Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance in the blood that, in normal amounts, helps your cells function properly. There are two kinds of cholesterol — HDL or “good” cholesterol, and LDL or “bad” cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is the kind that contributes to hardening of the arteries and arterial plaque that can block arteries and cause a heart attack or stroke. HDL cholesterol, by contrast, helps remove excess LDL cholesterol from the blood. And a HDL level of below 40 to 50 mg/dL is bad news for your heart, and a level above 70 to 130 mg/dL of LDL cholesterol can spell trouble, depending on whether you are otherwise healthy, currently at risk for heart disease, or already suffering from heart disease.
While there are some causes of high cholesterol you can’t change — such as your genetics — there is a lot you can do to lower your cholesterol levels through diet, exercise, and other healthy lifestyle choices. If lifestyle choices alone aren’t enough to bring your cholesterol within safe levels, medication can be a very effective way to bring your cholesterol under control.
1. Eat Right
While the body does make its own cholesterol, dietary fats and cholesterol can also affect your blood cholesterol levels. You can improve your numbers by avoiding saturated and trans fats, and choosing monounsaturated fats instead. Do this by avoiding red meat, full-fat dairy products, fried foods, mass-produced baked goods, or any foods made with fats that are solid at room temperature — like butter and lard. All of these foods tend to be high in saturated and trans fats.
You should be aware that while foods sold in the United States may say “trans fat free” on the label that may not technically be the case. American food manufacturers are allowed to affix this label to their products if said products contain fewer than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but the American Heart Association recommends eating no more than two grams of trans fats per day if you are on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. One warning sign to look out for is any kind of partially hydrogenated oil on the ingredients list.
In addition to cutting back on trans and saturated fats, eat more fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, like sardines and salmon, are a good bet for heart health. Take it easy on the nuts, though, since they can be calorie-dense.
Regular exercise can help you control your blood cholesterol even if you’re not overweight. Aim for no less than 30 minutes of exercise five or more days a week. You don’t have to do it all at once. Three 10-minute walks are just as beneficial as one 30-minute walk. Find a workout partner, join an exercise class or group, or choose activities you enjoy to help keep your motivation up. Turn exercise into a family activity — take a walk with your partner or throw a ball around with the kids.
3. Lose Weight
If you’re overweight, losing weight can help you bring your cholesterol within healthy limits. Losing weight can be a daunting prospect, but watching what you eat and exercising regularly can make it easier. If you have a lot of weight to lose, don’t be overwhelmed — you don’t have to lose all of your extra weight to see benefits. Losing just 10 percent of your total body weight can make a big difference in your cholesterol levels.
4. Take Medication
For many people, eating right, exercising, and maintaining a healthy weight just aren’t enough to keep cholesterol levels in check. For these patients, genetics is often a bigger factor in high cholesterol than lifestyle. If you’re one of the many people who still need help with high cholesterol even after making lifestyle changes, statins like Lipitor and Zetia can lower your LDL cholesterol by 20 to 60 percent.
5. Avoid Alcohol and Tobacco
If you smoke or use chewing tobacco products, quitting can improve your HDL cholesterol level. Your risk of having a heart attack drops within 24 hours of smoking your last cigarette, and your risk of heart disease plummets to half that of a smoker within one year of putting out your last butt.
While moderate alcohol use may help keep your HDL levels within the acceptable range, most people don’t actually understand what “moderate” alcohol use is. If you’re a woman, moderate alcohol use means having no more than one drink a day; if you’re a man, you can have two drinks a day before your alcohol use becomes problematic. Drinking too much alcohol can cause life-threatening problems including high blood pressure and stroke.
You don’t have to let high cholesterol compromise your health. When you make healthy changes, you can take control of your cholesterol instead of letting it take control of you.