How to lower your cholesterol

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that’s found in all the cells in your body. Cholesterol is produced by your body and also found in some foods. Your body needs some cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D and substances that help you digest foods. Cholesterol comes from two sources. Your liver makes all of the cholesterol your body needs to form cell membranes and to make certain hormones. Cholesterol is also found in foods from animal sources, such as egg yolks, meat, and cheese, which is called dietary cholesterol. Although we often blame the cholesterol found in foods that we eat for raising blood cholesterol, the main culprit is actually saturated fat. Foods rich in saturated fat include butter fat in milk products, fat from red meat, and tropical oils such as coconut oil.

Cholesterol travels to cells through your bloodstream in special carriers called lipoproteins. Two of the most important lipoproteins are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).

There are different types of cholesterol:

  • HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein or HDL-C (high-density lipoprotein cholesterol). HDL is sometimes called “good cholesterol” because it carries harmful cholesterol from other parts of your body including your arteries back to your liver. Your liver then removes the cholesterol from your body and helps protect you from heart attack and stroke. A healthy HDL-cholesterol level may protect against heart attack and stroke. If you have low HDL levels, you have a greater heart disease risk, even if your total cholesterol is below 200 mg/dL. Your doctor will evaluate your HDL and other cholesterol levels and other factors to assess your risk for heart attack or stroke. People with high blood triglycerides usually also have lower levels of HDL. Genetic factors, Type 2 diabetes, smoking, being overweight and being sedentary can all lower HDL cholesterol. Women tend to have higher levels of HDL cholesterol than men do, because the female hormone estrogen raises HDL, but this can change after menopause.
  • LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein or LDL-C (low-density lipoprotein cholesterol). LDL is sometimes called “bad cholesterol” because a high LDL level leads to the buildup of plaque in your arteries. LDL is the most important lipid for predicting your heart disease risk. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL or ‘bad’) cholesterol can join with fats and other substances to build up (also known as plaque) in the inner walls of your arteries, which starts a disease process called atherosclerosis. The arteries can become clogged and narrow, and blood flow is reduced. When plaque builds up in your coronary arteries that supply blood to your heart, you are at greater risk of having a heart attack. Since LDL is the bad kind of cholesterol, a low LDL level is considered good for your heart health. A diet high in saturated and trans fat is unhealthy because it tends to raise LDL cholesterol levels. Your LDL levels may be high if you eat a diet with a lot of saturated fat, cholesterol, or both. Sometimes, an under-active thyroid (called hypothyroidism) may also increase LDL levels.
  • VLDL stands for very low-density lipoprotein or VLDL-C (very low-density lipoprotein cholesterol). Some people also call VLDL a “bad cholesterol” because it too contributes to the buildup of plaque in your arteries. But VLDL and LDL are different; VLDL mainly carries triglycerides and LDL mainly carries cholesterol. VLDL particles are released into the blood by the liver and circulate in the bloodstream, ultimately being converted into LDL as they lose triglyceride, having carried it to other parts of the body. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s National Cholesterol Education Program Guidelines ATP III, there is growing evidence that VLDL plays an important role in atherogenesis, in which plaques form on the interior walls of arteries, narrowing these passageways and restricting blood flow, which can lead to heart disease and increase the risk of stroke. Currently, direct measurement of VLDL cholesterol requires specialized testing. However, since VLDL-C contains most of the circulating triglyceride (if a person is fasting) and since the composition of the different particles is relatively constant, it is possible to estimate the amount of VLDL-C based on the triglyceride value. To estimate VLDL-C, divide the triglyceride value by 5 if the value is in mg/dL or divide by 2.2 if the value is in mmol/L. In most cases, this formula provides a good estimate of VLDL-C. However, this formula becomes less accurate with increased triglyceride levels when, for example, a person has not fasted before having blood drawn. The calculation is not valid when the triglyceride level is greater than 400 mg/dl (4.5 mmol/L) because other lipoproteins are usually present. In this situation, VLDL-C may be measured directly using specialized testing.
  • Triglycerides. Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in your blood. Triglycerides come from food, and your body also makes them. When you eat, your body converts calories it doesn’t need into triglycerides, which are stored in fat cells. Triglycerides are fats that provide energy for your muscles. If you eat foods with a lot of saturated fat or carbohydrates, you will raise your triglyceride levels. High triglyceride levels are associated with several factors, including being overweight, eating too many sweets or drinking too much alcohol, smoking, being sedentary, or having diabetes with elevated blood sugar levels. Elevated triglycerides levels are thought to lead to a greater risk of heart disease, but scientists do not agree that high triglycerides alone are a risk factor for heart disease. Normal triglyceride levels vary by age and sex. People with high triglycerides often have a high total cholesterol level, including a high LDL (bad) cholesterol level and a low HDL (good) cholesterol level. Many people with metabolic syndrome or diabetes also have high triglyceride levels. Extremely high triglyceride levels (more than 1000 mg/dL) can lead to abdominal pain and a life-threatening disorder of the pancreas called pancreatitis. Factors that can contribute to elevated triglyceride levels:
    • Overweight or obesity
    • Insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome
    • Diabetes mellitus, especially with poor glucose control
    • Alcohol consumption, especially in excess
    • Excess sugar intake, especially from processed foods
    • High saturated fat intake
    • Hypothyroidism
    • Chronic kidney disease
    • Physical inactivity
    • Pregnancy (especially in the third trimester)
    • Inflammatory diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus
    • Some medications may also increase triglycerides.

You can find out the levels of these in your blood and also your total cholesterol level with a cholesterol or lipid profile blood test. If you are concerned about your cholesterol level, talk to your doctor. You will need to stop eating for 10 to 12 hours before a cholesterol or lipid profile blood test, and the only liquid you may drink is water.

Blood cholesterol levels, which tell how much lipid or fat is in your blood, are expressed in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). In general, you want to have a cholesterol level below 200 mg/dL (or 5.18 mmol/L). Between 200 mg/dL and 239 mg/dL, your cholesterol level is elevated or borderline-high and should be lowered if you can. With a level of 240 mg/dL or above, your cholesterol level is high, and there is a need for action. For example, changing your diet, beginning an exercise program, and taking statins or other cholesterol-lowering medicines are all ways to lower your cholesterol level.

Table 1. Desirable Cholesterol Levels

Desirable Cholesterol Levels
Total cholesterolLess than 200 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL) or 5.18 mmol/L
LDL (“bad” cholesterol)Less than 100 mg/dL (2.59 mmol/L)
HDL (“good” cholesterol)60 mg/dL (1.55 mmol/L) or higher
TriglyceridesLess than 150 mg/dL (1.70 mmol/L)


Total blood (or serum) cholesterol is a composite of different measurements. Your total blood cholesterol is calculated by adding your HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, plus 20% of your triglyceride level.

Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in your blood. Triglycerides come from food, and your body also makes them. When you eat, your body converts calories it doesn’t need into triglycerides, which are stored in fat cells. High triglyceride levels are associated with several factors, including being overweight, eating too many sweets or drinking too much alcohol, smoking, being sedentary, or having diabetes with elevated blood sugar levels.

“Normal ranges” are less important than your overall cardiovascular risk. Like HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, your total blood cholesterol level should be considered in context with your other known risk factors.

Your doctor can recommend treatment approaches accordingly.

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According to the American Heart Association, more than 43% of American adults have cholesterol levels of 200 mg/dL or higher.

The risk of high cholesterol, or hypercholesterolemia, tends to be greater as you age, and the condition affects more women than men. Obesity of any kind, lack of physical activity, and diabetes are other important risk factors.

Some foods are also high in saturated and trans fats. These fats cause your liver to make more cholesterol than it otherwise would. For some people, this added production means they go from a normal cholesterol level to one that’s unhealthy.

Some tropical oils – such as palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil – contain saturated fat that can increase bad cholesterol. These oils are often found in baked goods.

