Statins are a commonly prescribed medication used to lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. However, some people experience side effects from statins and would prefer to lower their cholesterol naturally through diet and lifestyle changes. The good news is that there are many foods that can help replace statins by improving cholesterol levels. Here are some of the top foods to focus on if you’re looking to replace statins with natural alternatives.
Foods High in Soluble Fiber
Soluble fiber has been shown to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber binds to cholesterol in the digestive tract before it can be absorbed into the bloodstream. The cholesterol is then excreted from the body. Foods high in soluble fiber include:
- Citrus fruits
- Flax seeds
Aim for at least 5-10 grams of soluble fiber per day. Eating 1⁄2 cup of oatmeal for breakfast, for example, will provide about 4 grams of soluble fiber.
Foods High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce triglyceride levels as well as slightly lower LDL cholesterol. Foods high in omega-3s include:
- Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, and tuna
- Chia seeds
Aim to eat at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fatty fish per week. Vegetarians can get omega-3s from foods like walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and soybeans.
Foods High in Polyunsaturated Fats
Polyunsaturated fats can help lower LDL cholesterol levels when eaten in place of saturated fats. Foods high in polyunsaturated fats include:
- Sunflower oil
- Safflower oil
- Corn oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower seeds
- Fatty fish
Aim to replace saturated fat from foods like fatty meats, full-fat dairy, and tropical oils with polyunsaturated fats.
Foods High in Monounsaturated Fats
Like polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats can also help lower LDL cholesterol when eaten in place of saturated fats. Foods high in monounsaturated fats include:
- Olive oil
- Canola oil
- Nuts like almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans
- Seeds like sesame seeds
Use olive and canola oil for cooking, dressings, and marinades. Eat a handful of nuts or seeds as a snack.
Foods High in Plant Sterols
Plant sterols are compounds found naturally in plants that can block the absorption of cholesterol. Foods high in plant sterols include:
- Vegetable oils like canola, sunflower, and olive oil
- Nuts like almonds, peanuts, and pistachios
- Seeds like pumpkin and sesame seeds
- Legumes like beans and lentils
- Whole grains like oats, rice, and barley
- Fruits like oranges and apples
- Vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and celery
Eating 2 grams of plant sterols per day can lower LDL cholesterol by up to 10%. Opt for whole foods naturally high in plant sterols or look for foods fortified with sterols.
Soy foods like tofu, edamame, tempeh, and soy milk contain natural compounds called isoflavones that may help lower LDL cholesterol levels. Eating 25-50 grams of soy protein daily has been found to lower LDL levels by 5-6%. Try incorporating soy foods like:
- Soy milk
Be sure to choose whole soy foods rather than processed versions like soy hot dogs or soy protein isolates.
Garlic contains a compound called allicin which has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol by up to 15% in some studies. Eating raw or cooked garlic regularly can help reduce cholesterol levels naturally. Aim for at least 1 clove per day.
Both green and black tea contain antioxidants called catechins that may help lower LDL cholesterol levels. Drinking just 3 cups of tea per day may reduce cholesterol by 5-10%. Go for unsweetened varieties to avoid added sugar.
Beans are a double-whammy for lowering cholesterol as they are high in both soluble fiber and plant sterols. Eating 1⁄2 cup per day can lower LDL cholesterol by up to 8%. Try navy beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, or chickpeas.
Almonds, walnuts, pecans, and other nuts are high in polyunsaturated fats and plant sterols which can help lower LDL cholesterol. Eating 1-2 ounces of nuts daily can reduce LDL cholesterol by 5-10%. Avoid nuts cooked in oil or heavily salted nuts which can be high in unhealthy fats.
Oats contain a type of soluble fiber called beta-glucan which has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol levels. Eating 3 grams of beta-glucan daily from oats can lower LDL levels by 5-10%. Opt for steel-cut or rolled oats rather than flavored instant oatmeal.
Red Yeast Rice
Red yeast rice is made by fermenting rice with yeast. It naturally contains small amounts of monacolins, compounds similar to the cholesterol-lowering statin drugs. Red yeast rice has been found to lower LDL cholesterol by up to 20%. Supplements should contain at least 10 mg of monacolins.
The active compound in turmeric called curcumin may reduce LDL cholesterol levels according to some studies. Adding more turmeric to your cooking or taking a curcumin supplement may help lower cholesterol.
Dark chocolate contains cocoa flavanols which may have beneficial effects on cholesterol levels. Eating about 1 ounce per day can reduce LDL cholesterol by 5-10%. Go for at least 70% cocoa dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate.
Although coconut oil is a saturated fat, it mainly contains medium chain triglycerides which may improve the ratio of good HDL to bad LDL cholesterol. Use coconut oil sparingly to replace other tropical oils and saturated fats.
