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8 cholesterol-lowering foods to add to your diet

The perfect time to start eating for heart health is right now. Use our heart-smart shopping list and money-saving strategies to get started.

Hallie Levine By Hallie Levine

It’s never too late to lower your cholesterol and see a difference in your heart health. In fact, it makes sense to start taking those steps right away. A recent study found that the longer you’ve had high “bad” LDL cholesterol, the greater your risk of having a heart attack.1

The good news, however, is that one of the best ways to lower cholesterol is also the easiest: Start eating a heart-healthy diet. “If we eat more plant foods and less animal-based products, it helps our bodies stay healthy and reduces inflammation,” says Samantha Heller, R.D. She’s a senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Health. One reason plant foods are a smart choice? They’re rich in good-for-you fats, unlike the unhealthy saturated fat found in meat and dairy.

Not sure what to eat first? Here’s a list of top cholesterol-lowering foods, all backed by research. And if you have an Aetna® Medicare Dual Eligible Special Needs Plan, or D-SNP, you can buy these foods with your Healthy Foods card.


Many Aetna® Medicare Dual Eligible Special Needs Plan, or D-SNP, members get a benefit card with a monthly allowance for approved healthy foods. These foods include fruits, veggies and more. Go to AetnaMedicare.com/DSNPInfo to learn more about D-SNP plans.


Oats

Oats are a great source of soluble fiber, which is a gummy type of fiber that binds to cholesterol and removes it from your body. Fun fact: For every gram of soluble fiber you eat, you can lower your LDL by 1 percent.2 Enjoy a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast in the morning. Or add oats to your favorite muffin mix.

Beans

Folks with high cholesterol who ate a cup of beans every day for four weeks saw their total cholesterol and bad cholesterol go down, a recent study found.3 Like oatmeal, beans are a good source of soluble fiber. They’re also high in protein, making them a good substitute for meat.

Canned beans are a great budget-friendly buy. Rinse and drain them to get rid of excess salt. Then add them to salads or pasta, along with other veggies. You can also add pureed beans to your spaghetti sauce. Want a simple snack? Toss canned chickpeas with taco seasoning. Then bake them in the oven until they’re crispy.

Walnuts
 
Healthy older adults who ate a handful of walnuts (about half a cup) daily for two years lowered their total cholesterol by about eight points, a recent study found.4 Their LDL levels also dropped by about four points.

Walnuts are high in a type of omega-3 fatty acid known to improve heart health, says Heller. Some ideas for enjoying walnuts:

  • Sprinkle chopped walnuts over breakfast cereal or oatmeal.
  • Toss walnuts in with your salad.
  • Add chopped walnuts to muffin mixes.
  • Enjoy a small handful of walnuts instead of potato chips as a savory, crunchy snack.

Avocado

Eating an avocado a day lowered LDL cholesterol in overweight or obese adults, one study found.5 Avocados are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, notes Heller. Add avocado slices to salads or sandwiches. You can also use it instead of butter when baking cookies or brownies, she adds.

Canned salmon

Salmon is a good source of protein that’s low in saturated fat. “When you replace meat with healthy options like fish, you improve cholesterol levels,” says Heller. Salmon is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats help lower inflammation and boost heart health.

The American Heart Association recommends that you eat fatty fish like salmon at least twice a week to get those heart-healthy benefits.6 Fresh salmon can be pricy, but canned salmon offers the same health benefits for a lot less money.7

Olive oil

Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fat. This healthy fat helps lower LDL cholesterol. Whenever you can, cook with olive oil instead of butter, says Heller. And don’t worry about buying extra-virgin olive oil. It’s more expensive, but no definitive studies have shown that it’s better than regular olive oil at preventing heart disease.8

Berries

Berries are good for your entire body, including your lungs, brain and heart. Research shows that eating berries may lower your LDL cholesterol and raise your “good” HDL cholesterol.9

Berries are more affordable when they’re in season, usually in the summer months, says Heller. To save money during the colder months, buy them in bulk in the freezer section. Frozen berries have the same nutrients as fresh berries. And they may have even more powerful antioxidants, compounds that may help prevent heart disease.

Spinach

Eating dark leafy greens, such as spinach and kale, has been shown to lower LDL levels. Salad is just one way to enjoy greens. Try adding them to a smoothie. Or pile them onto a sandwich. You can also boil spinach for a minute and then toss it on top of pasta or potatoes with some tomato sauce.

If this feels like a lot of new foods to eat, remember: Small changes count. Just two small daily snacks with heart-smart ingredients (such as walnuts, oats and berries) were enough to lower levels of LDL cholesterol by as much as 9 percent in one study.10

Finally, if you’re taking a cholesterol medication, don’t stop. Instead, talk to your doctor about how your medication and diet can work together to help you reach healthy cholesterol levels.
 


Have questions about your health? If you’re an Aetna® D-SNP member, call your care team. They can help you find answers and get the support and care you need. Go to AetnaMedicare.com/DSNPInfo to learn more about D-SNP plans.


 

1Zhang Y, Pletcher MJ and Vittinghoff E. Association between cumulative low-density lipoprotein cholesterol exposure during young adulthood and middle age and risk of cardiovascular events. JAMA Cardiology. September 22, 2021; 6(12), pp: 1406-1413.

2Cleveland Clinic. 8 cholesterol-lowering foods to try. January 18, 2022. Accessed April 15, 2022.

3Doma KM, Dolinar KF, Ramdath DD et al. Canned beans decrease serum total and LDL cholesterol in adults with elevated LDL cholesterol in a 4-wk multicenter, randomized, crossover study. The Journal of Nutrition, December 3, 2021; 151(12), pp: 3701-3709.

4
American Heart Association. Eating walnuts daily lowered bad cholesterol and may reduce cardiovascular disease risk. August 30, 2021. Accessed April 15, 2022.

5Want L, Tao L, Hao L et al. A moderate-fat diet with one avocado per day increases plasma antioxidants and decreases the oxidation of small, dense LDL in adults with overweight and obesity: a randomized controlled trial. The Journal of Nutrition. February 2020, 150(2), pp: 276-284.

6American Heart Association. Fish and omega-3 fatty acids. November 1, 2021. Accessed April 15, 2022.

7Harvard Medical School. Harvard Health Publishing. Ask the doctor: is canned fish good for the heart? July 11, 2020. Accessed April 15, 2022.

8Harvard Medical School. Harvard Health Publishing. Is extra-virgin olive oil extra healthy? November 1, 2021. Accessed April 18, 2022.

9Basu A. Role of berry bioactive compounds on lipids and lipoproteins in diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Nutrients. September 2019, 11(9), pp: 1983.

10Kopecky SL, Alias S, Klodas E et al. Reduction in serum LDL cholesterol using a nutrient compendium in hyperlipidemic adults unable or unwilling to use statin therapy: a double-blind randomized crossover clinical trial. The Journal of Nutrition. February 2022, 152(2), pp: 458-465.

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