Cholesterol travels through your blood on proteins called lipoproteins. One type, LDL (low-density lipoprotein), is sometimes called the “bad” cholesterol. A high LDL level leads to a buildup of cholesterol in your arteries. Another type, HDL (high-density lipoprotein), is sometimes called the “good” cholesterol. HDL carries cholesterol from other parts of your body back to your liver. Then your liver removes the cholesterol from your body.

It’s important to keep your cholesterol in check because high cholesterol levels increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. A stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks blood flow to part of your brain. If you have too much cholesterol in your blood, it can combine with other substances in the blood to form plaque. Plaque sticks to the walls of your arteries. This buildup of plaque is known as atherosclerosis. It can lead to coronary artery disease, where your coronary arteries become narrow or even completely blocked, which can cause a heart attack (myocardial infarction). A heart attack occurs when your heart muscle tissue does not receive vital oxygen and nutrients.

Atherosclerosis (buildup of plaque in arteries) is the process that causes the artery wall to get thick and stiff. The disease process begins when LDL (“bad” cholesterol) deposits cholesterol in the artery wall. Your body has an immune response to protect itself and sends white blood cells called macrophages to engulf the invading cholesterol in the artery wall. When the macrophages are full of cholesterol, they are called foam cells because of their appearance. As more foam cells collect in the artery wall, a fatty streak develops between the intima and the media. If the process is not stopped, the fatty streak becomes a plaque, which pushes the intima into the lumen, narrowing the blood flow.

The plaque develops a fibrous coating on its outer edges. But if cholesterol continues to collect in foam cells inside the plaque, the fibrous outer coating can weaken and eventually rupture. Smaller arteries downstream from the rupture can quickly become blocked. Over time, a clot may develop at the rupture site and completely block the artery.

Evidence shows that the atherosclerotic process begins in childhood and progresses slowly into adulthood. Later in life, this often leads to coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.

To reduce your risk, it’s important to:

  • Quit cigarette smoking.
  • Do regular aerobic exercise.
  • Identify and treat high blood pressure.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Diagnose and treat diabetes.
  • Have a healthy diet.

High cholesterol is one of the major controllable risk factors for coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke. If you have other risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure or diabetes, your risk increases even more.

The more risk factors you have and the more severe they are, the higher your overall risk.

If you have high cholesterol, making lifestyle changes is a great first step to lower your risk of heart disease. If those steps don’t reduce your risk enough, your doctor may prescribe medications to help. The lifestyle changes include healthy eating, weight management, quitting if you smoke and regular physical activity.

Remember, making even modest changes now can help to prevent significant medical issues later. Do all you can to reduce your risk for the serious effects of heart attack and stroke.

If you have high LDL or total cholesterol, you can lower your risk of heart disease by:

  • quitting if you smoke
  • keeping your weight in a healthy range
  • limiting your alcohol and salt intake
  • aiming for at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days
  • managing stress.

Lifestyle changes

Lifestyle changes include:

  1. Eating a heart-healthy diet
  2. Becoming more physically active
  3. Quitting smoking
  4. Losing weight
  5. Manage stress

Eating a heart-healthy diet

From a dietary standpoint, the best way to lower your cholesterol is reduce your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 6% of daily calories and minimizing the amount of trans fat you eat.

Reducing these fats means limiting your intake of red meat and dairy products made with whole milk. Choose skim milk, low-fat or fat-free dairy products instead. It also means limiting fried food and cooking with healthy oils, such as vegetable oil.

A heart-healthy diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, fish, nuts and nontropical vegetable oils, while limiting red and processed meats, sodium and sugar-sweetened foods and beverages.

Many diets fit this general description. For example, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) eating plan promoted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute as well as diets suggested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Heart Association are heart-healthy approaches. Such diets can be adapted based on your cultural and food preferences.

Becoming more physically active

A sedentary lifestyle lowers HDL cholesterol. Less HDL means there’s less good cholesterol to remove bad cholesterol from your arteries.

Physical activity is important. At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week is enough to lower both cholesterol and high blood pressure. And you have lots of options: brisk walking, swimming, bicycling or even yard work can fit the bill.

Quitting smoking

Smoking and vaping lowers HDL cholesterol.

Worse still, when a person with unhealthy cholesterol levels also smokes, risk of coronary heart disease increases more than it otherwise would. Smoking also compounds the risk from other risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

By quitting, smokers can lower their LDL cholesterol and increase their HDL cholesterol levels. It can also help protect their arteries. Nonsmokers should avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.

Losing weight

Being overweight or obese tends to raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol. But a weight loss of as little as 5% to 10% can help improve cholesterol numbers. Losing even 5 to 10 pounds can help lower cholesterol levels.

Manage stress

Research has shown that chronic stress can sometimes raise your LDL cholesterol and lower your HDL cholesterol. Try to reduce your stress. You can do that by deep breathing and relaxation techniques. Examples include meditation and gentle exercise (such as walking or yoga). Also talking with a friend, family member, or health care professional may be helpful.

Medications for high cholesterol

Your doctor might suggest medication to help keep your cholesterol in the healthy range. The choice of medication or combination of medications depends on various factors, including your personal risk factors, your age, your health and possible drug side effects. Common choices include:

  • Statins. Statins block a substance your liver needs to make cholesterol. This causes your liver to remove cholesterol from your blood. Statins can also help your body reabsorb cholesterol from built-up deposits on your artery walls, potentially reversing coronary artery disease. Choices include atorvastatin (Lipitor), fluvastatin (Lescol XL), lovastatin (Altoprev), pitavastatin (Livalo), pravastatin (Pravachol), rosuvastatin (Crestor) and simvastatin (Zocor).
  • Bile-acid-binding resins. Your liver uses cholesterol to make bile acids, a substance needed for digestion. The medications cholestyramine (Prevalite), colesevelam (Welchol) and colestipol (Colestid) lower cholesterol indirectly by binding to bile acids. This prompts your liver to use excess cholesterol to make more bile acids, which reduces the level of cholesterol in your blood.
  • Cholesterol absorption inhibitors. Your small intestine absorbs the cholesterol from your diet and releases it into your bloodstream. The drug ezetimibe (Zetia) helps reduce blood cholesterol by limiting the absorption of dietary cholesterol. Ezetimibe can be used with a statin drug.
  • Nicotinic acid also called niacin or vitamin B3. Niacin is the generic name for nicotinic acid (pyridine-3-carboxylic acid), nicotinamide (niacinamide or pyridine-3-carboxamide), and related derivatives, such as nicotinamide riboside 2. Niacin is a water-soluble B vitamin that should be taken only under physician supervision. It improves all lipoproteins—total cholesterol, LDL, triglycerides, and HDL—when taken in doses well abovethe vitamin requirement. LDL levels are usually reduced by about 5–15 percent, and up to 25 percent in some patients.
  • Injectable medications. A newer class of drugs, known as PCSK9 inhibitors, can help the liver absorb more LDL cholesterol — which lowers the amount of cholesterol circulating in your blood. Alirocumab (Praluent) and evolocumab (Repatha) might be used for people who have a genetic condition that causes very high levels of LDL or in people with a history of coronary disease who have intolerance to statins or other cholesterol medications.
  • Fibrates. Fibrates mostly lower triglycerides and, to a lesser degree, raise HDL levels. Fibrates are less effective in lowering LDL levels.

If you are on such medication, you might need regular cholesterol tests to check that they are working well and that you are taking the right dose.

Experts from the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) say that more aggressive cholesterol treatment is needed for people at high risk of dying from a heart attack or cardiovascular disease. The basic message of the group’s recommendations is the lower the better when it comes to levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad cholesterol.” The updated recommendations say that almost all high-risk patients with LDL cholesterol levels of 100 mg/dL or higher should begin taking cholesterol-lowering medicine.

