9 Foods That Do Not Raise Cholesterol

More than 98 million Americans age 20 and up have cholesterol levels over the healthy maximum of 200 milligrams per deciliter, according to a 2013 American Heart Association report. If you’re one of the 32 million people with high cholesterol -- a reading of 240 milligrams per deciliter or higher -- your risks for heart disease, heart attack and stroke are hefty. In addition to avoiding smoking and staying active, eating a healthy diet can help keep your cholesterol levels and overall wellness in-check. Read on to find out 9 foods that do not raise cholesterol and are perfectly acceptable as part of a healthy diet – some might surprise you!

1. Eggs

Rich in dietary cholesterol, eggs have long been a vilified food when it comes to heart health. Depending on the size of the egg, one yolk can contain up to 185 milligrams of cholesterol, according to the USDA Nutrient Database. “It is not the cholesterol in the egg yolk that is the problem,” said Barry Sears, a biochemist and president of the Inflammation Research Foundation in Marblehead, Massachusetts, “but the high levels of arachidonic acid that potentially increase inflammation in the arterial wall.” Americans tend to overconsume essential omega-6 fats like arachidonic acid and lack essential omega-3s. To reap eggs’ nutritional benefits, such as vitamins B-12 and D, without damaging your cardiovascular health, the Harvard School of Public Health recommends limiting your intake to one egg daily if you have heart disease or diabetes.

Related: 17 Reasons Why You Probably Need More Omega-3s in Your Diet

2. Olive Oil

Can Sardines Raise Cholesterol?

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Because cholesterol is a fat produced by your liver and found in various foods, avoiding fat-rich foods if you're prone to high cholesterol may seem practical, but – keep in mind -- not all dietary fats or sources are nutritionally equal. As a solid fat source, butter may increase your cholesterol levels, according to biochemist and Inflammation Research Foundation President Barry Sears, because “bad” LDL cholesterol requires fluidity. Sears recommends a heart-healthy alternative: “Olive oil would be an excellent choice.”

Related: What Are Solid Fats?

3. Nuts

An analysis of 25 nut consumption studies published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2010 showed that daily nut intake can lower overall cholesterol and triglyceride levels and improve the ratio of “bad” LDL cholesterol and “good” HDL cholesterol. “Most nuts are low in saturated and omega-6 fats, and high in polyphenols,” biochemist Sears says. “That's a winning combination to reduce inflammation.” He recommends aiming for about 1 ounce per day, which is equal to about 24 almonds, 35 peanuts or 18 medium-size cashews.

Related: 9 of the Healthiest Nuts (that May Help You Live Longer)

4. Yogurt

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In a study published in the European Heart Journal in 2013, the dairy intake and heart disease risk factors of 3,078 adults ages 35 to 64 were analyzed. Participants who consumed the highest amount of low-fat dairy products showed the lowest risks for heart disease. Additionally, no significant link was drawn between high-fat dairy intake and heart disease markers. “Dairy products are an important part of our nutritional health,” said Dr. Tiffany Sizemore-Ruiz, a concierge medicine physician, internist and cardiology fellow who specializes in diet, nutrition and preventative medicine in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “They are full of calcium, protein and a multitude of vitamins." For maximum benefits without excess saturated fat and calories, she recommends opting for low-fat and part-skim varieties of yogurt, cheese and milk.

5. Whole Grains

In a study published in The Journal of Nutrition in January 2012, 79 overweight or obese women consumed a calorie-restricted diet either containing refined-wheat or whole-wheat products for 12 weeks. While refined grains increased participants’ total and LDL cholesterol levels, whole grains did not. “Whole-wheat and whole-grain products are some of the healthiest products you can consume,” said Dr. Tiffany Sizemore-Ruiz, a concierge medicine physician, internist and cardiology fellow. Rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber, whole grains also promote weight control, strong immune function and overall health.

Related: 16 Diet-Friendly Healthful Carbs

6. Seafood

While most seafood varieties contain similar amounts of cholesterol per ounce as beef and pork, according to Columbia University Health Services, they can bring exceptional benefits to a heart-healthy diet. Cold-water fish enhance cardiovascular health in multiple ways, providing omega-3 fats, which reduce inflammation, lower LDL cholesterol and boost positive HDL. Fish particularly rich in omega-3s include mackerel, salmon, flounder, herring and sardines. Healthy cooking methods include baking, poaching and grilling fish in olive oil. To stave off high blood pressure risks, the American Heart Association recommends seasoning fish and other dishes with natural herbs, spices and vinegar and limiting salt.

Related: 5 Dangerous Fish and 3 Safer Seafood Choices

7. Chocolate

You don't have to give up chocolate to keep your arteries healthy. In a study published in European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2011, researchers analyzed 10 trials involving the effects of dark chocolate and cocoa products on cholesterol levels. While the cocoa products did little to improve HDL cholesterol or triglycerides, they significantly lowered LDL and total cholesterol levels. Because chocolate products tend to be high in calories, fat and added sugar, stick to moderate amounts of dark chocolate, which contains the most nutritional benefits. Add unsweetened baking cocoa to healthy foods, such as oatmeal, or drizzle melted dark chocolate on fresh fruit for a healthy dessert.

Related: Chocolate and Cholesterol Study

8. Lean Red Meats

Lean poultry has long been considered the heart-healthiest meat, but recent studies show that some red meats suit a healthy cardiovascular diet equally. Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition in September 2011 compared the impact of lean white chicken to lean lamb on cholesterol levels in women, and found no difference between the two. Both fit equally well within a healthy diet, the study concluded. If you have high cholesterol, biochemist Sears suggests focusing on lowering your LDL levels by following an anti-inflammatory diet geared toward blood sugar control, then limiting red meat to two servings per month. Anti-inflammatory foods that promote blood sugar control include cold-water fish, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and unsaturated fat sources, such as nuts, seeds and avocados.

Related: Tips to Choose the Healthiest Red Meat

9. Seeds

Seeds are rich in nutrients beneficial for cholesterol health. They also contain valuable amounts of fiber and protein, which promote appetite control. A study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry in 2010 showed that adding fenugreek seeds to a cholesterol-rich diet improved blood cholesterol levels in rats. Researchers attributed these effects to the seeds' rich antioxidant properties. Other heart-healthy, antioxidant-rich seeds include flaxseeds and hemp seeds. Sprinkle seeds on other healthy foods, such as curries, yogurt and salads, or snack on a small handful of seeds instead of munching on low-nutrient foods, such as candy or pretzels.

Related: Fenugreek and Cholesterol Study

What Do YOU Think?

Are you aware of your cholesterol levels? Have you had them checked by your doctor, and do you know your current numbers? When managing cholesterol health, keep in mind that your overall dietary and lifestyle habits matter more than foods you eat only occasionally. Work heart-healthy foods into a balanced diet, exercise regularly and do your best to manage emotional stress, which also plays a role in cardiovascular health. Which foods do you eat for cholesterol-related benefits? Which foods do you tend to avoid due to cholesterol issues? Leave a comment below and let us know.