Top 10 Plant-Based Foods to Lower Cholesterol

Updated: Apr 26

February is American Heart Month, a time to bring awareness to heart disease and reflect on habits we have in place that tend to a healthy heart. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States and it's not just a disease for older adults. About 18.2 million adults age 20 and older have coronary artery disease and approximately 2 in 10 cardiovascular-related deaths happen in adults less than 65 years of age. No matter what your age, it's important to care for your heart.

Risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, lack of exercise, unhealthy diet, excessive alcohol, obesity, and diabetes. Many of these are lifestyle factors that can be managed. For example, eating more plant-based foods can help to lower cholesterol, decrease blood pressure, manage weight and blood sugar, and reduce inflammation.

What is Cholesterol?

How to Lower LDL Cholesterol and Triglycerides

What you eat can have profound effects on your risk of heart disease. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is low in fiber. In fact, less than five percent of Americans get the recommended amount of fiber each day, which is 25 grams a day for women and 38 grams a day for men (these are minimums!). Animal products, such as dairy and meat, have no fiber. Fiber can only be found in plant-based foods. Soluble fiber is one type of fiber that can lower cholesterol. It's found in apples, beans, pears, oats, and chia seeds, just to name a few. Fiber can also help to build a healthy gut, leading to less inflammation and reducing the risk of heart disease.

Plant-based foods are naturally low in saturated fat and have more heart-healthy unsaturated fat, which is favorable for a healthy heart.

Plants also have compounds called phytonutrients, or “plant nutrients,” that have been shown to act like antioxidants by scavenging free radicals and lowering LDL cholesterol. Many phytonutrients can also reduce your risk of heart disease by dilating blood vessels, and improving blood flow.

Below are 10 foods or food groups that are packed with fiber and phytonutrients, which can lower unhealthy cholesterol and raise good cholesterol, reducing your overall risk of heart disease.

1. Oats (and other whole grains)

Whole grains are high in fiber, phytonutrients, and antioxidants. In observational studies, whole grain intake is consistently associated with improved cardiovascular disease outcomes, as well as with healthy lifestyles. Each whole grain has its own set of nutrients and each could potentially affect cardiovascular risk through different mechanisms. For example, whole grains high in viscous (soluble) fiber, like oats and barley, can decrease LDL cholesterol and blood pressure, and also improve blood sugar and insulin responses. Grains high in insoluble fiber (wheat) may lower blood sugar and blood pressure, and also have a prebiotic effect, which can foster a healthy gut.

2. Beans, lentils and peas (black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas)

One review looked at prospective research studies that assessed consumption of legumes in regard to the risk for cardio-metabolic diseases and risk factors associated with heart disease and found that those who consumed the most legumes reduced incidence rates for cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and hypertension by as much as 10 percent when compared to those with the lowest intakes. Beans, lentils, and peas benefit cardiovascular health because they are high in fiber, plant protein, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, but low in fat and free of cholesterol, according to the study authors. Add beans to salads, grain bowls, soups, and in tacos.

3. Nuts (walnuts, pistachios, pecans, Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews)

Studies show that people who regularly eat nuts are less likely to have heart attacks or die from heart disease than those who rarely eat them. Several of the largest long-term studies, including the Adventist Study, the Iowa Women’s Health Study, and the Physician's Health Study, have shown a consistent 30 percent to 50 percent lower risk of heart attack, sudden cardiac death, or cardiovascular disease associated with eating nuts several times a week. In fact, the FDA allows some nuts and foods made with them to carry this claim: “Eating a diet that includes one ounce of nuts daily can reduce your risk of heart disease.” Try a handful of nuts or homemade trail mix as a heart-healthy, energizing, and satisfying snack each day.

4. Avocados

Some studies show that avocados can lower LDL cholesterol. One systematic review and meta-analysis showed that avocados can raise HDL (however, unlike the other studies, these studies showed no reduction in LDL cholesterol or triglycerides). Overall, avocados have lots of fiber (almost 10 grams per avocado), healthy monounsaturated fat, and plenty of phytonutrients, giving them credit as a heart-healthy food. In fact, one article's headline states: "An Avocado a Day Keeps the Cardiologist Away." It's time to start that new avocado (whole grain) toast habit!

5. Leafy Greens (kale, spinach, arugula, Romaine lettuce)

In one study, researchers looked at data from over 50,000 people in Denmark participating in the Danish Diet, Cancer, and Health Study over a 23-year period. They found that people who consumed one cup of leafy greens daily significantly reduced blood pressure and lowered their risk of heart disease by 12 to 26 percent. Leafy greens contain a substance called nitrates that produce the heart healthy effects. They also have other nutrients that support heart health, such as vitamin E, folate, vitamin C, carotenoids, calcium, magnesium, and fiber. One cup is only about the size of your hand—easy peasy! Stir leafy greens into soups, make a dark leafy green salad, or swap out bread with leafy greens as your sandwich "wrap."

6. Cruciferous Vegetables (broccoli, bok choy, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, radishes, cabbage, kale)

Cruciferous vegetables contain substances called organo-sulfur compounds that have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease as well as other lifestyle diseases such as cancer. They're also a good source of fiber, calcium, magnesium and potassium, which also have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and support heart health. Roasted, steamed, raw, or stir-fried — consume these nutrient-packed veggies any way you enjoy them!