Foods to avoid if you have high cholesterol

Your test results came back stating that you have high cholesterol? What does this mean? And what foods should you avoid to improve your heart health?

What does a high cholesterol result mean?
Cholesterol is a waxy type of fat (lipid), which travels around the body in the blood. It is an essential molecule, as it is required for building cells, producing bile for digestion, and making vitamins and hormones. But when cholesterol is elevated, it increases the risk of cardiovascular issues.

The desirable range for cholesterol in adults is < 200 mg/dL, while 200–239 mg/dL is considered borderline high, and ≥ 240 mg/dL is an unhealthy high cholesterol reading (1).

For children, desirable levels are below 170 mg/mL, borderline high is 170–199 mg/dL, and ≥ 200 mg/dL is unhealthy (2).

How can you lower your high cholesterol?
A combination of losing weight, diet, and exercise is beneficial for improving your cholesterol. Changes include increasing fiber intake, limiting carbohydrate, alcohol, and fat intake, and choosing healthier unsaturated fats instead of saturated and trans fats. Abstaining from smoking and exercising for at least 30 minutes each day is also beneficial (3).

What are specific foods that you should be avoiding or limiting?
The biggest dietary contributors to elevated cholesterol are saturated fats and trans fats. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 6% of daily calories (4). This means you should limit your intake of animal products, such as full-fat dairy products and red meats, tropical oils (e.g., palm and coconut oils), cakes, and biscuits.

Trans fats are also naturally found in some animal products, while artificial trans fats can be found in hydrogenated fat, which is in some processed foods.

Limiting your intake of added sugars, salt, and alcohol is also important. Men should have no more than two drinks per day, and women should have no more than one (5).

What foods should you eat instead?
Fats are important in our diet, as they are needed for energy, supporting cell growth, protecting our organs, keeping us warm, absorption of some nutrients (e.g., fat-soluble vitamins), and hormone production (6). So going completely fat-free is not a good idea.

However, there are good and bad fats. The bad ones are saturated and trans fats, which can raise “bad” LDL cholesterol levels in your blood. So, we want to limit those ones.

But there are also good fats – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These ones can actually lower “bad” cholesterol levels. Good sources of unsaturated fats include oily fish (e.g., salmon), nuts, seeds, avocados, and vegetable oils (6).

A heart-healthy diet includes lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, fish, nuts, and non-tropical vegetable oils, with limited quantities of red and processed meats, salt, and added sugar (4).

1. Third Report of the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (Adult Treatment Panel III) final report. (2002). Circulation. 106 (25), 3143-421.
2. American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Nutrition. Cholesterol in childhood. Pediatrics 1998:101(1);141–147.
3. LDL and HDL Cholesterol: “Bad” and “Good” Cholesterol. CDC. Reviewed Jan 2020.
4. Prevention and Treatment of High Cholesterol (Hyperlipidemia). American Heart Association. Reviewed Nov 2020.
5. Preventing High Cholesterol. CDC. Reviewed Sept 2021.
6. Dietary Fats. American Heart Association.