Heart Healthy Eating to Help Lower Cholesterol Levels


Paying close attention to what you eat can help you reduce your risk of developing atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the narrowing of arteries caused by plaque build-up inside the arteries. As the arteries narrow, blood can't flow properly through the arteries. This can lead to a heart attack or stroke. If the artery-clogging process has already begun, you may be able to slow it down by making changes in your lifestyle, including your diet.

It is important to lower your levels of total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL/"bad") cholesterol. Follow the guidelines in this handout to help lower these levels.

Limit bad fats and cholesterol

Research shows that there isn't really a link between how much fat you eat and your risk of disease. The biggest influence on your risk is the type of fat you eat. Two unhealthy fats, including saturated and trans fats, increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood cholesterol and increase your risk of developing heart disease. However, two very different types of fat — monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — do just the opposite. In fact, research shows that cutting back on saturated fat and replacing it with mono and polyunsaturated fats can help lower the level of LDL cholesterol in your blood.

What are saturated fats?

Saturated fats are generally solid or waxy at room temperature and are most often found in animal products and tropical oils. The following foods contain saturated fats:

  • Fatty cuts of beef, pork, lamb, veal, and the skin of poultry.
  • Hot dogs, bacon and high-fat luncheon meats, such as salami and bologna.
  • Full fat and processed cheeses, cream cheese.
  • High-fat dairy products, such as whole milk, cream, half and half, butter and sour cream.
  • Lard, bacon fat, sauces and gravies made from animal fat.
  • Most fried foods and fast foods.
  • Tropical oils - palm, palm kernel and coconut.
  • Baked goods made with lard, butter or tropical oils.

How much is too much saturated fats?

Most foods you choose should contain no more than 2 grams (g) of saturated fat per serving. To help lower your LDL cholesterol, no more than 5 to 6 percent of your daily calorie intake should come from saturated fats. Use the list below to figure out the maximum amount of saturated fat you can have each day.

  • Daily Calories:1,200
    • Daily Saturated Fat Limit (g): 7-8g
  • Daily Calories: 1,400
    • Daily Saturated Fat Limit (g): 8-9g
  • Daily Calories: 1,600
    • Daily Saturated Fat Limit (g): 9-10g
  • Daily Calories: 1,800
    • Daily Saturated Fat Limit (g): 10-11g
  • Daily Calories: 2,000
    • Daily Saturated Fat Limit (g): 11-13g
  • Daily Calories: 2,200
    • Daily Saturated Fat Limit (g): 12-15g

What are trans fatty acids?

Trans fatty acids are formed when a liquid fat is changed into a solid fat through a process called hydrogenation. Many manufacturers use hydrogenated fats in their ingredients because it creates a product with an extended shelf life and better consistency.

Trans fatty acids are especially bad for you. They raise the levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood and lower the levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL/"good") cholesterol.

There are currently no safe levels of trans fat to consume each day, so avoid them completely or eat them as little as possible.

Many manufacturers have stopped using or greatly reduced the amount of trans fats in their foods. But, check the label and avoid:

  • Partially hydrogenated oils. This means the product contains at least a small amount of trans fat, even if the label states "trans-fat-free." Foods can contain up to 0.49 grams of trans fat per serving and claim to be "trans-fat-free."
  • Margarine: Stick margarine contains more partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat) than tub margarine does, and tub margarine contains more than liquid margarine. Choose margarine that does not contain any partially hydrogenated oil.
  • Shortening is an example of trans fat in its purest form. Some shortenings claim to be trans-fat-free, but remember that such foods can still contain small amounts of trans fat in each serving. Also, the fat used to substitute the trans fat in shortening is high in saturated fat, so it’s still not a healthy choice.
  • Fast foods and fried foods. Almost all are high in trans fats.
  • Convenience foods. Some brands of chocolate or yogurt-coated granola/energy bars; liquid, flavored coffee creamers; powdered coffee creamers; and pre-packaged baked goods contain trans fat.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is made by the liver and is only found in animal-based foods. Our bodies need some cholesterol to work properly, but we make enough and do not need extra cholesterol in our diet. However, there is not enough scientific evidence to show that eating cholesterol affects cholesterol levels in your blood.