Alternative medicine

Few natural products have been proved to reduce cholesterol, but some might be helpful. With your doctor’s OK, consider these cholesterol-lowering supplements and products:

  • Barley
  • Plant sterols and stanols, found in oral supplements, some fortified orange juices and some margarines, such as Promise Activ
  • Blond psyllium, found in seed husk and products such as Metamucil
  • Oat bran, found in oatmeal and whole oats

Another popular cholesterol-lowering supplement is red yeast rice. There is evidence that red yeast rice can help lower your LDL cholesterol. Some red yeast rice products contain substances called monacolins, which are produced by the yeast. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that red yeast rice products that contain monacolin K, a naturally occurring form of the prescription cholesterol-lowering drug lovastatin and can cause the same types of side effects and drug interactions as lovastatin, cannot be sold legally as dietary supplements in the United States. Other red yeast rice products contain little or no monacolin K, and it is not known whether these products have any effect on cholesterol levels. Unfortunately, there is no way to know how much monacolin K is present in most red yeast rice products.

If you buy red yeast rice supplements in the United States, there’s no way to know whether you’re getting enough monacolin K to lower your LDL cholesterol. In other countries, lovastatin in red yeast rice products is potentially dangerous because there’s no way to know how much might be in a particular product or what the quality of the lovastatin is.

  • Flaxseed. Studies of flaxseed preparations to lower cholesterol levels report mixed results. A 2009 review of the scientific research of flaxseed for lowering cholesterol found modest improvements in cholesterol, seen more often in postmenopausal women and in people with high initial cholesterol concentrations.
  • Garlic. Some evidence indicates that taking garlic supplements can slightly lower blood cholesterol levels. A recent review of the research on garlic supplements concluded that they can lower cholesterol if taken for more than 2 months, but their effect is modest in comparison with the effects of cholesterol-lowering drugs. However, a National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health-funded study on the safety and effectiveness of three garlic preparations (fresh garlic, dried powdered garlic tablets, and aged garlic extract tablets) for lowering blood cholesterol levels found no effect. Although garlic supplements appear to be safe for most adults, they can thin the blood in a manner similar to aspirin, so use caution if you are planning to have surgery or dental work. Garlic supplements have also been found to interfere with the effectiveness of saquinavir, a drug used to treat HIV infection.
  • Some soy products can have a small cholesterol-lowering effect. An analysis of data from 35 studies indicated that soy foods were more effective in lowering cholesterol than soy protein supplements and that isoflavones (substances in soy that have a weak estrogenic effect) did not lower cholesterol. The effect of soy is much smaller than that of cholesterol-lowering drugs.
  • Limited evidence indicates that green tea may have a cholesterol-lowering effect. The evidence on black tea is less consistent.
  • Chromium, vitamin C, artichoke extract, the herb Hibiscus sabdariffa, coenzyme Q10, and selenium have been studied for cholesterol but have not been found to be effective. Research findings don’t show clear evidence regarding the cholesterol-lowering effects of policosanol (derived from sugar cane) and guggulipid (from the mukul mirth tree in western India).

Even if you take cholesterol-lowering supplements, remember the importance of a healthy lifestyle, and take medication to reduce your cholesterol as directed. Tell your doctor which supplements you take.

How is high cholesterol diagnosed?

There are usually no signs or symptoms that you have high cholesterol. A blood test is the only way to detect if you have it. Lipid profile or lipid panel is a blood test that will give you results for your HDL (good) cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, triglycerides and total blood (or serum) cholesterol. When and how often you should get this test depends on your age, risk factors, and family history. The general recommendations are:

The American Heart Association recommends all adults age 20 or older with no other risk factors for heart disease should have their cholesterol (and other traditional risk factors) checked every four to six years. If certain factors put you at high risk, or if you already have heart disease, your doctor may ask you to check it more often. Work with your doctor to determine your risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke and create a plan to reduce your risk.

If you have risk factors or if previous testing showed that you had a high cholesterol level, more frequent testing with a full lipid panel is recommended.

Examples of risk factors other than high LDL include:

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Being physically inactive—not getting enough exercise
  • Age (if you are a male 45 years or older or a female 50-55 years or older)
  • Hypertension (blood pressure of 140/90 or higher or taking high blood pressure medications)
  • Family history of premature heart disease (heart disease in a first-degree male relative under age 55 or a first-degree female relative under age 65)
  • Pre-existing heart disease or already having had a heart attack
  • Diabetes or prediabetes

For people who are age 20 or older:

  • Younger adults should have the test every 5 years
  • Men ages 45 to 65 and women ages 55 to 65 should have it every 1 to 2 years.

Children, teens, and young adults (ages 2 to 24 years old) with no risk factors should have a lipid panel once between the ages of 9 and 11 and again between 17 and 21, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

For people who are age 19 or younger:

  • The first test should be between ages 9 to 11
  • Children should have the test again every 5 years
  • Some children may have this test starting at age 2 if there is a family history of high blood cholesterol, heart attack, or stroke.

Children, teens, and young adults with an increased risk of developing heart disease as adults should have earlier and more frequent screening with lipid panels. Some of the risk factors are similar to those in adults and include a family history of heart disease or health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or being overweight. High-risk children should be tested between 2 and 8 years old with a fasting lipid panel, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Children younger than 2 years old are too young to be tested.

Can I test my cholesterol at home?

There are tests available to use at home to measure total cholesterol. You prick your finger and put blood on a piece of paper that will change color based on your cholesterol level (or use your blood and a small device to do the same thing).

There are also kits available that have you collect a blood sample at home and then mail it to a reference laboratory, which will then perform a lipid panel and send the results back to you.

How can I lower my cholesterol?

You can lower your cholesterol through heart-healthy lifestyle changes. They include a heart-healthy eating plan, weight management, and regular physical activity.

If the lifestyle changes alone do not lower your cholesterol enough, you may also need to take medicines. There are several types of cholesterol-lowering drugs available, including statins. If you take medicines to lower your cholesterol, you still should continue with the lifestyle changes.

Some people with familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) may receive a treatment called lipoprotein apheresis. This treatment uses a filtering machine to remove LDL cholesterol from the blood. Then the machine returns the rest of the blood back to the person.

Causes of high cholesterol

Your body naturally produces all the LDL (bad) cholesterol it needs.

The most common cause of high cholesterol is an unhealthy lifestyle. An unhealthy lifestyle makes your body produce more LDL cholesterol than it needs. This can include:

  • Unhealthy eating habits or unhealthy diet, such as eating lots of bad fats. One type, saturated fat, is found in some meats, dairy products, chocolate, baked goods, and deep-fried and processed foods. Another type, trans fat, is in some fried and processed foods. Eating these fats can raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol.
  • Lack of physical activity, with lots of sitting and little exercise. This lowers your HDL (good) cholesterol.
  • Smoking or exposure to tobacco smoke, which lowers HDL cholesterol, especially in women. It also raises your LDL cholesterol.
  • Being overweight or obese.

Genetics may also cause people to have high cholesterol. For example, some people inherit genes from their mother, father or even grandparents that cause them to have too much cholesterol. This is called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH). The severity of familial hypercholesterolemia is related to the duration and degree of LDL cholesterol in the blood. Familial hypercholesterolemia is dangerous because it can cause premature atherosclerotic heart disease. Other medical conditions and certain medicines may also cause high cholesterol. If you have a family history of familial hypercholesterolemia or problems related to high cholesterol, get your levels checked.

What can raise my risk of high cholesterol?

