Dietitians Reveal the Top 15 Heart-Damaging Foods to Avoid for High Cholesterol

You eat oatmeal for breakfast, use skim milk in your coffee, and have salads for lunch. Yet, your doctor says your cholesterol is high. How can that be? Many factors increase your total cholesterol, including genetics, lifestyle, and food choices. Eating whole grains and veggies is part of the heart-healthy diet for people with high cholesterol. Still, some of your other food choices may contribute to your elevated cholesterol numbers, particularly LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, often called “bad” cholesterol.

Your liver makes cholesterol, which is used to synthesize hormones, produce vitamins, and build cell membranes. Some people make too much cholesterol or consume foods that increase cholesterol in the blood, resulting in high levels of cholesterol in the blood. High LDL cholesterol can lead to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.

The foods you eat can directly impact your cholesterol levels. For example, foods high in saturated fats can raise LDL cholesterol levels by hindering the receptor that removes the bad cholesterol from the blood. In contrast, foods high in soluble fiber, such as oats and legumes, can help lower LDL cholesterol by binding with the bad fat in the digestive tract, preventing reabsorption into the blood.

Making smart food choices is crucial for managing cholesterol levels and reducing the risk of heart disease. That’s why we compiled a list of 15 of the worst foods for high cholesterol. Some may seem obvious, but others may surprise you. Read on, and for more, don’t miss 86 Unhealthiest Fast Foods On the Planet.

Bacon

Seeing bacon on the list may not come as much of a surprise. Kiran Campbell, RDN, says fatty and highly processed meats like bacon wreak havoc on cholesterol levels because they’re high in saturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to less than 6% of calories, or about 13 grams a day on a 2,000-calorie diet. Two medium slices (16 ounces) of cooked pork bacon have about 2 grams of saturated fat, or 15% of the daily limit.

Beans can make a great addition to your breakfast instead of bacon in recipes, like these huevos rancheros and vegetarian black bean omelet. Research shows that replacing red meat with plant proteins can help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and improve other cardiometabolic risk factors.

Coconut Oil

coconut oil and fresh coconuts

Coconut oil has been promoted as a good fat for baking, frying, and making coffee creamy; however, if you have high cholesterol, you may want to avoid this tropical oil. Sheri Gaw, RDN, CDCES, owner of Sheri the Plant Strong Dietitian warns, “Coconut oil is predominantly made up of saturated fat, which is the type of fat known to raise bad cholesterol.” A 2020 review published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation found that coconut oil consumption significantly increases LDL cholesterol compared to vegetable oils, which are lower in saturated fat.

Replace coconut oil with extra virgin olive oil to support healthy cholesterol levels. When paired with a healthy diet, antioxidant-rich extra virgin olive oil can help lower LDL cholesterol, increase “good” HDL cholesterol, and lower inflammation.

T-Bone Steak

grilled t-bone steak

You don’t have to cut out steak when you have high cholesterol. But you may want to limit the fattier cuts like the T-bone steak, which has almost 9 grams of saturated fat in a 4-ounce cooked portion.

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD, cardiac rehab clinical dietitian at the Cotton O’Neil Heart Center in Topeka, Kansas, says leaner cuts of red meat are rich in nutrients that benefit health. “I always recommend and remind patients to choose cuts that say, “round” or “loin” that are considered lean cuts of beef. My favorite cuts are tenderloin and tri-tip steak. Both have little marbling and fat throughout the meat and about 5 grams of saturated fat or less in a 4-ounce serving.”

Leaner cuts of red meat are a better choice than the T-bone steak, but red meat is not a protein you should eat regularly when you have high cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends limiting red meat consumption to no more than 7 ounces a week.

Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

orange soda

“Kick the can (of soda) if you want to control your lipids,” says Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD, owner of Sound Bites Nutrition. Consuming excessive amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda and fruit drinks is associated with dyslipidemia, abnormal amounts of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood.

Andrews recommends swapping out your sugary drink for unsweetened iced tea, seltzer water, or plain water.

Flour Tortillas

It’s hard to believe, but flour tortillas can raise cholesterol. Commercial baked goods like flour tortillas may contain palm oil or palm kernel oil, Campbell says. Palm oil contains a high amount of saturated fat, and research shows it increases triglycerides, total cholesterol, and “bad” cholesterol or low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

Full-Fat Yogurt

Greek yogurt, concept of snacks for weight loss and muscle gain

Full-fat dairy products may not have as much of an impact on cholesterol as previously thought, according to a 2020 review published in Advances in Nutrition. The evidence to support the general recommendation that everyone should consume low-fat and nonfat dairy products to protect heart health isn’t there.

However, there is also not enough evidence to say with 100% certainty that it’s OK for people with high cholesterol to eat full-fat dairy. The American Heart Association’s most recent recommendations for dairy foods, published in 2023, continue to encourage low-fat and nonfat choices.

Experts agree that dairy products offer many benefits, providing nutrients lacking in many diets, such as calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. But, Campbell warns that full-fat dairy products are high in specific types of saturated fats—palmitic and myristic—that raise cholesterol. An 8-ounce container of plain, full-fat yogurt has almost 5 grams of saturated fat.

Switching to low-fat or nonfat yogurt means you get the nutrients you need, without the unhealthy fat. Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian for personalized guidance.

Sausage

sausage in frying pan

Sausage is another high-fat, processed meat you should limit if you have high cholesterol. A 2-inch link of smoked pork sausage has 1.5 grams of saturated fat, or 11% of the daily limit based on the American Heart Association guidelines. It’s also high in sodium and total fat.

