The #1 Nutrient to Help Lower Cholesterol, According to a Dietitian
Your body gets cholesterol in two ways: from your liver and from your diet.
But things get sticky when cholesterol begins to build up too much in your bloodstream and starts attaching itself to arteries, potentially causing blockages.
“Cholesterol in the blood increases for a variety of reasons including poor diet, genetics, stress, lack of exercise, high blood pressure and uncontrolled diabetes,” says Veronica Rouse, RD, of The Heart Dietitian.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 100 million U.S. adults have high cholesterol levels, which increases the risks for cardiovascular diseases, the leading cause of death worldwide.
Medication is available to help lower your cholesterol, but the foods you choose can help make a significant difference, too. Our top pick for the No. 1 nutrient to reduce cholesterol is soluble fiber.
How Soluble Fiber Helps Lower Cholesterol
While there are many types of fiber in plant-based foods like popcorn and nuts that you may eat regularly, two common types are soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber slows digestion by absorbing water and turning it into a gel-like consistency, allowing it to work its magic on cholesterol.
“Essentially, soluble fiber acts like a sponge, pulling in excess cholesterol in the digestive tract and taking it out of the body,” says Danielle VenHuizen, M.S., RDN, owner of Food Sense Nutrition. Common food sources of soluble fiber include oats, legumes, berries, vegetables and seeds, and sources of insoluble fiber include whole grains and hearty fruits and vegetables like apples, carrots and potatoes with their skins on.
Insoluble fiber moves more quickly through the digestive tract, adding bulk to stool to help prevent constipation. “While insoluble fiber does not directly lower cholesterol levels like soluble fiber, it plays a critical role in maintaining heart health by promoting regular bowel movements and enhancing gut health—indirectly contributing to cholesterol management,” says Kelsey Costa, M.S., RDN, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant for the National Coalition on Health Care.
Eating both types of health-promoting fiber is vital for a healthy eating pattern. Here’s how soluble fiber shines bright with its cholesterol-lowering effects.
May Prevent Cholesterol Absorption
“Soluble fiber is particularly helpful in lowering cholesterol. That’s because types of soluble fibers called viscous fibers, including pectins, gums, mucilages and some hemicelluloses, are known to reduce LDL, non-HDL and Apo B levels. Viscous fibers form a gel in your gastrointestinal tract and prevent bad cholesterol from being absorbed. One viscous fiber, beta-glucan, is found in foods like oatmeal and barley,” says Kiran Campbell, RD, owner of Kiran Campbell Nutrition.
Science continues to echo the benefits of soluble fiber. “Randomized controlled trials show that eating between 5 and 10 grams of viscous fiber per day may lower your LDL cholesterol level by 5.5 to 11.0 milligrams per deciliter,” says Campbell.
Campbell highlights the studies from a 2023 review published in Advances in Nutrition. Researchers concluded that 15 grams of soluble fiber daily had the greatest effect on lowering total cholesterol levels.
Might Reduce Cholesterol Production via the Gut
The amazing health benefits of fiber are wide-ranging, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention how it can help cholesterol by improving your gut health.
“Unlike other fiber types, soluble fiber is resistant to digestion in the small intestine but is fermented by bacteria into short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) in the large intestine. This process alters the intestinal microbiota, contributing to the cholesterol-lowering effects of soluble fiber. The absorption of these SCFAs, particularly propionic acid, can inhibit cholesterol synthesis in the liver, leading to decreased blood cholesterol levels,” says Costa.
How to Add More Soluble Fiber to Your Diet
Getting more fiber in your diet can be a cinch. First, start by aiming to have it with every meal if you can.
“For my clients with high cholesterol, I am a big advocate for including soluble fiber food choices with every meal. I often recommend adding flax or chia seed with breakfast, high-soluble-fiber fruits like apples or pears with lunch, and legumes or high-fiber grains with dinner. It’s actually quite easy to spread these foods throughout the day and ensure a consistent intake of soluble fiber all day long,” says VenHuizen.
Gradually bump up your fiber intake by making subtle swaps to what you’re already eating to help make it more attainable and sustainable. “Switch to whole-wheat bread, eat rolled oats instead of quick oats, and include a fruit or veggie with every meal. By increasing your consumption of these foods, you’ll increase your fiber intake and get closer to your goal of about 25 to 30 grams of fiber daily,” says Sydnee Mostek, M.S., RDN, ACSM-EP, EIM.
Mostek also encourages adding a meatless day into your week. That way, you’re better able to prioritize high-fiber plant-based choices such as lentils or sweet potatoes, which are foods that have more fiber than an apple.“Swap your refined grains for whole grains, focus on adding more color to your plate, and consider adding psyllium husk fiber into your supplement routine, says Caroline Thomason, RD, CDCES, a dietitian and diabetes educator in Washington, D.C.
Dining out? Here’s a unique recommendation. “Check out your local vegan restaurants. You may be surprised at how good vegan food actually can be!” says Mostek. Vegan meals are often built around high-fiber foods such as beans, whole grains, nuts and more.
One helpful thing to note: upping your fiber intake requires staying hydrated, trust us.
“A common issue people have when they increase the fiber in their diet is they actually find it hard to go to the bathroom. That’s usually because they have forgotten that when they add more fiber, they also need to increase the amount of water they drink. Make sure, if you’re increasing your fiber to lower your cholesterol, that you drink more water, too.
This combination will help to lower cholesterol,” says Michelle Saari, RD, M.Sc., a health and nutrition expert at the National Coalition on Health Care.
The Bottom Line
Soluble fiber is a beneficial nutrient that may help naturally lower cholesterol. Maintaining healthy cholesterol ranges may protect against cardiovascular diseases like stroke and heart attack. Overall, it’s not just one nutrient that is the cure-all for cholesterol reduction; medication and lifestyle changes may be necessary.
“Nutrition is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to lowering cholesterol. I recommend getting regular joyful exercise, doing your best to get adequate sleep, staying hydrated, managing stress in healthy ways and not smoking. Keep in mind that genetics often play a role in a person’s cholesterol, which is unfortunately out of our control,” says Caroline Young, M.S., RD, LD, RYT, owner of Whole Self Nutrition.
Talk to your medical provider or registered dietitian for more help managing your cholesterol levels. Until then, check out our low-cholesterol diet plan for plenty of fiber and other heart-healthy nutrients to get you started.