Factors that can increase your risk of bad cholesterol include:

  • Poor diet. Eating saturated fat, found in animal products, and trans fats, found in some commercially baked cookies and crackers and microwave popcorn, can raise your cholesterol level. Foods that are high in cholesterol, such as red meat and full-fat dairy products, will also increase your cholesterol.
  • Age. Your cholesterol levels tend to rise as you get older. For instance, as you age, your liver becomes less able to remove LDL cholesterol. Even though it is less common, younger people, including children and teens, can also have high cholesterol.
  • Heredity. High blood cholesterol can run in families.
  • Weight. Being overweight or having obesity raises your cholesterol level. Having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater puts you at risk of high cholesterol.
  • Race. Certain races may have an increased risk of high cholesterol. For example, African Americans typically have higher HDL and LDL cholesterol levels than whites.
  • Lack of exercise. Being physically inactive contributes to overweight and can raise LDL and lower HDL. Exercise helps boost your body’s HDL, or “good,” cholesterol while increasing the size of the particles that make up your LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, which makes it less harmful.
  • Smoking. Cigarette smoking damages the walls of your blood vessels, making them more prone to accumulate fatty deposits. Smoking might also lower your level of HDL, or “good,” cholesterol.
  • Diabetes. High blood sugar contributes to higher levels of a dangerous cholesterol called very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) and lower HDL cholesterol. High blood sugar also damages the lining of your arteries.

Low cholesterol diet

Diet can play an important role in lowering your cholesterol. To lower your cholesterol levels, follow these healthy diet tips.

Healthy diet

You can lower cholesterol over time by eating fewer of the foods that cause high cholesterol and more of the foods that lower cholesterol. The DASH eating plan is one example. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. DASH diet is an eating plan that is based on research studies sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Clinical studies have shown that DASH diet lowers high blood pressure and improves levels of cholesterol. This reduces your risk of getting heart disease. Other lifestyle changes can help lower your blood pressure. They include staying at a healthy weight, exercising, and not smoking.

The DASH eating plan:

  • Emphasizes vegetables, fruits, and whole-grains
  • Includes fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and vegetable oils
  • Limits foods that are high in saturated fat. These foods include fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils such as coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils.
  • Limits sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets

Another example of a heart-healthy diet is the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet is similar to other heart-healthy diets. It promotes foods such as fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. It does not include many meats, dairy products, or sweets. In other ways, the Mediterranean diet is different. For example, it allows for more calories from fats, like olive oil. The Mediterranean diet also allows for moderate intake of wine.

Studies show that the Mediterranean diet has many health benefits. These are greater when combined with exercise. The Mediterranean diet can help you lose or maintain weight. It also helps to manage your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. In older adults, it can improve your brain function. Following the Mediterranean diet may also protect against some chronic diseases, such as:

  • heart disease
  • cancer
  • type 2 diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease

You can integrate the Mediterranean diet into your lifestyle.

A heart-healthy diet limits some nutrients.

You should also limit both total fat and saturated fat. No more than 25 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from dietary fats, and less than 7 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fat. Depending upon how many calories you eat per day, here are the maximum amounts of fats that you should eat:

Table 2. Maximum amounts of total fat and saturated fat in your diet, based on calories

Calories per DayTotal FatSaturated Fat
150042-58 grams10 grams
200056-78 grams13 grams
250069-97 grams17 grams

Saturated fat is a bad fat because it raises your LDL (bad cholesterol) level more than anything else in your diet. Saturated fat is usually solid at room and refrigerator temperatures. Saturated fat is found in some meats, dairy products, chocolate, baked goods, butter, lard, and coconut and palm oils and deep-fried and processed foods.

  • Foods that are high in saturated fat include:
    • meat pies
    • sausages and fatty cuts of meat
    • butter
    • lard
    • cream
    • hard cheese
    • cakes and biscuits
    • foods that contain coconut or palm oil

Try to replace foods containing saturated fats with foods that are high in unsaturated fats, such as:

  • avocados or olives
  • oily fish (for example, mackerel and salmon)
  • nuts (for example, almonds and cashews)
  • seeds (for example, sunflower and pumpkin)
  • vegetable oils and spreads (for example, sunflower, olive, corn, walnut and rapeseed oils)

Trans fat also known as trans fatty acids or “partially hydrogenated oils” is another bad fat; it can raise your LDL (bad cholesterol) and lower your HDL (good cholesterol). Trans fat is mostly in foods made with hydrogenated oils and fats, such as stick margarine, crackers, and french fries. Trans fats are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. Instead of these bad fats, try healthier fats, such as lean meat, nuts, and unsaturated oils like canola, olive, and safflower oils.

Limit foods with cholesterol. If you are trying to lower your cholesterol, you should have less than 200 mg a day of cholesterol. Cholesterol is in foods of animal origin, such as liver and other organ meats, egg yolks, shrimp, and whole milk dairy products. Choose reduced fat dairy foods such as milk (preferably unflavored), yogurt (preferably unflavored) and cheese. You can eat smaller amounts of eggs and lean poultry but limit red meat to 1-3 times a week.

Eat plenty of soluble fiber. Fiber comes from plants. Your body can’t really digest it or absorb it into your bloodstream—your body isn’t nourished by it. But it is vital for your good health. Foods high in soluble fiber help prevent your digestive tract from absorbing cholesterol. Furthermore, eating foods rich in fiber can help you feel full on fewer calories, which makes it a good food choice if you need to lose weight. These foods include:

  • Whole-grain cereals such as oatmeal, oats and oat bran
  • Fruits such as apples, bananas, oranges, pears, and prunes
  • Legumes such as kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, and lima beans

Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can increase important cholesterol-lowering compounds in your diet. These compounds, called plant stanols or sterols, work like soluble fiber. Aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day.

Eat fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids won’t lower your LDL level, but they may help raise your HDL level. They may also protect your heart from blood clots and inflammation and reduce your risk of heart attack. Fish that are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, tuna (canned or fresh), and mackerel. Try to eat these fish two times a week. Omega-3 fats are also found in some plant sources, such as walnuts, canola and soybean oils, and flaxseed. In some studies, people who ate fish had a reduced death rate from heart disease. It is possible that this is related to the effects of omega-3 fats, which may help prevent blood clots from forming and inflammation from affecting artery walls. Omega-3 fats also may reduce the risk for heart rhythm problems and, at high doses, reduce triglyceride levels. Studies have suggested that omega-3 fats reduce the risk for heart attack and death from heart disease for those who already have heart disease. Based on what is now known, try to have about two fish meals every week.

Limit salt (sodium). You should try to limit the amount of sodium (salt) that you eat to no more than 2,300 milligrams (about 1 teaspoon of salt) a day. That includes all the sodium you eat, whether it was added in cooking or at the table, or already present in food products. Limiting salt won’t lower your cholesterol, but it can lower your risk of heart diseases by helping to lower your blood pressure. You can reduce your sodium by instead choosing low-salt and “no added salt” foods and seasonings at the table or while cooking. Flavor your foods with herbs and spices rather than salt, and avoid processed foods, prepackaged foods, sauces and canned foods as these contain a lot of salt too.

Avoid added sugar. Sweetened drinks, snacks, and sweet treats are the main source of added sugars in the United States. These include sodas, sweetened coffee and tea, energy drinks, cakes, pies, ice cream, candy, syrups, and jellies. Limit these types of foods and drinks.

Reading the Nutrition labels on foods you buy and eat can help you figure out how much fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, fiber, added sugar and sodium is in the foods that you buy.

Limit alcohol. Alcohol adds extra calories, which can lead to weight gain. Being overweight can raise your LDL level and lower your HDL level. Too much alcohol can also increase your risk of heart diseases because it can raise your blood pressure and triglyceride level. One drink is a glass of wine, beer, or a small amount of hard liquor, and the recommendation is that:

  • Men should have no more than two drinks containing alcohol a day
  • Women should have no more than one drink containing alcohol a day.

Reduce saturated fat in meat and poultry

The American Heart Association recommends a diet that emphasizes fish and poultry and limits red meat. The amount of saturated fat in meats can vary widely, depending on the cut and how it’s prepared.

