Home Heart Health Food Got a Minute?: Improve your cholesterol with lifestyle changes

Got a Minute?: Improve your cholesterol with lifestyle changes

9 min read


For optimal health, total cholesterol levels should be less than 200 mg/dL.

The lower your cholesterol numbers, the lower your risk for heart disease and stroke. The first line of defense in beating high cholesterol levels is lifestyle.

Drops in levels can often be seen in people who consistently eat a healthy diet, exercise, quit smoking, lose weight, and drink alcohol in moderation. Even if you already take medications, these changes can improve their cholesterol-lowering effect.

The Mayo Clinic, American Heart Association, and other top cardiology units across the United States promote these five lifestyle changes to improve your cholesterol and overall health.

Eat heart-healthy foods

A few changes in your diet can reduce cholesterol and improve your heart health:

Reduce saturated fats. Saturated fats, found primarily in red meat, processed meats such as hot dogs and bologna, and full-fat dairy products, raise your total cholesterol. Decreasing your consumption of saturated fats can reduce your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — the “bad” cholesterol. If you eat meat every day, try not eating meat one to two days a week.

n Eliminate trans fats. Trans fats, sometimes listed as “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil,” are often used in margarines and store-bought cookies, crackers, cakes, and other processed foods. Trans fats raise overall cholesterol levels. The Food and Drug Administration has banned the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils by Jan. 1, 2021.

n Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids don’t affect LDL cholesterol. However, they have other heart-healthy benefits, including reducing blood pressure. The highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids are in mackerel, herring, tuna, salmon, and trout.

Foods such as walnuts, flaxseed, and canola oil have small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.

n Increase soluble fiber. Soluble fiber can reduce the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream.

Five to 10 grams or more of soluble fiber a day decreases your LDL cholesterol. One serving of oatmeal or oat bran provides 3 to 4 grams of fiber. If you top it with fruit, you will get even more fiber into your system.

Soluble fiber is found in such foods as oatmeal, kidney beans, brussels sprouts, apples, pears and other fruits and vegetables.

Exercise on most days of the week and increase your physical activity

Exercise can improve cholesterol. Moderate physical activity can help raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol. With your doctor’s OK, work up to at least 30 minutes of exercise five times a week or vigorous aerobic activity for 20 minutes three times a week.

Adding physical activity, even in short intervals several times a day can help you begin to lose weight. Consider:

n Taking a brisk daily walk during your lunch hour.

n Riding your bike to work.

n Playing a favorite sport.

To stay motivated, consider finding an exercise buddy or joining an exercise group.

Quit smoking

Quitting smoking improves your HDL cholesterol level. The benefits occur quickly:

n Within 20 minutes of quitting, your blood pressure and heart rate recover from the cigarette-induced spike.

n Within three months of quitting, your blood circulation and lung function begin to improve.

n Within a year of quitting, your risk of heart disease is half that of a smoker.

Lose weight

Carrying even a few extra pounds contributes to high cholesterol. Small changes add up. If you drink sugary beverages, switch to tap water. Snack on air-popped popcorn or pretzels — but keep track of the calories. If you crave something sweet, try a sweet fruit such as a clementine or melon. Savor a bit of dark chocolate to ward off cravings.

Look for ways to incorporate more activity into your daily routine, such as using the stairs instead of taking the elevator or parking farther from your office. Take walks during breaks at work. Try to increase standing activities, such as cooking or doing yardwork.

Drink alcohol only in moderation

Moderate use of alcohol has been linked with higher levels of HDL cholesterol — but the benefits aren’t strong enough to recommend alcohol for anyone who doesn’t already drink.

If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.

Too much alcohol can lead to serious health problems, including high blood pressure, heart failure and strokes.

If lifestyle changes aren’t enough …

Sometimes healthy lifestyle changes aren’t enough to lower cholesterol levels. If your doctor recommends medication to help lower your cholesterol, take it as prescribed while continuing your lifestyle changes. Lifestyle changes can help you keep your medication dose low.

EDITOR’S NOTE: September is National Cholesteroal Education Month. This is the second of a two-part series explaining cholesterol. To read part one, go to http://wdt.me/gotaminute_cholesterol

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at UR Medicine Noyes Health in Dansville. To discuss this article or offer suggestions for future articles, contact Lorraine at [email protected] or (585) 335-4327.

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