December 4, 2023

Limiting saturated fats in your diet, along with getting regular exercise and other healthy practices, may help lower the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in your blood.

Lipoproteins carry cholesterol, fat, and fat-soluble vitamins in your blood. High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) result in cholesterol deposits in blood vessel walls.

This can lead to clogged arteries and increase the risk of heart attacks. This is why LDL is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol.

In contrast, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) helps carry cholesterol away from vessel walls and helps prevent these conditions. It is often called “good” cholesterol.

The liver produces as much cholesterol as your body needs. Although food companies often advertise products as being low in cholesterol, research from 2018 shows that dietary cholesterol actually has only a small influence on the amount of cholesterol in the body.

While dietary cholesterol may have little influence on your body’s cholesterol levels, other factors in your life may, such as:

  • family history
  • smoking
  • a sedentary lifestyle
  • heavy alcohol consumption

Healthy lifestyle choices can help increase the beneficial HDL and decrease the harmful LDL. Read on to learn about natural ways to improve your cholesterol levels.

Learn more about dietary cholesterol.

Some people recommend an overall low fat diet for weight loss, but research is mixed on its effectiveness in controlling blood cholesterol, according to experts.

In contrast, there is strong evidence that a diet high in monounsaturated fats, such as the Mediterranean diet, helps reduce levels of harmful LDL and increase levels of healthy HDL.

Here are a few great sources of monounsaturated fats:

  • olive oil
  • nuts, such as almonds, cashews, and pecans
  • canola oil
  • avocados
  • nut butters
  • olives

Discover more about the Mediterranean diet.

Research from 2018 shows that polyunsaturated fats reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol and decrease the risk of heart disease.

Polyunsaturated fats also may reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

Omega-3 fatty acids are an especially heart-healthy type of polyunsaturated fat. They’re found in seafood and fish oil supplements. Especially high amounts occur in fatty fish like:

  • salmon
  • mackerel
  • herring
  • deep sea tuna like bluefin or albacore
  • shellfish (to a lesser degree), including shrimp

Learn more about the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.

Trans fats are unsaturated fats that have been modified by a process called hydrogenation. This makes the unsaturated fats in vegetable oils more stable.

The body handles trans fats differently than other fats, and not in a good way. Trans fats increase total cholesterol and LDL but decrease beneficial HDL.

Foods that commonly contain trans fats include:

  • margarine and shortening
  • pastries and other baked goods
  • some microwaveable popcorn
  • fried fast foods
  • some pizzas
  • nondairy coffee creamer

Read more about the health effect of trans fats.

Soluble fiber is a type of fiber that is abundant in plants and whole grains. Prioritizing whole grains can help lower harmful LDL cholesterol levels and may have a protective effect against cardiovascular diseases.

Some of the best sources of soluble fiber include:

  • oat cereals
  • beans and lentils
  • Brussels sprouts
  • fruits
  • peas
  • flaxseeds

Discover more about soluble fiber.

Exercise is a win-win for heart health. Not only does it improve physical fitness and help combat obesity, but it also reduces harmful LDL and increases beneficial HDL.

The American Heart Association (AHA) advises that 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week is enough to lower cholesterol levels.

Regular strength training alongside aerobic exercise can provide further benefits.

Learn more about exercise and cholesterol.

Having excess weight or obesity can increase your risk of developing high cholesterol levels. Losing weight, if you have excess weight, can decrease your cholesterol levels.

Overall, weight loss has a double benefit on cholesterol by decreasing harmful LDL and increasing beneficial HDL. It’s recommended that you work with your doctor closely to determine a nutrient-dense and sustainable weight loss plan.

Learn more about diet, weight, and cholesterol.

Smoking tobacco increases the risk of heart disease in several ways, including:

  • increasing LDL
  • decreasing HDL
  • increasing cholesterol buildup in arteries
  • affecting cholesterol transportation and absorption

Giving up smoking, if possible, can help reverse these harmful effects. A doctor can help you create a plan to quit smoking that may work for you.

Learn more about the link between smoking and cholesterol.

Alcohol’s role in providing heart-protective benefits is a controversial topic. According to a 2020 review of studies, some research indicates that when used in moderation, alcoholic drinks can increase good HDL cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.

Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and AHA disagree. The AHA does not endorse drinking wine or any other alcoholic beverage specifically to lower your cholesterol or improve heart health. Both organizations say there is no credible research linking alcohol and improved heart health.

If you drink, the CDC suggests you moderate drinking by consuming only 2 drinks per day for men or 1 drink per day for women on days that you drink.

Multiple types of supplements show promise for managing cholesterol. Plant stanols and sterols are plant versions of cholesterol. Because they resemble cholesterol, they are absorbed from the diet like cholesterol.

According to a 2018 research review, clinical studies show that taking 1.5–3 grams of plant sterols or stanols daily can reduce LDL concentration by 7.5–12%.

Small amounts of plant stanols and sterols are naturally found in vegetable oils and are added to certain oils and butter substitutes.

Evidence shows that fish oil and soluble fiber improve cholesterol and promote heart health. Another supplement, coenzyme Q10, is showing promise in improving cholesterol, although its long-term benefits are not yet known.

  • Fish oil: Fish oil is rich in the omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). However, some fish oil supplements may increase LDL despite reducing triglyceride levels. Always work with a medical professional while starting or changing supplement regimens.
  • Psyllium: Psyllium is a form of soluble fiber available as a supplement and may help lower cholesterol levels.
  • Coenzyme Q10: Coenzyme Q10 is a food chemical that helps cells produce energy. It is similar to a vitamin, except that the body can produce its own Q10, preventing deficiency. Research into the efficacy of coenzyme Q10 in lowering cholesterol is ongoing.

Cholesterol has important functions in the body but can cause clogged arteries and heart disease when it is not well managed.

If your cholesterol is out of balance, lifestyle interventions are the first line of treatment.

Unsaturated fats, soluble fiber, and plant sterols or stanols can increase good HDL and decrease bad LDL. Exercise and weight loss can also help.

Read this article in Spanish.


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