5 "Bad" Grains You Should Eat for Better Cholesterol, According to Dietitians

Power up your plate with whole grains for better heart health.

a recipe photo of the Barley Soup


If your goal is to bolster your heart health, you'll want to add some grains to your plate. 

Some people may think that grains aren’t good for your health. However, "Whole grains are an important part of a balanced diet, especially when it comes to heart health and cholesterol management," says Julie Pace, RDN, functional dietitian and owner of Core Nutrition Health and Wellness. 

But the keyword here is "whole." Whole grains aren't refined, so they contain the entire grain kernel, including the nutrient-dense bran and germ, whereas refined grains only contain the endosperm. 

Consuming whole grains more often than refined grains is shown to improve total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (known as "bad"), as well as some inflammation markers, such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TFN-α).  

"Opting for whole grains over refined grains means you’ll consume more fiber, which is a key component for heart health and cholesterol reduction," Pace says.

Below, dietitians explain how grains can help reduce your cholesterol levels and which “bad” grains they recommend adding to your meal plan.

How Do Grains Affect Your Cholesterol?

Grains often get a bad rap because they're high in carbohydrates, but the carbohydrates they contain actually come with many benefits that are often overlooked. Whole grains are one of the best sources of fiber, a type of carb that helps support healthy cholesterol levels and heart health. 

"Choosing whole grains, which are rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber, can lower LDL (the 'bad') cholesterol and triglycerides without reducing HDL (the 'good') cholesterol," Pace says. 

While both types of fiber are important to include in the diet, the soluble kind helps with cholesterol. "The soluble fiber forms a gel-like structure in the intestine and binds with cholesterol to flush it out of our body," says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDCES, FAND, plant-based food and diabetes expert.  

Research has shown that each 5-gram increase in soluble fiber per day helped reduce total cholesterol by about 6 milligrams per deciliter (6 mg/dL)  and LDL cholesterol by 8 mg/dL.

What's more, the bacteria in your gut can ferment soluble fibers very easily. As the gut bacteria ferment the fiber, they produce beneficial short-chain fatty acids. Along with acting as a source of energy, short-chain fatty acids have been shown to decrease cholesterol production in the liver, leading to lower cholesterol levels.

5 "Bad" Grains to Eat for Better Cholesterol 

1. Oats

It seems like every other day, there's another self-proclaimed health expert berating oats on social media. But this popular breakfast staple is one of the best sources of beta-glucan, a type of heart-healthy soluble fiber. Oat beta-glucan was shown to significantly reduce total and LDL cholesterol levels in people with hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol).

There are many different ways to eat oats, including sweet and savory. To increase the grains' staying power, try adding a scoop of your favorite protein powder or mix in eggs or cottage cheese for added protein. For inspiration, try our ​Savory Oatmeal with Cheddar, Collards & Eggs.

2. Pasta

It's time to rid pasta of its Public Enemy #1 reputation. Pasta can be heart-healthy, especially if you choose whole grain over regular.

Unlike refined white pasta, whole-wheat or whole-grain pasta is rich in fiber. "Fiber plays a key role in preventing blood sugar spikes, reducing the risk of excessive sugar in the bloodstream, which helps to prevent increases in triglycerides and cholesterol levels," Pace says.

For your next pasta night, try this Whole-Grain Spaghetti with Italian Turkey Sausage, Arugula & Balsamic Tomato Sauce recipe which is rich in fiber and protein.

3. Whole-Grain Bread

Limit the white bread and go for a hearty whole-grain variety. "When choosing bread, look for whole-grain bread or one made with a variety of whole grains to provide fiber and other key nutrients to support heart health and improve cholesterol levels," Sheth recommends. 

Whole-wheat and other whole-grain breads still have the bran and germ intact, and that's where all the cholesterol-lowering nutrients are. "Typically, refined breads do not provide these key nutrients, and when consumed in excess, they can negatively affect cholesterol," Sheth says. And if you’re up to making your own, this Whole-Wheat Sourdough Bread recipe will help you get started. 

4. Barley 

Much like oats, barley is a stellar source of beta-glucan, the type of soluble fiber that has been shown to promote heart health.

Sheth recommends enjoying whole-grain barley instead of refined versions. "Whole-grain barley provides these cholesterol-lowering benefits while also adding variety and flavor to your meals.”

This hearty Bean and Barley Soup requires just 15 minutes of prep time, making it much easier to hit your daily fiber goals. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults aim to get between 22 and 34 grams of fiber daily, depending on age and sex.

5. Rice

While white rice can be part of a heart-healthy diet, choosing brown rice most often can provide specific heart-related benefits. Brown rice contains additional fiber, which can help lower LDL cholesterol levels while promoting heart health. 

In addition to cholesterol-lowering fiber, brown rice contains plant compounds called phytosterols that have been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol levels. Enjoying this delicious Coconut Brown Rice is a flavorful way to reap cholesterol-related benefits. 

The Bottom Line

Don't let misconceptions deter you from reaping the cholesterol-lowering benefits of whole grains. "Enjoying a variety of whole grains in your diet can positively impact your overall health and help with cholesterol levels," Sheth says. 

For heart-healthy benefits, choose whole grains more often than refined ones. Check the ingredient list to identify if the item you’re buying contains whole grains—the word “whole” should be listed before the grain. 

Sheth recommends incorporating at least three to five servings of whole grains per day. A great way to achieve that recommendation is to include more oats, whole-wheat pasta and bread, barley, and brown rice in your diet.

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