Want to cut cholesterol without cutting taste? Most people fear that “good for my cholesterol” means joyless (and flavorless) meals. However, a low-cholesterol diet doesn’t have to be all oat bran and tofu.
Here are some simple substitutions you can make to the food you already eat to help fight cholesterol and have a little fun.
Sprinkle Walnuts, Skip Croutons
Higher intakes of highly processed carbohydrates are associated with higher levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL)-cholesterol, also known as bad cholesterol, says the National Library of Medicine (NLM).
For a healthier salad, replace your croutons (which can be high in unhealthy fats and highly processed carbohydrates) with walnuts, which are high in polyunsaturated fat—a good fat that can lower LDL while boosting HDL (aka good cholesterol). The NLM advises that moderate amounts of polyunsaturated (and monounsaturated) fat in place of saturated and trans fats can benefit your health.
Sip Red Wine, Not Cocktails
Research, such as this 2017 large-scale study published in the American Journal of Circulation, suggests that moderate alcohol intake can produce a slight rise in HDL cholesterol, so-called good cholesterol, according to the NLM.
But you might want to swap cocktails for red wine, which contains antioxidants such as flavonoids believed to lower LDL and boost HDL. In addition, a 2022 study published in Foods observed an increase in HDL concentrations and serotonin and dopamine levels with wine consumption.
Given the risks of alcohol, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you limit your daily intake to two glasses (for men) or one glass (for women).
More Edamame and Nuts, Less Cheese and Crackers
For a pre-dinner snack, skip the crackers and cheese, sky-high in saturated fat—one of the prime culprits behind high cholesterol. Instead, put out some almonds, which have been shown to lower LDL. One 2017 study from Penn State found that eating almonds regularly may help boost HDL cholesterol levels while improving how it removes cholesterol from the body.
There’s also edamame, the low-fat boiled baby soybeans that are a common appetizer in Japanese restaurants. One cup contains about 25 grams of soy protein, which is thought to actively lower LDL in small but significant amounts, according to a 2019 study from The Journal of Nutrition. Buy them frozen, dump them into boiling water, and drain them after 5 minutes: That’s all there is to it.
But if you're a true cheese lover, choosing a lower or reduced-fat cheese may also be a good alternative.
Vinegar and Lemon Juice Beats Salad Dressing
As you probably know, drenching a salad in high-fat salad dressing defeats the purpose of making a healthy food choice. According to Medline Plus, cholesterol is in foods of animal origin, such as egg yolks and whole milk dairy products, often found in salad dressings.
Instead, opt for a lower-cholesterol option, says Medline Plus, such as olive oil, vinegar, or lemon juice. Olive oil is a healthier fat and better for cholesterol. Like all fruits and vegetables, lemons are a low-cholesterol option.
Ditch the Butter for Margarine Spread
One tablespoon of butter contains more than 7 grams of saturated fat—more than half of the recommended daily amount for a 2000 calorie/day diet, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). It also contains 10% of your daily value for dietary cholesterol, which, though it isn’t as harmful as was once thought (according to a 2018 study in Nutrients), is one of the main sources of high cholesterol (and atherosclerosis). So, according to the NLM, butter, other animal fats, and solid margarine may not be the best choices.
Alternatives are liquid vegetable oil, such as olive, canola, sunflower, corn, and peanut oils. Switch the butter with a vegetable-oil-based spread; you'll replace bad fat with good fat. And instead of using butter to grease the pan while cooking, try olive oil or white wine vinegar.
Use Ground Turkey, Not Ground Beef
Red meat is a source of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol—two of the main sources of blood cholesterol.
Ground turkey contains half the saturated fat of 85% lean ground beef, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and it can be substituted easily for beef in most recipes.
Chicken Is Ok, Fish Is Better
While they have less saturated fat than red meat, turkey and chicken are not entirely without cholesterol.
One of the best strategies for reducing cholesterol through diet is eating more fish, which is very low in fat and contains heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, says the NLM.
Quinoa Is a Tasty Alternative to Rice
People with high cholesterol will sing this tune once they realize the benefits of quinoa (pronounced “KEEN-wah”), a South American seed serving as a tasty and healthful stand-in for rice or couscous.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), one cup of cooked quinoa has 15% fewer carbohydrates and 60% more protein than a comparable amount of brown rice; it also has 25% more fiber, which can help lower blood cholesterol.
Munch on Popcorn, Not Tortilla Chips
Tortilla chips are often considered a healthy alternative to potato chips. But an even better snack is homemade air-popped popcorn.
According to the USDA, tortilla chips have approximately 3 grams of saturated fat per serving, while air-popped popcorn (without butter) contains just over 0.6 grams of saturated fat per serving, per the USDA.
Skip the Fatty Sour Cream, Choose Fat-free Greek Yogurt
Whether it’s used as a garnish or in a sauce, sour cream adds a shot of saturated fat (just over 10 grams per serving according to the USDA) to otherwise heart-healthy meals.
To cut out that excess fat without sacrificing taste or texture, swap the sour cream with low-fat Greek yogurt—one of the world’s healthiest foods, and just over 1 gram of saturated fat per serving, according to the USDA. Just about any recipe that calls for sour cream can be made with Greek yogurt instead.