You may consider swapping out pork sausage for a meatless option, but meatless doesn’t mean healthy. Meatless sausage is processed and may have high amounts of sodium and saturated fat.

Read the food label and select meat or meatless sausages with less fat and sodium and more natural ingredients.

Frozen Pizza

frozen pizza

Frozen pizza is another processed food made with unhealthy fats that raise cholesterol. One serving of frozen cheese pizza (199 grams) has 8.5 grams of saturated fat, meeting 65% of the daily limit. Adding any type of fatty meat like sausage or pepperoni means even more saturated fat.

Read the food label and look for frozen pizzas made with part-skim mozzarella cheese and vegetable oil to limit the unhealthy fat. Amy’s Cheese Pizza is made with part-skim mozzarella cheese and extra virgin olive oil and has 5 grams of saturated fat per serving. More importantly, focus on what you need to eat more of, loading up on fruits, veggies, and whole grains to get the fiber that lowers cholesterol, Mussatto says.

Butter

butter stick

Butter isn’t better when you have high cholesterol. It’s a high-fat dairy food with 7.3 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. Mussato recommends swapping “unhealthy fats for olive oil and avocado to slash LDL cholesterol.” A 2023 review published in Cureus found that when avocados were incorporated into a low-fat diet, the avocado diet was associated with decreased LDL levels.

Granola Bars

granola bars

Granola bars are another food promoted as a healthy snack that may not make the best choice if you have high cholesterol. Some brands of granola bars contain palm oil and added sugar—two ingredients that have been shown to impact cholesterol levels. A 2014 review study published in the American Journal of Nutrition found that higher intake of sugar was associated with higher levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. However, the increase was small, and more evidence is needed to confirm these results. One crunchy chocolate chip granola bar has almost 3 grams of saturated fat, more than 2 pieces of cooked bacon.

Instead of granola bars, snack on fresh fruit, whole grain crackers, or unsalted nuts.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate chip cookies

Commercially prepared baked goods like chocolate chip cookies, cupcakes, and donuts contain unhealthy fats and sugar, a double whammy. You don’t need to cut out sweets altogether, but you should eat these treats in moderation. The Dietary Guidelines recommends everyone ages 2 and up limit foods like chocolate chip cookies to avoid consuming too much added sugar and unhealthy fat without much nutrition.

Grapefruit

grapefruit half

Grapefruit is a healthy fruit filled with fiber and vitamin C. But if you take cholesterol-lowering medication, such as the statins Zocor (simvastatin) and Lipitor (atorvastatin), you may need to avoid grapefruit and grapefruit juice. The fruit affects your body’s metabolism of the drugs, increasing levels in the body, which may cause liver damage.

Grapefruit interacts with many medications. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about drug and food interactions to stay safe.

Deep-Fried Fish and Chips

hand battered fish and chips

Fish is a healthy protein filled with beneficial nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and eating more may lower risk of cardiovascular disease—but not the fried kind.

“Deep-fried foods such as fish and chips are high in heart disease-provoking saturated fat and sodium, which override the benefits of heart-healthy omega-3 fats that we get in fish,” Gaw explains.

However, decreasing sodium intake may increase blood cholesterol levels by decreasing total body water content. That being said, your risk of cardiovascular disease increases by 6% for every 1,000 milligram increase of sodium in the diet. Higher sodium intakes increase blood pressure, which, over time, narrows and stiffens the blood vessels, increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. The Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting daily sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams a day.

Instead, order grilled, baked, or broiled fish with roasted potatoes and veggies to support healthy cholesterol levels. While fish consumption has minimal impact on improving cholesterol levels, studies show that it can lead to a more favorable lipid profile by increasing n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and potentially decreasing n-6 PUFA and triglyceride levels.

Microwave Popcorn

Popcorn is a whole grain and a healthy snack choice. Unless you prefer your popcorn to be buttery and salty. Some brands of butter-flavored microwave popcorn contain hydrogenated fats, which are vegetable oils converted into fat that remains solid at room temperature. Turning vegetable oil into a solid fat makes it a lot like the marbled fat in meat, full of unhealthy saturated fat. Three cups of Jolly Time butter-flavored microwave popcorn has over 3 grams of saturated fat.

Hydrogenated fats don’t have trans fat like partially hydrogenated fat. Manufacturers in the United States are no longer allowed to add partially hydrogenated fats to food because they’re a major source of trans fat, unhealthy fat that raises bad cholesterol levels.

Since the discontinuation of partially hydrogenated fats in food, hydrogenated fats have increased. It’s unclear how fully solid vegetable fat may affect cholesterol, but researchers are conducting clinical trials to learn more.

Instead of buttery microwave popcorn, make air-popped popcorn and season it with herbs and spices. Three cups of air-popped popcorn has zero saturated fat and more than 3 grams of fiber.

Unfiltered Coffee

leftover coffee from french press

“Coffee is a great antioxidant food, but it matters how it’s brewed,” says Alyssa Smolen, MS, RDN, CDN, a New Jersey-based registered dietitian and content creator. “French press coffee can raise one’s cholesterol.” Unfiltered coffees—like your French press coffee, cold brew, and cowboy-style boiled coffee—have high levels of diterpenes, a lipid that inhibits the body’s ability to process and remove cholesterol, leading to an increase in blood levels. If you drink unfiltered coffee every morning, it might explain your high cholesterol.

Switching to filtered coffee—also called drip or pour-over coffee—blocks the diterpenes, limiting what reaches the cup and may improve your cholesterol.


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