To control cholesterol in your diet, try these tips:

  • Eat egg yolks in moderation.
  • Do not eat the skin of poultry.
  • Trim extra fat from red meat before eating.
  • Limit servings of poultry and red meat to 3-4 ounces (the size of a deck of cards).
  • Choose reduced-fat, part-skim cheese or cheese made with 2% milk instead of full fat.
  • Avoid cream-based soups. Choose broth-based soups instead.
  • Use nonfat or low-fat dairy products instead of high-fat varieties of cream cheese, sour cream, cottage cheese (4%) and yogurt.

What are unsaturated fats ("Healthy Fats")?

Unsaturated fats are considered the healthiest fats because they improve cholesterol, help reduce inflammation (a risk factor for heart disease), and help decrease the overall risk of developing heart disease. The main source of unsaturated fats are plant-based foods. These fats are usually liquid at room temperature. There are two types of unsaturated fat: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

Monounsaturated fats are considered one of the healthiest sources of fat in the diet. These fats should make up most of your daily fat intake. Good sources of monounsaturated fats include:

  • Olive, canola and peanut oils.
  • Most nuts, nut oils and nut butters (eg, natural peanut butter or almond butter).
  • Olives.
  • Avocados.

Good sources of Polyunsaturated Fats include:

  • Safflower oil.
  • Flax oil and flax seeds.
  • Sunflower oil.
  • Walnuts.
  • Fish.

Omega-3 fats are a type of polyunsaturated fat. Omega-3 fats help protect against heart disease by lowering triglyceride levels, protecting against irregular heartbeats, decreasing the risk of a heart attack and lowering blood pressure. To get the most protective benefits of these foods, eat them several times per week.

The body cannot make omega-3 fats, so they must come from your diet. The best food source of omega-3 fats is cold-water fish such as:

  • Salmon.
  • Tuna.
  • Mackerel.
  • Herring.
  • Sardines.

Other food sources that contain smaller amounts of omega-3 fats are:

  • Flaxseeds.
  • Chia seeds (salvia).
  • Walnuts.
  • Hemp seeds.
  • Soybeans (edamame).
  • Canola Oil.

Increase the Amount of Fiber in Your Diet

Most of us do not get enough fiber in our diet. The recommended amount is 25-35 grams of dietary fiber per day. Dietary fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body cannot digest. As fiber passes through the body, it affects the way the body digests foods and absorbs nutrients. Fiber can help reduce your LDL cholesterol level. A fiber-rich diet can also help control blood sugar, promote regularity, prevent gastrointestinal disease and help you manage your weight.

There are two types of dietary fiber: soluble (viscous) and insoluble. To receive the greatest health benefit, eat a wide variety of all high-fiber foods. Refined foods, like white bread, white pasta and enriched cereals are low in fiber. The refining process strips the outer coat (bran) from the grain, which reduces the amount of fiber that's left.

The best sources of fiber are whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes (dried beans, lentils, split peas).

What is soluble fiber?

Soluble fiber provides the greatest heart-health benefits. It helps lower total and LDL cholesterol levels by binding to bile in the gut and removing it with the body's waste. Bile is made up of cholesterol. Good sources of soluble fiber include:

  • Oats and oat bran.
  • Barley.
  • Legumes (eg, dried beans, lentils and split peas).
  • Psyllium.
  • Ground flaxseed.
  • Apples, bananas, pears and citrus fruits.
  • Brussel sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, sweet potatoes, squash.

What is insoluble fiber?

Insoluble fiber is generally referred to as "roughage." Insoluble fiber promotes regularity, adds bulk and softness to stools, helps with weight regulation and helps prevent many gastrointestinal disorders. Good sources on insoluble fiber include:

  • Wheat bran and whole wheat or grain bread/bread products, pasta, cereal and crackers.
  • Vegetables.
  • Nuts.

Reading a food Label

The Nutrition Facts panel on a food label gives you information about the nutritional values in foods. It breaks down the values by serving and also tells you how a serving fits into your daily diet amounts. The example below breaks down each part of the label. If you have questions, please talk to your healthcare provider or registered dietitian.

Food Label


For more information about a heart-healthy diet plan, please contact either department below:

Center for Human Nutrition, Digestive Dieases Institute

216.444.3046 or 800.223.2273 ext. 43046

Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation

216.444.9353 or 800.223.2273 ext.49353

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/16/2018.

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