Foods to Eat and Avoid for High Cholesterol

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on March 20, 2023
6 min read

Hectic days and busy nights: Who has time to cook? That’s why many of us rely on the grab-and-go ease of processed foods.

There’s a downside, though. These meals are often high in fat, salt, and sugar -- and low in nutrients that are good for you such as calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and fiber.

Yet you can work a better diet into your packed schedule if you shop smart and keep good-for-you foods handy.

A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and good fats can help lower what’s sometimes called “bad cholesterol.” You may hear your doctor call it “LDL cholesterol.” You have a greater chance of getting heart disease when your LDL level gets too high.

You get other benefits from these foods. They also:

  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Boost immunity
  • Protect against heart attack, stroke, and some cancers

To help you make the best choices, here are lists of what to add to your shopping cart and what to avoid.

Focus on these when you’re at the grocery store -- and remember a farmer’s market might have some great picks, too:

Produce: Look for colorful fruits and vegetables such as berries, grapes, pears, oranges, apples, tomatoes, yams, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, spinach, kale, dark leafy greens, squash, zucchini, eggplant, and bell peppers. Naturally cholesterol-free and low-fat, fruits and vegetables are the foundation of a good diet.

Whole grains: Oats, quinoa, barley, wheat berries, flaxseed, couscous, polenta, millet, bulgur, and whole wheat offer up fiber, complex carbohydrates, and protein. Look for breads, pastas, and cereals made with a variety of whole grains.

You will need to avoid certain grains, though, if your doctor says you can’t eat gluten or you have celiac disease, which affects your small intestine.

Be sure to read the labels to make sure the products you buy are also low in fat, sugar, and sodium. For example, choose cereals that have 5 or more grams of dietary fiber and fewer than 8 grams of sugar per serving.

Meat and beans: Choose skinless cuts of chicken or turkey breasts, and lean cuts of meat such as pork tenderloin and beef round, sirloin, or tenderloin. Read labels to be sure the meat is at least 92% fat-free. Consider heart-healthy meat substitutes like seitan, tempeh, and tofu.

Buy protein-rich beans such as black, soy/edamame, kidney, or garbanzo beans.

Nuts and seeds: Snack on them or use as garnishes in salads and pastas. Stock up on the plain varieties. When you buy natural-style peanut butter or almond butter, look for products that contain just the nuts, or just nuts and salt.

Dairy/calcium: Look for low- or reduced-fat dairy products such as yogurt, milk, cottage cheese, cream cheese, sour cream, creamer, and, of course, cheese. Canned fish, such as tuna, sardines, and salmon, also pack a lot of calcium.

If you’re lactose-intolerant or vegan, try calcium-enriched or fortified cereals and juices, and green, leafy vegetables, to fill the calcium gap. Soy milk, almond milk, and other non-dairy products may also be options. When shopping for these drinks, choose the unsweetened products to avoid added sugar.

Vitamin D, which helps you take in more calcium, is often added to dairy products, some cereal products, and margarine. It’s also found naturally in fish and egg yolks.

Omega-3-rich foods: Most of us aren’t getting enough of this good fatty acid in our diets.

You find these fats in fish. Coldwater fish such as salmon, tuna, halibut, herring, and mackerel have higher amounts. You can also find plant omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts, chia seeds, and ground flaxseed.

Also look for foods enriched with it. These may include eggs, dairy, soy products, breads, cereals, and pasta. 

Condiments. Watch out for high amounts of salt in condiments and sauces. Even small amounts add up fast. Look for low-sodium, low-fat options when buying ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, soy sauce, and salad dressings. Apple cider, balsamic, rice, raspberry, and red wine vinegar also make heart-healthy salad dressing options.

“Good” oils: Some oils can be good for you. Olive oil can help raise the level of your “good” cholesterol (HDL). Look for other vegetable-based oils: canola, soy, and sunflower. Cut down on butter in your cooking with nonfat cooking spray or non-trans-fat margarine. Try replacements for fat when baking, such as applesauce, fruit puree, or yogurt.

Plant sterol-enriched foods: Plant sterols and stanols are substances that help block cholesterol from being absorbed in your small intestine.

They are found naturally in foods in only tiny amounts. You can get some plant sterols from produce, nuts, seeds, and legumes, but not nearly the 2 grams a day recommended for people with high cholesterol.

If you need more, look for sterol-enriched foods such as margarine spreads, some yogurt or low-fat milk, some fruit juices, and some cereal. Be sure to read the labels to make sure the food is not also high in fat and sugar.

Some nutritionists recommend avoiding certain aisles in the supermarket. Bypass rows with bakery items, crackers, cookies, and other foods high in saturated fat.

In general, avoid items if any of these things appear high on the food label’s ingredient list:

Trans fats: These are bad for you and can be found in packaged snacks such as pastries, cookies, crackers, and some types of margarine. Read the nutrition facts to see all the fats in the product.

Other foods that are often filled with trans fats: biscuits, breakfast sandwiches, microwave popcorn, cream-filled candy, doughnuts, fried fast foods, and frozen pizza.

Salt: Too much sodium can raise your blood pressure. You probably already know not to have too much canned soup and salty snack foods. Did you know it can also lurk in breads and rolls, cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, some chicken, and some fast-food sandwiches?

You might be surprised how often it’s found in frozen foods, too. When in doubt, read labels. Try not to get more than 2,300 to 2,400 milligrams per day.

Processed meat: Foods like bacon, hot dogs, and sausage are processed from the fattiest cuts of red meat, making them high in saturated fat and cholesterol. 

Sugar: Yes, it tastes so good. But too much might cause problems with weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes as well as cholesterol. Easier said than done, but try to limit how much of this you eat and drink.

You probably know many of the “usual suspects”: soda, sweet tea, candy, cakes, cookies, and ice cream, among others.

But did you know sugar is added to things you might not even think about -- from spaghetti sauce to fast food? That also includes many ketchups, breakfast bars, and even tonic water.

The lesson: Read labels. And here are common added sugars to check for:

  • Brown sugar
  • Corn sweeteners and syrup
  • Dextrose and fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Glucose
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Lactose
  • Maltose
  • Sucrose

Foods that have one or more of those things listed high on the ingredient list may have a lot of sugar.

Shop when you’re full: You’ll be less tempted by sweets and salty snacks if you’re not hungry.

Read food labels: Ingredients are listed by weight, from most to least, so it’s helpful to focus on the first three to five ingredients. Beware of prepared foods promoting one particular ingredient -- look at the whole package instead.

Talk to your doctor or dietitian about more ways to improve your diet.