Along with diet, exercise is important for heart health and managing cholesterol levels. Getting at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise can help lower LDL cholesterol and boost HDL (good) cholesterol. Try brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, or other aerobic exercise.
If you are overweight, losing just 5-10% of your body weight can improve cholesterol levels. Losing weight can lower LDL and total cholesterol while boosting HDL cholesterol. Focus on a healthy diet and regular exercise for weight management.
Quitting smoking improves HDL cholesterol levels while lowering LDL and total cholesterol levels. If you smoke, quitting is one of the best things you can do for your cholesterol levels and heart health.
Moderate alcohol intake of 1 drink per day for women and 1-2 for men can slightly improve HDL cholesterol levels. However, heavier drinking can worsen cholesterol, so limit intake to moderate levels.
Chronic stress may decrease HDL cholesterol levels. Learning stress management techniques like meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, and prayer can help lower stress.
Monitor Vitamin D
Low vitamin D levels have been associated with higher LDL cholesterol. Getting sufficient vitamin D from sunlight, foods, or supplements may help optimize cholesterol levels.
Increase Visceral Whites
Visceral white adipose tissue (vWAT) may play a role in managing cholesterol levels. Strategies that may increase healthy vWAT include exercise, omega-3 fatty acids, and polyphenols.
Consume Soluble Prebiotics
Prebiotics like inulin, fructooligosaccharides (FOS), and galactooligosaccharides (GOS) can promote growth of healthy gut bacteria. Some studies show prebiotics may also improve cholesterol levels.
Eat More Fruits and Vegetables
Eating more fruits and vegetables as part of an overall healthy diet is associated with improved cholesterol levels. Vegetables are high in soluble fiber while fruits contain polyphenols which may be beneficial.
Choose Healthy Proteins
Replacing red and processed meat with plant proteins or lean poultry and fish can lower LDL cholesterol. Beans, lentils, tofu, nuts, and seeds are great plant-based protein choices.
Avoid Trans Fats
Artificial trans fats have been shown to raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol. Avoid fast food, fried foods, baked goods, and processed snacks which often contain trans fats.
Increase Polyphenol Intake
Polyphenols are compounds found in plants that may improve cholesterol levels. Good sources include coffee, apples, citrus fruits, cherries, berries, onions, cocoa, tea, and red wine (in moderation).
Choose Low-Glycemic Foods
Choosing foods that do not spike blood sugar may help manage cholesterol levels. Focus on foods with a low glycemic index like non-starchy vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and some fruits.
In addition to dietary changes, some natural supplements may further help lower cholesterol levels, either alone or in combination with statins. Some supplements with the most evidence include:
- Red yeast rice – May lower LDL cholesterol up to 20%. Take with CoQ10 to prevent side effects.
- Psyllium – A source of soluble fiber that can lower LDL cholesterol 7-10%. Take 5-10 grams daily.
- Plant sterols – Can lower LDL cholesterol up to 12.5%. Aim for at least 2 grams daily.
- Garlic – Standardized garlic extract may lower LDL cholesterol by up to 15%. Take at least 4 mg daily.
- Artichoke extract – May lower total and LDL cholesterol up to 18%. Take at least 1,800 mg daily.
Always consult your doctor before taking supplements, especially with cholesterol medications. While supplements can help, they should be used alongside diet and lifestyle changes for best results.
Foods to Limit
While focusing on cholesterol-lowering foods is important, limiting foods that can raise cholesterol is also key. Foods to limit include:
- Full-fat dairy products
- Fatty meats
- Fried foods
- Packaged snacks and baked goods made with hydrogenated oils
- Tropical oils like coconut and palm oil
- Excess added sugars
Sample Diet Plan
Here is a sample one day diet plan incorporating many cholesterol-lowering foods:
- 1 cup oatmeal made with skim milk and topped with 1 tablespoons ground flaxseed and 1/2 cup blueberries
- 1 cup green tea
- Salad made with mixed greens, carrots, onions, bell peppers, chickpeas, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar
- Whole grain pita sandwich with hummus, sliced turkey, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and avocado
- 1 cup unsweetened iced tea
- 1 apple
- 1 ounce almonds
- 4 ounces grilled salmon
- 1 cup broccoli sautéed in olive oil and garlic
- 1/2 cup brown rice
- 1 cup green tea
- 1 ounce 70% dark chocolate
- 1 cup berries
There are many delicious foods that can help lower cholesterol levels, reducing the need for statin drugs. Focus on increasing soluble fiber, plant sterols, healthy fats and antioxidants through fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fish, olive oil, and tea. Combine a cholesterol-friendly diet with other lifestyle factors like exercise, weight control, and stress management for optimal heart health. Work with your healthcare provider to create a cholesterol-lowering plan that works for you. With natural dietary changes, you can successfully control cholesterol and avoid the need for statin medications.