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6 things you can start doing today to lower your cholesterol
There are a few simple things you can do on your own, without medication, to bring down your cholesterol levels and boost your heart health.
If you have high cholesterol, here’s some good news: You have control over many of the ways to lower your levels. In fact, making a few smart changes to your daily lifestyle may be enough to keep you off medication.
The first goal is to lower your LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Too much LDL cholesterol can cause fatty deposits to build up in your arteries. That can lead to a heart attack or stroke. At the same time, you want to raise your levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol. It actually helps clear away those fatty deposits.1
“Your good cholesterol is kind of like the vacuum for bad cholesterol. It takes about one-quarter of the bad cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it can be broken down and eliminated from the body,” says Taylor C. Wallace, Ph.D., principal and CEO at the Think Healthy Group. Wallace is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at George Mason University.
Here are some healthy cholesterol numbers to aim for:
- LDL: Below 100 mg/dL is ideal if you’re generally healthy. If you have risk factors such as heart disease or blood vessel disease, your doctor may want your LDL levels below 70 mg/dL.
- HDL: For men, 40 mg/dL or higher is good. For women, it’s 50 mg/dL or higher. Ideally, 60 mg/dL or more offers the best protection against heart disease for both men and women.
Your doctor can help you measure and monitor your cholesterol. If your numbers are trending in the wrong direction, try these six steps. They can help you lower your bad cholesterol and raise your good. As always, talk with your doctor about what’s best for you before changing your diet or exercise habits.
1. Swap unhealthy fats for healthy fats
The number one way to lower your bad cholesterol is to eat fewer saturated fats. These fats are found in:
- Beef and poultry with skin
- Full-fat dairy such as butter and cheese2
- Coconut oil and palm oil
- Some baked or fried foods
You don’t have to avoid these fats completely, but limit how much you eat. Government guidelines recommend getting less than 10 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat.3 For example, if you eat 2,000 calories a day, no more than 200 of those calories (or about 25 grams) should come from saturated fat. Your doctor can help you figure out the right daily goal for you. Some tips for getting started:
- Choose lean protein sources such as skinless chicken breasts or fish (fresh, canned or frozen) over beef.
- Put nonfat or low-fat dairy products such as milk and yogurt in your cart instead of full-fat ones.
- Avoid frying foods and using a lot of butter. “I always recommend meals be baked, broiled, steamed or grilled,” says Nicholas Chuck. He’s a physician assistant at Riverside Center for Internal & Family Medicine in Hampton, Virginia.
- Choose healthy unsaturated fats that don’t raise your bad cholesterol. That includes monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. They can be found in nuts and nut butters, olives and olive oil, avocados, seeds, and fish (fresh, canned or frozen).
2. Fill up on fiber
Here’s another trick to eating your way to healthier cholesterol levels: Put more foods that are high in soluble fiber on your plate. Eating this type of fiber can lower your LDL cholesterol. In fact, getting just 5 to 10 grams more of soluble fiber a day can make a difference.4
“Dietary fiber binds cholesterol and helps it pass through the intestine without being absorbed,” Wallace says. Try to get between 25 and 35 grams of fiber a day, with 14 of those grams per 1,000 calories coming from soluble fiber. Common foods that contain soluble fiber include:
- 1 cup cooked oatmeal: 2 grams
- ½ cup kidney beans: 3 grams
- 1 medium potato with skin: 1 gram
- ½ cup cooked sweet potato: 2 grams
- ¼ cup peanuts: 1 gram
- 1 medium apple with skin: 1 gram
- 1 medium banana: 1 gram
- 1 medium orange: 2 grams
- ½ cup broccoli: 1 gram
- ½ cup green beans: 1 gram
3. Get moving
The benefits of exercise are pretty much endless, and lowering your cholesterol is one of them. The best kind of exercise to lower your cholesterol? Cardiovascular, Chuck says. That means moving in a way that gets your heart beating faster and makes you start to sweat a little. Good examples are:
- Brisk walking (2.5 to 4 mph)
- Heavy yardwork
Try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise (brisk walking, bike riding) a week. Or do 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (swimming, running) a week.5 That can help lower your cholesterol as well as your blood pressure, the American Heart Association says.5 Moderate and vigorous exercise have also been shown to raise good cholesterol and lower blood sugar levels.6
4. Lose extra weight
People of all body types and weights can have high cholesterol. But if you’re overweight, losing a few pounds can lower your bad cholesterol. Losing just 5 percent to 10 percent of your body weight, for example, can reduce bad cholesterol, blood pressure and other heart-health risk factors.7 The good news: Adopting the other habits we’ve talked about here — eating smarter fats and soluble fiber, exercising more — can also help you lose weight.
5. Quit smoking
People who smoke not only may have higher bad cholesterol, but they also have lower levels of good cholesterol.8 One reason is that smoking causes changes to your blood chemistry. These changes can lead to cholesterol buildup in your arteries.9 Luckily, some of that damage is reversible, and HDL levels quickly improve after you quit smoking.10
6. Keep your stress in check
Constant stress isn’t good for your health, and that includes your cholesterol levels. Research shows that it both raises bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol.11
Of course, you can’t always get rid of what’s causing your stress. But you can find ways to manage it better. Good stress-busting activities include:
- Getting enough sleep. Adults need seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
- Exercising every day.
- Talking about your worries or fears or stresses. This can be with a friend, family member, doctor or therapist.
- Doing something you enjoy and find relaxing.
Easing stress might be the most enjoyable way to bring down your cholesterol levels. Try to add relaxation to the mix of other daily cholesterol-lowering habits. It can go a long way toward boosting your heart health.
1Cleveland Clinic. Cholesterol numbers: what do they mean. July 31, 2020. Available at: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11920-cholesterol-numbers-what-do-they-mean. Accessed January 4, 2022.
2American Heart Association. Saturated fat, November 1, 2021, https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/saturated-fats. Accessed January 4, 2022.
3Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. 2015-2020 dietary guidelines for Americans — cut down on saturated fats. December 2016. Accessed at: https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/saturated-fats. Accessed January 4, 2022.
4National Lipid Association. Adding soluble fiber to lower your cholesterol. Available at: https://www.lipid.org/sites/default/files/adding_soluble_fiber_final_0.pdf. Accessed January 14, 2022.
5American Heart Association. Prevention and treatment of high cholesterol (hyperlipidemia). November 11, 2020. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/prevention-and-treatment-of-high-cholesterol-hyperlipidemia. Accessed January 4, 2022.
6Figueir´o TH, Arins GCB, dos Santos CES, et al. Association of objectively measured sedentary behavior and physical activity with cardiometabolic risk markers in older adults. PLoS One. January 18, 2019; 14 (1): e0210861. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6338374/. Accessed February 23, 2022.
7Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Obesity Prevention Source. Available at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-consequences/health-effects/. Accessed January 5, 2022.
8Medline Plus, National Library of Medicine. Cholesterol. December 9, 2021. Available at: https://medlineplus.gov/cholesterol.html. Accessed January 5, 2022.
9U.S. Food and Drug Administration. How smoking affects heart health. November 9, 2021. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/health-effects-tobacco-use/how-smoking-affects-heart-health. Accessed January 5, 2022.
10Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Benefits of quitting. September 23, 2020. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/quit_smoking/how_to_quit/benefits/index.htm. Accessed January 5, 2022.
11Assadi SN. What are the effects of psychological stress and physical work on blood lipid profiles? Medicine. May, 2017; 96 (18): e6816. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5419930/. Accessed February 23, 2022.