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Top 10 Plant-Based Foods to Lower Cholesterol

Updated: Feb 3, 2023


February is American Heart Month, a time to raise awareness about 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, diabetes, and stress. 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. Exercising can support a healthy weight. Meditation can help to manage stress.


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 (S.A.D.) 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 may lower total cholesterol, reducing your 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.


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. What's more, beans, peas, and lentils, are one common food found in the Blue Zone Diets, which are five areas around the world where people live the longest (centenarians!), have the highest quality of life (independent at 100 years old!), and appear to be the happiest (lots of love and connection around healthy food). Add beans to salads, grain bowls, soups, stews, tacos, or make bean burgers!


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!


7. Purple vegetables and fruits (eggplant, radishes, red onion, blueberries, blackberries, cherries, purple cabbage)


Purple foods contain phytonutrients called anthocyanins, which are what give these foods their pretty purple and red hues. Anthocyanins have been shown to reduce the risk of heart diseases by lowering cholesterol, dilating blood vessels, reducing blood pressure, and acting as prebiotic food for healthy gut bacteria. There are LOTS of puple/red/blue hued foods from which to choose! Add at least one or two to your plate daily.


8. Organic Soy (tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy milk, soybeans)


Foods like tofu that are rich in isoflavones, a type of phytonutrient in plants, that may lower risk of heart disease. One study examined data from 200,000 people and found eating at least one serving of tofu a week was linked to an 18 percent lower risk of heart disease compared to those who rarely ate tofu. Those who benefited the most were young women before menopause or postmenopausal women who were not taking hormones. Try to choose organic and Non GMO when purchasing soy products as most soy products made in the United States are GMO.


9. Alliums (garlic, shallots, onions)


One study showed that the more allium vegetables consumed the lower the risk of vascular disease in older adult women. A number of studies have shown that raw garlic may reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Garlic consumption has been shown to decrease total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. Just one half to one clove of garlic per day may lower cholesterol levels by approximately 10 percent!

10. Seeds (chia, flax, sesame, sunflower, pumpkin seeds)


Incorporating more healthy seeds into your diet can be good for the heart. Tiny, but mighty, seeds have healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids, as well as fiber, protein, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals, which may help to lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, and reduce overall heart disease risk. Sprinkle them on top of oatmeal, make homemade granola, or indulge in chia pudding.


BONUS: Dark chocolate


Dark chocolate is loaded with organic compounds that are biologically active and function as antioxidants. These include polyphenols, flavanols and catechins, among others. Dark chocolate, not milk chocolate, has been shown to improve blood flow and lower blood pressure, reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol, and reduce risk of heart disease. One to one and a half ounces of good quality dark chocolate can be enjoyed as part of a healthy eating plan. Make sure to look for Fair or Direct Trade dark chocolate to ensure ethical practices.


Tips!


Here are some tasty and simple ways to incorporate cholesterol-lowering foods into your diet each day:

  • Prepare a batch of overnight oats with a plant-based milk, chia or flax seeds, some nuts, and a fruit for a plant protein and fiber packed breakfast to start your day!

  • Make a 3-bean salad with leafy greens, radish and garlic.

  • Make a smoothie with leafy greens, berries, and plant-based milk.

  • Roast some veggies in the oven for quick and easy sides.

  • Prepare some raw veggies and hummus for an easy and nutritious snack.


What different ways do you incorporate heart-healthy foods into your meal plan each day? Please comment below, we'd love to hear!



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Hello! My name is Brittany Bogusz and I am a graduate student at Georgia State University. I am pursuing a career in nutrition and it is my goal to be a pediatric registered dietitian. I love being able to teach people about the different areas of nutrition in a fun and eye-catching way, and blogs do just that. Some of my favorite things to do are read, garden, hike, and bake!




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