Here are some ways to reduce the saturated fat in meat:

  • Select lean cuts of meat with minimal visible fat. Lean beef cuts include the round, chuck, sirloin or loin. Lean pork cuts include the tenderloin or loin chop. Lean lamb cuts come from the leg, arm and loin.
  • Buy “choice” or “select” grades rather than “prime.” Select lean or extra lean ground beef.
  • Trim all visible fat from meat before cooking.
  • Broil rather than pan-fry meats such as hamburger, lamb chops, pork chops and steak.
  • Use a rack to drain off fat when broiling, roasting or baking. Instead of basting with drippings, keep meat moist with wine, fruit juices or a heart-healthy oil-based marinade.
  • Cook a day ahead of time. Stews, boiled meat, soup stock or other dishes in which fat cooks into the liquid can be refrigerated. Later, remove the hardened fat from the top.
  • When a recipe calls for browning the meat first, try browning it under the broiler instead of in a pan.
  • Eat chicken and turkey rather than duck and goose, which are usually higher in fat. Choose white meat most often when eating poultry.
  • Remove the skin from chicken or turkey before cooking. If your poultry dries out too much, first try basting with wine, fruit juices or a heart-healthy oil-based marinade. Or leave the skin on for cooking and then remove it before eating.
  • Limit processed meats such as sausage, bologna, salami and hot dogs. Many processed meats – even those with “reduced fat” labels – are high in calories and saturated fat. Such foods are often high in sodium, too. Read labels carefully and eat processed meats only occasionally.

Eat more fish

Fish can be fatty or lean, but it’s still low in saturated fat. Eat at least 8 ounces of non-fried fish each week. Choose oily fish such as salmon, trout and herring, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Prepare fish baked, broiled, grilled or boiled rather than breaded and fried, and without added salt, saturated fat or trans fat. Non-fried fish and shellfish, such as shrimp, crab and lobster, are low in saturated fat and are a healthy alternative to many cuts of meat and poultry.

Research has shown the health benefits of eating seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids, especially when it replaces less healthy proteins that are high in saturated fat and low in unsaturated fat. Including seafood high in omega-3 fatty acids as part of a heart-healthy diet can help reduce the risk of heart failure, coronary heart disease, cardiac arrest and the most common type of stroke (ischemic).

Eat less meat

Try meatless meals featuring vegetables or beans. For example, think eggplant lasagna, or instead of a burger, consider a big grilled portobello mushroom on a bun. Maybe substitute low-sodium beans for beans-n-franks. Or treat meat as a sparingly used ingredient, added mainly for flavor in casseroles, stews, low-sodium soups and spaghetti.

Eat more vegetables

A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that wholesome vegetarian diets offer distinct advantages compared to diets containing meat and other foods of animal origin. The benefits arise from lower intakes of saturated fat, cholesterol and animal protein as well as higher intakes of complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, vitamin C and E, carotenoids and other phytochemicals.

Try cooking vegetables in a tiny bit of vegetable oil and add a little water during cooking, if needed. Or use a vegetable oil spray. Just one or two teaspoons of oil is enough for a package of plain frozen vegetables that serves four. Place the vegetables in a skillet with a tight cover and cook them over very low heat until done.

Add herbs and spices to make vegetables even tastier. It’s a healthier choice than opting for pre-packaged vegetables with heavy sauce or seasonings. For example, these combinations add subtle and surprising flavors:

  • Rosemary with peas, cauliflower and squash
  • Oregano with zucchini
  • Dill with green beans
  • Marjoram with Brussels sprouts, carrots and spinach
  • Basil with tomatoes

Start with a small quantity of herbs and spices (1/8 to 1/2 teaspoon for a package of frozen vegetables), then let your family’s feedback be your guide. Chopped parsley and chives, sprinkled on just before serving, can also enhance the flavor of many vegetables.

Limiting saturated and trans fats

Here are some ways to lower your intake of saturated and trans fats:

  • Maintain a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts. Also limit red meat and sugar-sweetened foods and beverages.
  • Opt for naturally occurring unhydrogenated vegetable oils such as canola, safflower, sunflower or olive oil.
  • Look for processed foods made with unhydrogenated oil rather than saturated fat or hydrogenated (or partially hydrogenated) vegetable oils.
  • Use soft margarine as a substitute for butter and choose soft margarines (liquid or tub varieties) over harder stick forms. Look for “0 g trans fat” on the Nutrition Facts label.
  • Doughnuts, cookies, crackers, muffins, pies and cakes are examples of foods high in trans fat. Don’t eat them often.
  • Limit commercially fried foods and baked goods made with shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. These foods are very high in fat, and it’s likely to be trans fat.
  • Limit fried fast food. Commercial shortening and deep-frying fats are still made by hydrogenation and contain saturated and trans fats.

Consider using a food diary to keep track of what you eat. It’s a handy way to evaluate the healthy, not-so-healthy and unhealthy foods you’re making a part of your everyday diet.

Use liquid vegetable oils in place of solid fats

Liquid vegetable oils such as canola, safflower, sunflower, soybean and olive oil can often be used instead of solid fats, such as butter, lard or shortening. If you must use margarine, try the soft or liquid kind.

Use a little liquid oil to:

  • Pan-fry fish and poultry.
  • Sauté vegetables.
  • Make cream sauces and soups using low-fat or fat-free milk.
  • Add to whipped or scalloped potatoes using low-fat or fat-free milk.
  • Brown rice for Spanish, curried or stir-fried rice.
  • Cook dehydrated potatoes and other prepared foods that call for fat to be added.
  • Make pancakes or waffles.

Unsaturated fat

The two kinds of unsaturated fats are: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Monounsaturated fats have one (“mono”) unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule. Polyunsaturated fats have more than one (“poly,” for many) unsaturated carbon bonds. Both of these unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature.

Eaten in moderation, both kinds of unsaturated fats may help improve your blood cholesterol when used in place of saturated and trans fats.

Unsaturated fats are in fish, such as salmon, trout and herring, and plant-based foods such as avocados, olives and walnuts. Liquid vegetable oils, such as soybean, corn, safflower, canola, olive and sunflower, also contain unsaturated fats.

Puree fruits and veggies for baking

Pureed fruits or vegetables can be used in place of oil in muffin, cookie, cake and snack bar recipes to give your treats an extra healthy boost. For many recipes, use the specified amount of puree instead of oil. Check the mix’s package or your cookbook’s substitutions page for other conversions. You can:

  • Use applesauce in spice muffins or oatmeal cookies.
  • Include bananas in breads and muffins.
  • Try zucchini in brownies.

Lower dairy fats

Low-fat (1%) or fat-free (skim) milk can be used in many recipes in place of whole milk or half-and-half. (Some dishes, such as puddings, may result in a softer set.)

When it comes to cheeses used in recipes, you can substitute low-fat, low-sodium cottage cheese, part-skim milk mozzarella (or ricotta) cheese, and other low-fat, low-sodium cheeses with little or no change in consistency.

Increase fiber and whole grains

Fiber is a substance found in plants. Dietary fiber, the kind you eat, is found in fruits, vegetables, and grains. Your body cannot digest fiber, so it passes through your intestines without being absorbed much.

Dietary fiber adds bulk to your diet. Because it makes you feel full faster and for longer, it can help you with weight loss efforts or to maintain a healthy weight.

High fiber diets can also help with constipation.

Slowly increase the amount of fiber in your diet. If you have bloating or gas, you have probably eaten too much and need to reduce the amount of fiber you eat for a few days. Drink plenty of fluids. When you increase fiber in your diet, you also need to get enough fluids. Not getting enough fluids may make constipation worse instead of better. Ask your health care provider or a dietitian how much fluid you should be getting each day.

