High cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease and heart attacks. While medication can help, many patients choose to implement diet and activity modifications in order to lower their cholesterol levels. Even if you already take medication for cholesterol management, making some changes to your lifestyle can provide you with greater results.
Cholesterol is a soft and waxy substance that is found in animal products. It isn’t all bad—your body actually needs cholesterol in order to form cell walls, digest food, and produce hormones. However, your liver makes the cholesterol that your body needs to function, so you do not need to consume any extra in your diet.
When you consume too much cholesterol, it builds up in your artery walls in the form of plaque. This is dangerous because your arteries are responsible for delivering blood throughout your body. When plaque builds up, blood flow to your heart is hindered.
Your cholesterol levels are measured by a lipid profile, which is a blood test that looks at total cholesterol, low-density lipoproteins (LDL—the “bad” cholesterol), high-density lipoproteins (HDL—the “good” cholesterol), and triglycerides. LDL is considered to be the “bad” cholesterol because it deposits cholesterol in the blood vessel walls, while HDL is known as the “good” cholesterol because it helps to carry cholesterol from artery walls to the liver, where it is excreted.
If your doctor tells you that your cholesterol is high, you may need to take action to make sure that you are only consuming 200 mg or less of cholesterol per day through:
1. Changing your fats – Trans fats lower HDL cholesterol and raise LDL cholesterol, a combination that can increase your risk of heart attacks. These fats are found in fried foods and in many packaged products, including cookies and crackers. It can be tricky to find foods that are free of trans fats, because packages can legally be labeled free of trans fats as long as they contain less than 0.5 grams in a serving. These small amounts can add up, so make sure to carefully read ingredient lists and avoid anything that lists hydrogenated oils.
Additionally, saturated fats can raise your total cholesterol and your LDL cholesterol. Aim for getting less than seven percent of your daily calories from saturated fats, which are commonly found in dairy items and red meat. You can opt for low-fat dairy products and lean meats, or even strive to have a couple vegetarian meals each week.
2. Increasing fiber and omega-3 fatty acid intake – Soluble fiber, which is found in beans, lentils, fruits, oats, and oat bran, can help to lower your LDL cholesterol. Foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, almonds, walnuts, and flax seeds, can help to increase your HDL cholesterol and reduce your blood pressure.
3. Exercising regularly – With your doctor’s permission, you can raise your HDL cholesterol through regular physical activity. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise a day by playing sports, swimming, riding a bike, or taking a walk. Small changes add up quickly, so look for opportunities throughout the day to be more active.
4. Making positive lifestyle changes – Depending on your current health situation, there may be other things that you can do to reduce your total cholesterol. By quitting smoking, you can improve your HDL cholesterol levels. And if you are overweight, losing five to 10 percent of your total weight can improve your cholesterol levels.
Overall, your doctor can give you specific tips for lowering your cholesterol and increasing your risk of health problems that are tailored to your situation.