Some high-cholesterol risk factors, such as family history and age, can’t be controlled. However, many lifestyle choices you can make do have the potential to lower cholesterol and reduce your risk of related health problems like heart disease. Even good habits can take time to become second nature, so give these positive steps a chance to take hold. As you begin to feel better, being healthy will be a reward in itself.
1. Get Moving
According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health, people who are inactive are almost twice as likely to develop heart disease as those who work some type of fitness into their schedule on a regular basis. This is true even when no other factors for heart disease exist.
Exercise helps increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the “good” kind of cholesterol that helps keep low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol in check. Reduce your risk for high cholesterol and heart disease by finding ways to get at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Lowering cholesterol naturally can be as simple as a walk around your neighborhood or working out with a DVD borrowed from your local library.
2. Maintain a Healthy Weight
Being overweight contributes to high cholesterol. Kevin R. Campbell, MD, cardiologist and cardiac electrophysiologist at Wake Heart & Vascular (WHV) in Raleigh, N.C., advises taking steps to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. “Reducing body mass index (BMI) and body weight even as little as 5 to 10 percent can lower LDL cholesterol,” Dr. Campbell says.
Diet and exercise work together to keep you at a healthy weight. In your diet, choose fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, and avoid foods high in saturated fats, such as chips, cookies, and fatty cuts of meat, which will sabotage your efforts. Dr. Campbell recommends reaching for options that help manage weight and also have the added benefit of being “cholesterol-smart” — foods that can actually lower cholesterol, such as nuts, certain dried fruits, and seafood.
3. Go a Little Nutty
A critical review by researchers at North-West University in South Africa of 23 scientific studies worldwide found that eating 1½ to 3½ servings of nuts at least five times a week as part of a heart-healthy diet could significantly decrease both total cholesterol and LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Campbell suggests replacing foods high in saturated fats with almonds, walnuts, or other nuts rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids. A handful of nuts will leave you feeling fuller and more satisfied longer than processed foods such as cookies or crackers.
4. Fill Up on Fiber
Not only will eating foods high in soluble fiber help you feel fuller longer, but choices such as barley have also been shown to reduce cholesterol. Fiber-rich kidney beans, oatmeal, apples, pears, and prunes are all cholesterol fighters because they help decrease the absorption of cholesterol from the bloodstream, Campbell explains.
5. Eat Fish for Supper Twice a Week
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults eat approximately 8 ounces of a variety of seafood each week. This could be two 4-ounce servings or three 3-ounce servings, depending on your selections. Varieties such as salmon, tuna, oysters, mussels, clams, and calamari all provide lots of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce blood pressure. “Studies have also demonstrated that omega-3 fatty acids are associated with a reduction in sudden cardiac death,” Campbell says.
6. Snack on Dried Apples
Although all fruits contain fiber, dried apples are a particularly good choice. A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that participants who ate 1 cup of dried apples each day lowered their LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels by 13 percent in six months. Keep a package of dried apples handy so you aren’t tempted to reach for a candy bar or other junk food when hunger hits.
7. Relax With a Glass of Red Wine
“Red wine contains antioxidants called polyphenols, substances that protect the lining of the blood vessels that could become blocked due to high cholesterol,” Campbell explains. But this doesn’t mean you should start drinking wine by the bottle. “Wine should be consumed in moderation and accompanied by a healthy diet with regular physical activity,” says Campbell. Moderation means one glass a day for women and two for men. One serving of wine is considered to be 5 ounces, which may be smaller than you think.
8. Cut the Fat Out of Cooking
The benefits of planning healthy meals can be instantly undone if you choose the wrong cooking methods. Avoid frying with shortening, oil, or butter. Instead, use cooking spray to lightly coat a pan before preparing your food or, better yet, try baking, steaming, or broiling your favorite foods. Add flavor to dishes by using fat-free broths, herbs, spices, or lemon juice.
9. Try a Menu Overhaul
If your doctor is concerned that your cholesterol levels have or may reach the point where medication is needed, it could be time to consider a more aggressive lifestyle change. A study published in the The Journal of the American Medical Association showed that incorporating more cholesterol-fighting plants, nuts, and high-fiber grains into a diet under close supervision from a doctor, called a “portfolio” diet, lowered “bad” LDL cholesterol more than simply following a traditional low-saturated-fat diet. “The drop in LDL cholesterol was large enough that the dietary changes could be an alternative to statin medications in some people,” Campbell added. Talk with your doctor to see if this is an option for you.
10. Quit Smoking
Among many other health hazards of cigarettes, a study from the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart Lung and Blood Institute found that smoking causes a decrease in HDL or “good” cholesterol. Without a healthy level of HDL cholesterol to prevent LDL cholesterol from taking over, you are more at risk for clogged arteries and heart disease. If you smoke, work with your doctor on a comprehensive plan to quit.