The daily recommended intake (DRI) of fiber for adults 19 to 50 years old is 38 grams a day for men and 25 grams a day for women. To get more fiber into your diet, eat different types of foods, such as:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains

Vegetables, Legumes, and Nuts

Vegetables are a good source of fiber. Eat more:

  • Lettuce, Swiss chard, raw carrots, and spinach
  • Tender cooked vegetables, such as asparagus, beets, mushrooms, turnips, and pumpkin
  • Baked potatoes and sweet potatoes with skin
  • Broccoli, artichokes, squashes, and string beans

You can also get more fiber by eating:

  • Legumes, such as lentils, black beans, split peas, kidney beans, lima beans, and chickpeas
  • Nuts and seeds, such as sunflower seeds, almonds, pistachios, and pecans


Fruits are another good source of fiber. Eat more:

  • Apples and bananas
  • Peaches and pears
  • Tangerines, prunes, and berries
  • Figs and other dried fruits


Grains are another important source of dietary fiber. Eat more:

  • Hot cereals, such as oatmeal and farina
  • Whole-grain breads
  • Brown rice
  • Popcorn
  • High-fiber cereals, such as bran, shredded wheat, and puffed wheat
  • Whole-wheat pastas
  • Bran muffins

Consider these heart-smart choices:

  • Toast and crush (or cube) fiber-rich whole-grain bread to make breadcrumbs, stuffing or croutons.
  • Replace the breadcrumbs in your meatloaf with uncooked oatmeal.
  • Serve whole fruit at breakfast in place of juice.
  • Use brown rice instead of white rice and try whole grain pasta.
  • Add lots of colorful veggies to your salad – carrots, broccoli and cauliflower are high in fiber and give your salad a delicious crunch.

Foods that lower cholesterol

Here are some foods to improve your cholesterol and protect your heart.

Oatmeal, oat bran and high-fiber foods

Oatmeal contains soluble fiber, which reduces your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the “bad” cholesterol. Soluble fiber is also found in such foods as kidney beans, Brussels sprouts, apples and pears.

Soluble fiber can reduce the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream. Five to 10 grams or more of soluble fiber a day decreases your LDL cholesterol. One serving of a breakfast cereal with oatmeal or oat bran provides 3 to 4 grams of fiber. If you add fruit, such as a banana or berries, you’ll get even more fiber.

Fish and omega-3 fatty acids

Fatty fish has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce your triglycerides — a type of fat found in blood — as well as reduce your blood pressure and risk of developing blood clots. In people who have already had heart attacks, omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of sudden death.

Omega-3 fatty acids don’t affect LDL cholesterol levels. But because of those acids’ other heart benefits, the American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fish a week. Baking or grilling the fish avoids adding unhealthy fats.

The highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids are in:

  • Mackerel
  • Herring
  • Tuna
  • Salmon
  • Trout

Foods such as walnuts, flaxseed and canola oil also have small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 and fish oil supplements are available. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplements.

Almonds and other nuts

Almonds, peanuts and other tree nuts can improve blood cholesterol. Walnuts are especially high in omega-3 fatty acids, the same heart-healthy fat found in oily fish, but are a lot easier to stash in your pocket or purse. A recent study concluded that a diet supplemented with walnuts can lower the risk of heart complications in people with history of a heart attack. All nuts are high in calories, so a handful added to a salad or eaten as a snack will do.

All nuts will go bad (rancid) in time so keep them in the fridge. The same goes for nut oils and nut butters in jars after you’ve opened them. Rancid nuts have an unpleasant smell and bitter taste.


Avocados are a potent source of nutrients as well as monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). Research suggests that adding an avocado a day to a heart-healthy diet can help improve LDL cholesterol levels in people who are overweight or obese.

People tend to be most familiar with avocados in guacamole, which usually is eaten with high-fat corn chips. Try adding avocado slices to salads and sandwiches or eating them as a side dish. Also try guacamole with raw cut vegetables, such as cucumber slices.

Replacing saturated fats, such as those found in meats, with MUFAs are part of what makes the Mediterranean diet heart healthy.

Olive oil

Try using olive oil in place of other fats in your diet. You can saute vegetables in olive oil, add it to a marinade or mix it with vinegar as a salad dressing. You can also use olive oil as a substitute for butter when basting meat or as a dip for bread.

Foods with added plant sterols or stanols

There is evidence that foods that contain certain added ingredients, such as plant sterols and stanols, can reduce levels of cholesterol in the blood. Sterols and stanols are substances found in plants that help block the absorption of cholesterol. Plant sterols and stanols are found in nuts, seeds and legumes, vegetable oils, breads and cereals, and fruits and vegetables. You need to eat 2 to 3 grams a day of plant sterols and stanols to assist in reducing high cholesterol. Eating more is not harmful, but you won’t get any additional benefits.

Foods that have been fortified with sterols or stanols are available.

Margarines, low-fat milks, low-fat yogurts and breakfast cereals, lower fat cheese, processed cheese and orange juice with added plant sterols can help reduce LDL cholesterol. Adding 2 grams of sterol to your diet every day can lower your LDL cholesterol by 5 to 15 percent. People who do not have high cholesterol should not eat these products regularly, particularly children and pregnant or breastfeeding women.

If you do eat foods that are designed to lower cholesterol, read the label carefully to avoid eating too much.

You should not eat foods fortified with plant sterols as a substitute for medication. You can use plant sterol-enriched foods while taking cholesterol medication, but check with your doctor first.

However, it’s not clear whether food with plant sterols or stanols reduces your risk of heart attack or stroke — although experts assume that foods that reduce cholesterol do reduce the risk. Plant sterols or stanols don’t appear to affect levels of triglycerides or of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol.

Whey protein

Whey protein, which is found in dairy products, may account for many of the health benefits attributed to dairy. Studies have shown that whey protein given as a supplement lowers both LDL and total cholesterol as well as blood pressure. You can find whey protein powders in health food stores and some grocery stores.

Limiting saturated fats and trans fats

Getting the full benefit of these foods requires other changes to your diet and lifestyle. One of the most beneficial changes is limiting the saturated and trans fats you eat.

  • Saturated fats — such as those in meat, butter, cheese and other full-fat dairy products — raise your total cholesterol. Decreasing your consumption of saturated fats to less than 7 percent of your total daily calorie intake can reduce your LDL cholesterol by 8 to 10 percent.
  • Trans fats, sometimes listed on food labels as “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil,” are often used in margarines and store-bought cookies, crackers and cakes. Trans fats raise overall cholesterol levels. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils by 1 January 2021.

High cholesterol foods

Some foods contain cholesterol. This type of cholesterol is called ‘dietary cholesterol’. Foods such as eggs and prawns are higher in dietary cholesterol than other foods.

The cholesterol found in food has much less effect on the level of cholesterol in your blood than the saturated fat you eat. The Heart Foundation recommends that you should limit eggs to 7 a week if you need to lower your LDL cholesterol.

If your doctor has advised you to change your diet to reduce the level of cholesterol in your blood, the most important thing to do is to cut down on saturated fat. It’s also a good idea to increase your intake of fruit, vegetables and fiber.

Foods to avoid with high cholesterol

You can lower cholesterol over time by eating fewer of the foods that cause high cholesterol and more of the foods that lower cholesterol.

Saturated fats are found in all animal foods and some plant sources. You can reduce the amount of saturated fat in your food and have a healthy diet.

The following foods may be high in saturated fats. Many of them are also low in nutrients and have extra calories from sugar:

  • Baked goods (cake, doughnuts, Danish)
  • Fried foods (fried chicken, fried seafood, French fries)
  • Fatty cuts of meat or processed meats (bacon, sausage, chicken with skin, cheeseburger, steak)
  • Whole-fat dairy products (butter, ice cream, pudding, cheese, whole milk)
  • Solid fats such as coconut oil, palm, and palm kernel oils (found in packaged foods)

Here are some examples of popular food items with the saturated fat content in a typical serving:

  • 12 ounces (oz) or 340 g, steak — 20 g
  • Cheeseburger — 10 g
  • Vanilla shake — 8 g
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) butter — 7 g

It is fine to treat yourself to these types of foods once in a while. But, it is best to limit how often you eat them and limit portion sizes when you do.

