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Diseases & Conditions

How to Lower Your Cholesterol

These general guidelines provide basic information to help you start lowering your cholesterol until your appointment with a registered dietitian, the nutrition expert. Eating healthy often means making changes in your current eating habits. A registered dietitian can provide in-depth personalized nutrition education to help you develop a personal action plan.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a soft, fat-like, waxy substance only found in animal products. Too much cholesterol leads to a build-up of fatty materials and debris (called plaque) on the walls of the arteries supplying blood to the heart and other organs. Some cholesterol is needed by the body. In fact, cholesterol plays a role in normal body functions, including the formation of cell walls, production of hormones, and manufacture of bile acids, which are needed for digestion. Because the liver has the ability to make all the cholesterol our bodies need, there is no need for extra cholesterol in the diet.

High blood cholesterol = increased risk for heart disease (which can lead to heart attack or stroke)

Plaque can narrow the passageway inside the artery and block the flow of blood to the heart muscle, causing a heart attack. You can reduce your risk by eating foods low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Including foods that contain unsaturated fats, exercising regularly, and losing weight, if needed, can also reduce your heart risks.

What do the numbers mean?

Blood cholesterol levels are measured by a blood test called a lipid profile. The lipid profile measures total cholesterol, triglycerides, high-density lipoproteins (HDL—the “good” cholesterol)* and low-density lipoprotein (LDL—the “bad” cholesterol).**

Desirable Borderline High
Total cholesterol Less than 200 200-239 Greater than 240
Triglycerides Less than 150 150-199 200-400
HDL Greater than 60 (Less than 40 is considered a risk for heart disease)
LDL Less than 100 (or less than 70 if you have 2 or more risk factors***) 130-159 160-189

* HDL is known as the “good” cholesterol because it helps carry cholesterol away from the walls of the arteries and transport it to the liver to excrete it. The higher your HDL number is, the better.

**LDL is known as the bad cholesterol because it carries a large amount of cholesterol in the blood and is responsible for depositing cholesterol in the walls of the blood vessels. The lower your LDL number is, the better.

*** Risk factors include: high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, smoking, low HDL, high LDL, family history of heart disease, age (men greater than 45 years; women greater than 55 years), and a sedentary lifestyle.

Goals for healthy lifestyle eating

Cholesterol-lowering goals:

  • Decrease the total amount of fat you eat to 25-35% or less of your total daily calories.
  • Decrease the amount of saturated fat to 7% or less of your total daily calories. For a person eating 2,000 calories a day, this would be 55-65 grams or less of fat and 16 grams or less of saturated fat per day.
  • Decrease the amount of trans fat to 1% or less of your total daily calories. For a person eating 2,000 calories a day, this would be 2.2 g or less of trans fat per day.
  • Substitute polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat for saturated fat and trans fats.

    Saturated fat is usually solid at room temperature and comes from animal fats, coconut, and palm oils. Some sources of saturated fat include butter and lard.

    Trans fatty acids are found naturally in animal products, snack foods, and baked goods. Check the ingredient list on the label; if it lists partially hydrogenated oils, the product contains trans fats.

    Unsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature and comes from plants. Some sources of unsaturated fats include olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, and corn oil.
  • Limit cholesterol found in food to 200 milligrams (mg) or less per day. Foods high in cholesterol include egg yolks (one egg yolk has about 212 mg of cholesterol), fatty meat, whole milk, cheese, shrimp, lobster, and crab. Buy leaner cuts of meat, trim all visible fat, and take the skin off the chicken or turkey.
  • Choose foods high in starch and fiber such as whole grain breads, cereals, pasta, rice, fruits, and vegetables.
  • A dietary fiber goal is 25 grams a day for women and 38 grams a day for men, with at least half of those grams being soluble fiber. Good sources of soluble fiber include fruits, vegetables, oatmeal, oatbran, beans, peas, and barley.
  • Eat a variety of foods to get all the nutrients you need. For a tasty and healthy diet, try to eat more than five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Try to consume at least 2 servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy products daily, e.g., low-fat yogurt or skim milk.
  • Try to include two fish meals per week (salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, sardines). These fish are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower your risk of heart disease. Other sources of omega-3 fatty acids are flaxseed, walnuts, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, and spinach.
  • Try to include at least 2 meatless meals per week.
  • Try to include 2 grams of plant stanols/sterols per day. Plant stanols/sterols are derived from plants. Examples include fortified margarines, juice, and vegetable oils.
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Engage in moderate activity most days of the week. The American Heart Association recommends physical activity up to 30 minutes per day, or 60 minutes if you are trying to lose weight.


Davis, Susan (2007). Cholesterol Management Health Center; Exercise to Lower Cholesterol. Retrieved June 3, 2009, from

The American Heart Association. Retrieved June 2, 2009, from

Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (2002). Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Intakes for Individuals, Macronutrients.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 10/15/2009...#11341