If you have high cholesterol, you’ve likely heard how important a healthy diet is to help lower it. While you do want to get high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol from your diet, your body actually produces all of the low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol that it needs all on its own, according to the American Heart Association.
But the typical Western diet is filled with sources of LDL and triglycerides, a fat found in the blood. So if you eat too much of these, it can push your cholesterol into an unhealthy range.
Of course, there are other factors that contribute to high cholesterol, such as genetics. But your diet is in your control, and a nutritious, low-cholesterol diet can make a big difference in your overall health.
“Your diet can have profound importance in managing your risk for heart disease,” explains Megan Porter, RD, LD, a certified diabetes educator based in Portland, Oregon. “It can also assist in lowering high cholesterol or help maintain healthy cholesterol levels throughout your life.”
Diets Proven to Help Lower Cholesterol
The following diets are not “diets” in the sense of restricting your food intake or being hungry all the time, but eating plans that emphasize certain healthy food groups over less-healthy options. Scientific research has also proven that they’re helpful when it comes to lowering cholesterol.
If you’re looking to manage high cholesterol, consider following one of these eating plans.
1. Mediterranean diet
“This diet is abundant in minimally processed, plant-based foods [and] monounsaturated (healthy) fat from olive oil, but lower in saturated fat, meats, and dairy products. It also allows for small amounts of red wine,” says Porter.
A review of Mediterranean diet studies published in February 2019 in the journal Circulation Research stated that the diet can help lower LDL levels and raise HDL levels. “The heart-health benefits are thought to be due mostly to the diet’s anti-inflammatory effects,” notes Porter.
If you’d like to try this diet, focus on fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and whole grains, with moderate amounts of seafood, lean protein, and dairy.
2. DASH diet
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet is designed to help lower high blood pressure and can also help lower your cholesterol. It is similar to the Mediterranean diet in its focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, poultry, and nuts but also emphasizes reducing salt intake to help lower blood pressure.
According to a study published in April 2019 in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, following the DASH diet was associated with a 40 percent lower risk of heart failure.
3. TLC diet
The Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) diet was designed by the National Institutes of Health’s National Cholesterol Education Program to help lower cholesterol. “This is not only a diet; it’s a comprehensive lifestyle approach that includes specific dietary recommendations, weight management, and increased physical activity,” Porter explains.
The TLC diet focuses on whole grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy, and limited lean proteins in lieu of foods high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and total fat, such as processed meat, pastries, and butter. “The TLC diet has been shown to have lowering effects on a person’s LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and weight,” Porter says.
Since the Mediterranean, DASH, and TLC diets are similar, your doctor or a dietitian can help you decide which might be most beneficial for you.
4. Vegetarian diet
A vegetarian diet focuses on whole grains, dairy, eggs, fruits, vegetables, soy products, and nuts, with no meat, poultry, or seafood consumption. “The vegetarian diet, when eaten over a long period, is associated with a large range of health benefits, including reduced weight, lower cholesterol, and low blood pressure,” Porter says.
A study published in November 2017 in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition found that a vegetarian diet reduced cholesterol and lowered the risk of dying from coronary artery disease by 25 percent.
5. Vegan diet
A vegan diet is a vegetarian diet minus all animal-derived products, including eggs, dairy, gelatin, and whey. “The vegan diet has been linked with a weight loss benefit in addition to reduced risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and [early] death,” Porter says.
A study published in December 2018 in the journal PLoS One found that vegans had lower LDL and triglyceride levels than people who ate meat.
If you want to try a vegetarian or vegan diet, it’s helpful to work with a dietitian as you get started. They can educate you on the right combinations of foods to eat get sufficient protein, calcium, and iron in your diet.
Following one of these healthy diets is a lifestyle change — one that can help lower your cholesterol and help you feel healthier while staying full and satisfied.