You can cut how much saturated fat you eat by substituting healthier foods for less healthy options. Replace foods high in saturated fats with foods that have polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Here is how to get started:

  • Replace red meats with skinless chicken or fish a few days a week.
  • Use canola or olive oil instead of butter and other solid fats.
  • Replace whole-fat dairy with low-fat or nonfat milk, yogurt, and cheese.
  • Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other foods with low or no saturated fat.

Trans fats are made when food makers turn liquid oils into solid fats, like shortening or margarine. Trans fats can be found in many fried, “fast” packaged, or processed foods, including:

  • Anything fried and battered
  • Shortening and stick margarine
  • Cakes, cake mixes, pies, pie crust, and doughnuts

Animal foods, such as red meats and dairy, have small amounts of trans fats. But most trans fats come from processed foods.

Trans fats are found in many processed and packaged foods. Note that these foods are often low in nutrients and have extra calories from sugar:

  • Cookies, pies, cakes, biscuits, sweet rolls, and donuts
  • Breads and crackers
  • Frozen foods, such as frozen dinners, pizza, ice cream, frozen yogurt, milk shakes, and pudding
  • Snack foods
  • Fast food
  • Solid fats, such as shortening and margarine
  • Nondairy creamer

Not all packaged foods have trans fats. It depends on the ingredients that were used. That is why it is important to read labels.

While it is fine to treat yourself to sweets and other high-fat foods once in a while, it is best to avoid food with trans fats completely.

You can cut how much trans fat you eat by substituting healthier foods for less healthy options. Replace foods high in trans and saturated fats with foods that have polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Here is how to get started:

  • Use safflower or olive oil instead of butter, shortening, and other solid fats.
  • Switch from solid margarine to soft margarine.
  • Ask what type of fats foods are cooked in when you eat out at restaurants.
  • Avoid fried, packaged, and processed foods.
  • Replace meats with skinless chicken or fish a few days a week.
  • Replace whole-fat diary with low-fat or nonfat milk, yogurt, and cheese.

High cholesterol diet

High cholesterol diet involves choosing certain foods, such as fruits and vegetables, while limiting others, such as saturated and trans fats and added sugars.

Your doctor may recommend the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan because it has been proven to lower high blood pressure and “bad” LDL cholesterol in the blood.

Foods to eat

The following foods are the foundation of a heart-healthy eating plan.

  • Vegetables such as leafy greens (spinach, collard greens, kale, cabbage), broccoli, and carrots
  • Fruits such as apples, bananas, oranges, pears, grapes, and prunes
  • Whole grains such as plain oatmeal, brown rice, and whole-grain bread or tortillas
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy foods such as milk, cheese, or yogurt
  • Protein-rich foods:
    • Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, tuna, and trout)
    • Lean meats such as 95% lean ground beef or pork tenderloin or skinless chicken or turkey
    • Eggs
    • Nuts, seeds, and soy products (tofu)
    • Legumes such as kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, and lima beans
  • Oils and foods high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats:
    • Canola, corn, olive, safflower, sesame, sunflower, and soybean oils (not coconut or palm oil)
    • Nuts such as walnuts, almonds, and pine nuts
    • Nut and seed butters
    • Salmon and trout
    • Seeds (sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, or flax)
    • Avocados
    • Tofu

Foods to avoid or limit

High cholesterol eating plan limits sodium (salt), saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and alcohol. Understanding nutrition labels can help you choose healthier foods.

Limit sodium

Adults and children over age 14 should eat less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (salt) a day. Children younger than age 14 may need to eat even less sodium each day based on their sex and age. If you have high blood pressure, you may need to limit sodium even more. Talk to your doctor or healthcare provider about what amount of sodium is right for you or your child.

Try these shopping and cooking tips to help you choose and prepare foods that are lower in sodium:

  • Read food labels and choose products that have less sodium for the same serving size.
  • Choose low-sodium, reduced-sodium, or no-salt-added products.
  • Choose fresh, frozen, or no-salt-added foods instead of pre-seasoned, sauce-marinated, brined, or processed meats, poultry, and vegetables.
  • Eat at home more often so you can cook food from scratch, which will allow you to control the amount of sodium in your meals.
  • Flavor foods with herbs and spices instead of salt.
  • When cooking, limit your use of premade sauces, mixes, and instant products such as rice, noodles, and ready-made pasta.

Limit saturated fats

Saturated or “bad” fats come from animal sources such as butter, cheese, and fatty meats and should make up less than 10% of your daily calories. Read food labels and choose foods that are lower in these fats and higher in unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats are also known as “good” fats and are found in vegetable oils and nuts.

Limit saturated fats by:

  • Eating leaner, lower-fat, and skinless meats instead of fatty cuts of meat and chicken with skin.
  • Consuming lower-fat dairy products instead of whole-milk.
  • Using certain vegetable oils (such as olive and canola oil) instead of butter, lard, and coconut and palm oils.

Avoid trans fats

Limit trans fats as much as possible by:

  • Limiting foods high in trans fats. This includes foods made with partially hydrogenated oils such as some desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, stick margarines, and coffee creamers.
  • Reading the nutrition labels and choosing foods that do not contain trans fats.

Dairy products and meats naturally contain very small amounts of trans fats. You do not need to avoid these foods because they have other important nutrients.

Limit added sugars

You should limit the amount of calories you get each day from added sugars. This will help you choose nutrient-rich foods and stay within your daily calorie limit.

Some foods, such as fruit, contain natural sugars. Added sugars do not occur naturally in foods but instead are used to sweeten foods and drinks. They include brown sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, raw sugar, and sucrose.

In the United States, sweetened drinks, snacks, and sweets are the major sources of added sugars.

  • Sweetened drinks include soft drinks or sodas, fruit drinks, sweetened coffee and tea, energy drinks, alcoholic drinks, and favored waters. Sweetened drinks account for about half of all added sugars consumed.
  • Snacks and sweets include grain-based desserts such as cakes, pies, cookies, brownies, doughnuts; dairy desserts such as ice cream, frozen desserts, and pudding; candies; sugars; jams; syrups; and sweet toppings.

Lower how much sugar you eat or drink by:

  • Choosing drinks without added sugar such as water, low-fat or fat-free milk, or 100% vegetable juice.
  • Choosing unsweetened foods for snacks or dessert.
  • Eating sweetened drinks, snacks, and desserts less often and in smaller amounts.

Limit alcohol

Talk to your doctor about how much alcohol you drink. Your doctor may recommend that you reduce the amount of alcohol you drink or that you stop drinking alcohol. Alcohol can:

  • Add calories to your daily diet and possibly cause you to gain weight.
  • Raise your blood pressure and levels of triglyceride fats in your blood.
  • Contribute to or worsen heart failure in some people, such as some people who have cardiomyopathy.
  • Raise your risk of other diseases such as cancer.

If you do not drink, you should not start. You should not drink if you are pregnant, are under the age of 21, taking certain medicines, or if you have certain medical conditions, including heart failure.

Cholesterol-lowering Medication

If you have high low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, your doctor may prescribe medicine in addition to lifestyle changes to control your LDL cholesterol level 3.

Your health care team will evaluate your cholesterol levels and other risk factors to determine your overall risk for heart disease and stroke and decide whether you need treatment to lower your cholesterol. Your doctor may prescribe medication if:

  • You previously had a heart attack or stroke.
  • Your LDL cholesterol level is 190 mg/dL or higher.
  • You are 40–75 years old with diabetes and LDL cholesterol of 70 mg/dL or higher.
  • You are 40–75 years old with a high risk for developing heart disease or stroke and LDL cholesterol of 70 mg/dL or higher.

Discuss with your health care team about your overall cardiovascular health and how you may be able to reduce your cardiovascular disease risk.

Several types of medications help lower LDL cholesterol. The chart below describes each type and how it works. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also provides a quick reference list of medicines to treat high LDL cholesterol 4.

