Need to lower cholesterol? Eating anti-inflammatory foods—like the ones we list here—is just as important as choosing healthy fats.

Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., R.D.
March 23, 2020
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Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle is considered one of the most effective approaches for lowering cholesterol to reduce heart disease risk, and here's why: Inflammation is what causes the oxidation of circulating LDL (aka "bad" cholesterol), the process by which plaque deposits form in blood vessels, leading to heart disease. And this inflammation tends to stick around, creating a "pro-inflammatory environment" that leads to even more oxidative damage and changes in the ratio of "good" and "bad" cholesterol, which causes that buildup of plaque in blood vessels.

Watching fat intake is still important, since fats like saturated fat can trigger inflammation when you eat too much. However, focusing on eating more anti-inflammatory foods is now considered just as important. Check out these top eight anti-inflammatory foods to eat to lower cholesterol.

Pictured Recipe: Instant Pot Vegetarian Chili

Black Beans & Black-Eyed Peas

Black beans and black-eyed peas are two options, but really you can choose any assortment of beans and peas—just get in at least 3 cups a week. Eating this amount, particularly when consumed in place of higher-fat animal proteins or refined carbohydrates (like sugar, or white bread), is one of the best things to do for heart health. This is thanks to beans and peas being great sources of fiber (1/2 cup has 7 to 9 grams), which lowers cholesterol and inflammation. Look for ways to substitute or add in beans and peas during the week. If using canned, opt for no-salt-added, or rinse the beans, to reduce sodium.

Tomato Sauce

Tomato sauce and canned tomatoes are top sources of the phytochemical lycopene, which research suggests acts as an antioxidant to halt the oxidation of LDL cholesterol and reduces inflammation. Lycopene is also found in watermelon, pink grapefruit, apricots and papaya, but because heat increases its bioavailability (or how much of it we actually absorb when we eat it), cooked or minimally processed sources are the best sources. In fact, tomato pastes, sauces, juices and other canned products offer up to five times more lycopene per cup compared to raw sources.

Olive Oil

Remember the days when foods labeled "fat-free" and "cholesterol-free" were considered the healthier options? This approach wasn't the most appetizing and, as it turns out, wasn't that effective. But thanks to research on eating approaches like the Mediterranean Diet, thinking has changed. Today, the focus is on choosing healthier sources of fats and oils for both the prevention and management of high cholesterol and heart disease. And one of the best sources, according to the American Heart Association, is extra-virgin olive oil, which may provide extra benefit thanks to a unique anti-inflammatory compound in it called oleocanthal.

Tea

Sipping on black or green tea may combat high cholesterol and LDL levels thanks to phytochemicals, such as flavonols and catechins. These compounds have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that research suggests may block key enzymes needed to create cholesterol in the body, as well as limit the absorption of some cholesterol from the food you eat. The overall effect is that drinking two to three cups per day has the potential to significantly reduce total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Choose green over black for less caffeine, and keep tabs on overall intake if you're also consuming other caffeinated beverages.

Walnuts

Working 1 to 2 ounces of walnuts into your diet each day is another good way to lower high cholesterol. Meta-analyses published in 2009 and 2015 found that both total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol were significantly reduced in those who ate walnuts daily. These effects are thought to stem from nutrients like heart-healthy unsaturated fatty acids, fiber, vitamin E, phytosterols (a type of antioxidant) and their associated anti-inflammatory effects. Partial to another nut? Other tree nuts like almonds and pistachios, as well as peanuts, offer similar benefits.

Flaxseed

Adding in a little flaxseed each day has the potential to significantly reduce total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol thanks to a type of fiber in them called lignans, as well as a group of antioxidants, called polyphenols, and an omega-3 fatty acid known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). This nutrient combination has anti-inflammatory effects that are credited with significant improvements in the ratio of good and bad fats circulating in your system. Look for ways to add a little ground or whole flaxseed in each day, such as sprinkling it in hot or cold cereal, baked goods and smoothies.

Soy

Similar to other beans and legumes, soy foods like edamame and tofu are good sources of fiber, potassium, magnesium and phytosterol antioxidants, which keep cholesterol levels in check and ease inflammation, especially when consumed in place of animal-based proteins. But soy foods may offer benefits even beyond that thanks to isoflavones, compounds that also target cholesterol in the bloodstream. This means soy foods provide a two-pronged approach to lowering cholesterol.

Cold-Water Fish

Cold-water fish are a great source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat that numerous studies associate with improving heart health. Research suggests that these fatty acids can significantly reduce triglycerides levels. Perhaps more importantly though, they exert a powerful anti-inflammatory effect that helps fight a pro-inflammatory environment—like when your cholesterol is high. Choose omega-3 fish that are lower in mercury such as salmon, canned light tuna, catfish, pollock, sardines and anchovies, and try to get two servings each week.

Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., RD, is author of the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for her ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award, and her work is regularly featured in or on respective websites for Cooking Light, RealSimple, Parents, Health, EatingWell, Allrecipes, My Fitness Pal, eMeals, Rally Health and the American Heart Association. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.