to cook fish are steaming or stewing. Fried fish may increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Fish is a major part of the Mediterranean diet, which has been extensively studied for its benefits on heart health.
Some of the heart-protective benefits of fish may also come from certain peptides found in fish protein.
Summary: Fatty fish offers high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and is linked to a decreased risk of heart disease and stroke.
5. Whole grains — Especially oats and barley
Extensive research ties whole grains to lower heart disease risk.
A review of 45 studies linked eating three servings of whole grains daily to a 20% lower risk of heart disease and stroke. Benefits were even greater when people ate more servings — up to seven — of whole grains per day.
Whole grains keep all parts of the grain intact, which provides them with more vitamins, minerals, plant compounds, and fiber than refined grains.
While all whole grains may promote heart health, two grains are particularly noteworthy:
- Oats: Contain beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber that helps lower cholesterol. Eating oats may lower total cholesterol by 5% and “bad” LDL cholesterol by 7%.
- Barley: Rich in beta-glucans and can help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol.
Summary: Whole grains are linked to a lower risk of heart disease. Oats and barley provide beta-glucan, a soluble fiber that is very effective at lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol.
6. Fruits and berries
Fruit is an excellent addition to a heart-healthy diet for several reasons.
Many types of fruit are rich in soluble fiber, which helps lower cholesterol levels.
It does this by encouraging your body to get rid of cholesterol and stopping your liver from producing this compound.
One kind of soluble fiber called pectin lowers cholesterol by up to 10%. It’s found in fruits including apples, grapes, citrus fruits, and strawberries.
Fruit also contains bioactive compounds that help prevent heart disease and other chronic diseases due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Eating berries and grapes, which are particularly rich sources of these plant compounds, can help increase “good” HDL and lower “bad” LDL cholesterol.
Summary: Fruit can help lower cholesterol and improve heart health. This is largely caused by its fiber and antioxidants.
7. Dark chocolate and cocoa
Cocoa is the main ingredient in dark chocolate.
It may seem too good to be true, but research verifies the claims that dark chocolate and cocoa can lower “bad” LDL cholesterol.
In one study, healthy adults drank a cocoa beverage twice a day for a month.
They experienced a reduction in “bad” LDL cholesterol of 0.17 mmol/l (6.5 mg/dl). Their blood pressure also decreased and their “good” HDL cholesterol increased.
Cocoa and dark chocolate also seem to protect the “bad” LDL cholesterol in your blood from oxidation, which is a key cause of heart disease.
However, chocolate is often high in added sugar — which negatively affects heart health.
Therefore, you should use cocoa alone or choose dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 75–85% or higher.
Summary: Flavonoids in dark chocolate and cocoa can help lower blood pressure and “bad” LDL cholesterol while raising “good” HDL cholesterol.
Garlic has been used for centuries as an ingredient in cooking and as a medicine.
It contains various powerful plant compounds, including allicin, its main active compound.
Studies suggest that garlic lowers blood pressure in people with elevated levels and may help lower total and “bad” LDL cholesterol — although the latter effect is less strong.
Because relatively large amounts of garlic are needed to achieve this heart-protective effect, many studies utilize aged supplements — which are considered more effective than other garlic preparations.
Summary: Allicin and other plant compounds in garlic may help lower LDL cholesterol and reduce other heart disease risk factors.
9. Soy foods
Soybeans are a type of legume that may be beneficial for heart health.
While study results have been inconsistent, recent research is positive.
An analysis of 35 studies linked soy foods to reduced “bad” LDL and total cholesterol, as well as increased “good” HDL cholesterol.
The effect seems strongest in people with high cholesterol.
Summary: There is some evidence that soy foods can reduce heart disease risk factors, especially in people with high cholesterol.
Vegetables are a vital part of a heart-healthy diet.
They’re rich in fiber and antioxidants and low in calories, which is necessary for maintaining a healthy weight.
Some vegetables are particularly high in pectin, the same cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber that occurs in apples and oranges.
Pectin-rich vegetables also include okra, eggplants, carrots, and potatoes.
Vegetables also deliver a range of plant compounds that offer many health benefits, including protection against heart disease.
Summary: Vegetables are high in fiber and antioxidants and low in calories, making them a heart-healthy choice.
Tea harbors many plant compounds that improve your heart health.
While green tea gets a lot of attention, black tea and white tea have similar properties and health effects.
Two of the primary beneficial compounds in tea are:
- Catechins: Help activate nitric oxide, which is important for healthy blood pressure. They also inhibit cholesterol synthesis and absorption and help prevent blood clots.
- Quercetin: May improve blood vessel function and lower inflammation.
Though most studies associate tea with lower total and “bad” LDL cholesterol, research is mixed on its effects on “good” HDL cholesterol and blood pressure.
Summary: Drinking tea may help lower cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease.
12. Dark leafy greens
While all vegetables are good for your heart, dark leafy greens are particularly beneficial.
Dark leafy greens, such as kale and spinach, contain lutein and other carotenoids, which are linked to a lower risk of heart disease.
Carotenoids act as antioxidants to get rid of harmful free radicals that can lead to hardened arteries.
Dark leafy greens may also help lower cholesterol levels by binding to bile acids and making your body excrete more cholesterol.
One study suggested that lutein lowers levels of oxidized “bad” LDL cholesterol and could help prevent cholesterol from binding to artery walls.
Summary: Dark leafy greens are rich in carotenoids, including lutein, which is linked to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.
13. Extra virgin olive oil
One of the most important foods in the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet is extra virgin olive oil.
One five-year study gave older adults at risk of heart disease 4 tablespoons (60 ml) a day of extra virgin olive oil alongside a Mediterranean diet.
The olive oil group had a 30% lower risk of major heart events, such as stroke and heart attack, compared to people who followed a low-fat diet.
Olive oil is a rich source of monounsaturated fatty acids, the kind that may help raise “good” HDL and lower “bad” LDL cholesterol.
It is also a source of polyphenols, some of which reduce the inflammation that can drive heart disease.
Summary: Olive oil, a primary component of the Mediterranean diet, provides monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants that boost your heart.
High cholesterol levels are a major risk factor for heart disease.
Thankfully, you can lower this risk by incorporating certain foods into your diet.
Upping your intake of these foods will put you on the path to a balanced diet and keep your heart healthy.
You can also practice techniques like mindful eating to make sure you’re enjoying your meal and getting full without overdoing it.