Type of MedicineHow it Works
StatinsHMG-CoA Reductase Inhibitors or Statin drugs lower LDL cholesterol by slowing down the liver’s production of cholesterol. They also increase the liver’s ability to remove LDL cholesterol that is already in the blood.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offers advice on the risks related to taking statins:

  • Controlling Cholesterol with Statins
  • FDA Expands Advice on Statin Risks
Bile acid sequestrantsBile acid sequestrants help remove cholesterol from the blood stream by removing bile acids. The body needs bile acids and makes them by breaking down LDL cholesterol.
Niacin, or nicotinic acidNiacin is a B vitamin that can improve all lipoprotein levels. Nicotinic acid raises high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels while lowering total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.
Cholesterol Absorption InhibitorsInhibits the absorption of cholesterol by the small intestine
FibratesFibrates mainly lower triglycerides and, to a lesser extent, increase HDL levels.
Omega-3 Fatty Acid
Combination Medicines
Niacin and Lovastatin / Niacin and Simvastatin / Ezetimibe and Simvastatin
Other Combination MedicinesAmlodipine and Atorvastatin

HMG-CoA Reductase Inhibitors (also called Statins)

Brand NameGeneric Name


  • Do not use these medicines if you have liver disease.
  • Do not use these medicines if you are pregnant or nursing.
  • Use these medicines with caution if you are also taking Gemfibrozil, Fenofibrates, Amiodarone, Verapamil, or blood thinners (anticoagulants).
  • People who use some HIV medicines, birth control pills (oral contraceptives), Nefazodone, and niacin should talk to their doctor about the specific risks of using Statins.
  • Drinking a quart or more of grapefruit juice everyday may affect these “Statin” medicines.

Common side effects

  • Gas
  • Dizziness
  • Constipation
  • Headache
  • Diarrhea
  • Upset stomach

Warning signs

Call your doctor if you have any of these signs:

  • Fever
  • Dark urine
  • Muscle pain or weakness that happens without a good reason (like exercise or injury)

Bile Acid Sequestrants

Brand NameGeneric Name
LoCholest (oral powder)Cholestyramine
Prevalite (oral powder)Cholestyramine
Questran (oral powder)Cholestyramine


  • Do not use these drugs if you have problems with your liver or gallbladder.
  • People who have bleeding problems, heart disease, stomach ulcers, kidney disease, or an under-active thyroid should talk to their doctor about the risks of taking these medicines.
  • People who take Spironolactone should talk to their doctor before taking Colestipol (Colestid).

Common side effects

  • Heartburn
  • Constipation
  • Gas
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea

Warning signs

Call your doctor if you have any of these signs:

  • Stomach pain
  • Vomiting
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Unusual bleeding from gums or rectum


Brand NameGeneric Name
TrilipixFenofibric Acid


  • People with kidney problems, gallbladder disease, or liver disease should not use these drugs.
  • Talk to your doctor before taking other medicines to control cholesterol called “Statins” (HMG-CoA Reductase Inhibitors).
  • Pregnant women or women who are breastfeeding should talk to their doctor about the risks of taking these drugs.
  • People who take diabetes medicines or blood thinners (anticoagulants) should talk to their doctor about the risks of taking these drugs.

Common side effects

  • Headache
  • Constipation or Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Stomach pain

Warning signs

Call your doctor if you have any of these signs:

  • Muscle pain
  • Weakness
  • Jaundice (skin or eyes look yellow)


Brand NameGeneric Name
Nicotinic Acid


  • Do not use Niaspan if you have liver disease or if you are taking an immediate-release niacin pill.
  • Do not use Niaspan if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • People who are taking aspirin, high blood pressure medicines, HMG CoA Reductase Inhibitors (“Statins”), or medicines to lower bile acid should talk to their doctor about the risks of taking Niacin (Niaspan).
  • People with kidney disease, peptic ulcer, diabetes, or chest pain should talk to their doctor about the risks of taking this drug.
  • People who have had a heart attack or gout should talk to their doctor about the risks of taking this drug.

Common side effects

  • Headache
  • Upset stomach
  • Heartburn
  • Diarrhea
  • Flushing (redness of the face or neck)

Warning signs

Call your doctor if you have any of these signs:

  • Fast heartbeat
  • Fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Jaundice (skin or eyes look yellow)

Cholesterol Absorption Inhibitors

Brand NameGeneric Name


  • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take Zetia with another cholesterol medicine.
  • People who have liver disease should not take Zetia with another cholesterol medicine.
  • Use caution if you are taking blood thinners (anticoagulants).

Common side effects

  • Feeling Tired
  • Stomach Pain

Warning Signs

Call your doctor if you have any of these signs:

  • Muscle Pain, Tenderness or Weakness
  • Stomach Pain
  • Swelling of the Face or Lips
  • Severe Itching

Omega-3 Fatty Acid

Brand NameGeneric Name
LovazaOmega-3 Acid Ethyl Esters


  • Women who are breastfeeding, pregnant, or planning to become pregnant should talk to their doctor before taking Lovaza.
  • Tell your doctor if you have diabetes or liver, thyroid or pancreas problems.
  • Tell your doctor if you are allergic to fish.
  • Tell your doctor if you drink more than 2 glasses of alcohol each day.
  • Tell your doctor if you take blood thinners or anticoagulants including aspirin, warfarin, coumarin, and clopidogrel (Plavix).

Common side effects

  • Burping
  • Infection
  • Feeling like you have the flu
  • Upset stomach
  • Change in your sense of taste
  • Back pain
  • Skin rash

Other side effects

Lovaza may affect certain blood tests.

  • Test to check your liver (ALT)
  • Test to check your cholesterol (LDL-C)

Combination Medicines

Brand NameGeneric Name
AdvicorNiacin and Lovastatin
SimcorNiacin and Simvastatin
VytorinEzetimibe and Simvastatin


  • Do not take Vytorin or Advicor if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Do not take Vytorin if you have liver disease.
  • People taking Gemfibrozil (Lopid), Fenofibrate (Tricor), high blood pressure medicines, Protease Inhibitors (medicines to treat HIV) or blood thinners (anticoagulants) should use caution when taking these drugs.
  • Drinking a quart or more of grapefruit juice everyday may affect these drugs.

Common side effects

  • Headache
  • Flushing (redness of the face or neck)
  • Upset stomach

Warning signs

Call your doctor if you have any of these signs:

  • Dark urine
  • Stomach pain
  • Muscle pain, tenderness or weakness that happens without a good reason (like exercise or injury)
  • Jaundice (skin or eyes look yellow)

Other Combination Medicines

Brand NameGeneric Name
CaduetAmlodipine and Atorvastatin
  • Caduet is used to treat people who have both high blood pressure and high cholesterol.


  • Do not take Caduet if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant.
  • Do not take Caduet if you are breastfeeding.
  • Do not take Caduet if you have liver problems.

Common Side Effects

  • Swelling of the Legs or Ankles (edema)
  • Muscle or Joint Pain
  • Headache
  • Diarrhea or Constipation
  • Feeling Dizzy
  • Feeling Tired or Sleepy
  • Gas
  • Rash
  • Nausea
  • Stomach Pain
  • Fast or Irregular Heartbeat
  • Face feels Hot or Warm (flushing)

Warning Signs

Call your doctor if you have any of these signs:

  • Muscle problems like weakness, tenderness, or pain that happens without a good reason (like exercise or injury)
  • Brown or Dark-colored Urine
  • Skin or Eyes look yellow (jaundice)
  • Feel more tired than usual.
  1. National Cholesterol Education Program. Third Report of the National Cholesterol Education Program Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults.
  2. Kirkland JB. Niacin. In: Ross AC, Caballero B, Cousins RJ, Tucker KL, Ziegler TR, eds. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease, 11th ed. Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins; 2014:331-40.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cholesterol-lowering Medication.
  4. US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). High Cholesterol–Medicines To Help You.
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