The Best & Worst Foods for Your Cholesterol Levels

At one time, it was thought that cholesterol-rich foods—like red meat and eggs—contributed to high cholesterol in the blood. But newer research shows that the connection between high cholesterol foods and high cholesterol in the blood isn't as clear as medical experts once believed.

Cholesterol 101

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that's found throughout the body. Some is manufactured by your liver, and the rest comes from cholesterol in the food you eat. Only animal-based foods, like meat and dairy, contain cholesterol.

Researchers used to think that eating foods high in cholesterol caused the buildup of plaque, which contains cholesterol, in the arteries. Clogged arteries restrict the flow of blood to the heart, which ups your risk of a heart attack. This is how dietary cholesterol was linked to the development of heart disease. Warnings about eating high cholesterol foods followed.

But lately the link between dietary and blood cholesterol has been questioned, and in 2015, the updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans dropped its warnings about dietary cholesterol as a substance that causes heart disease. That doesn’t mean high blood cholesterol levels are good for you, however. It simply means that the cholesterol you get directly from food isn’t necessarily the cause of high levels in your blood. So while meats, eggs, and other foods that contain cholesterol can still raise your blood cholesterol levels, today it's thought that other substances within those foods, such as the type of fats they contain, as well as how much of these foods you eat, is what causes high cholesterol.

What are the substances than contribute to increased cholesterol levels, and in what foods are they found?

1. Foods High in Saturated Fats

Saturated fats, found in the same foods that contain cholesterol (like meat, butter, eggs, full-fat dairy products and some tropical oils, such as palm oil) can raise harmful LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels in your blood. Some experts now believe this only matters if you eat too many of these foods, and if the fat in these foods is also contributing to overweight or obesity.

2. Margarine and Other Butter Substitutes

These spreads contain trans fats, which are formed when liquid oils are converted to solid fat. Trans fats can raise LDL cholesterol and, at the same time, lower protective HDL cholesterol. Check the Nutrition Facts box on food labels to find out if there are any trans fats in the processed foods you eat, and check the ingredient list for hydrogenated oils or fats—a primary source of trans fats.

3. Sweets, Especially Commercially Prepared Baked Goods

Added sugar in foods is linked to increased LDL cholesterol levels and also to inflammation in general and of cholesterol particles, making them even more dangerous to the health of your arteries and heart. Commercially prepared cakes, cookies, crackers, and pastries tend to contain lots of added sugar as well as trans fats.

4. Pasta and Other Starchy Carbs

When it comes to foods that increase your risk for developing atherosclerosis (the hardening of the arteries caused by the build up of cholesterol and other substances), heart disease, and other medical conditions, some of the worst offenders are foods that contain no cholesterol at all.

Starchy carbohydrates play a bigger role than fat in determining how cholesterol can harm your health, according to cardiologist William A Tansey III, MD, of Summit Medical Group in New Jersey. Starchy carbs, like pasta, are sources of sterols, which are converted in your body into fats known as triglycerides. Triglycerides are ultimately responsible for the toxic effect cholesterol has on your blood vessels.

"Limit the 'whites” in your diet,'" Tansey advises. "[White] rice, potatoes, bread, and pasta are all sources of sterols."

Foods That Lower Cholesterol Levels

With all the focus on foods that can raise cholesterol levels, don't forget that foods that are high in soluble fiber—the type that forms a gel in your gastrointestinal tract and slows down digestion—actually help lower your cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber binds with cholesterol in your gut and prevents its absorption into your bloodstream. Most high-fiber foods contain some soluble fiber and some insoluble fiber, but only soluble fiber affects cholesterol levels.

Foods that are high in soluble fiber include

  1. Avocados
  2. Barley
  3. Brussels sprouts
  4. Figs
  5. Flaxseed
  6. Oat bran
  7. Oranges
  8. Nuts
  9. Seeds
  10. Legumes (beans, lentils, and peas)
  11. Sweet potatoes

Finally, when sizing up foods and deciding which are best for you, focus on eating a variety of foods in reasonable portion sizes, not on the cholesterol content of individual foods.

Beyond Food

Food isn’t the only factor that affects your blood cholesterol levels, and it’s not the only one you can control. Weight gain, lack of exercise, and smoking can all have a negative impact on your cholesterol levels. At the same time, losing weight, being physically active, and quitting smoking, if necessary, can all help maintain your cholesterol at the healthiest possible level. Making healthy lifestyle choices can even allow you to control blood cholesterol without the need for medication.

"Weight loss is a very effective strategy for lowering blood cholesterol levels," says Lauri Wright, Assistant Professor of Nutrition at University of South Florida, Tampa, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Just a 7- to 10-pound loss will lower your cholesterol and your risk of developing heart disease."

William A Tansey III, MD, and Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, LD, reviewed this article.


William A. Tansey, MD. E-mail message to author January 26, 2016.

Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, LD. E-mail message to author January 26, 2016.

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