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  • Writer's pictureMary Hansbrough

Lifestyle Changes to Improve Cholesterol

Lifestyle changes are imperative to improving your cholesterol level. To bring your numbers down, lose excess weight, eat healthy foods and increase your physical activity. If you smoke, quit.

Lose extra pounds

Excess weight contributes to high cholesterol. Losing even 5 to 10 pounds can help lower total cholesterol levels. Start by taking an honest look at your eating habits and daily routine. Consider your challenges to weight loss -- and ways to overcome them. Set long-term, sustainable goals.

Eat heart-healthy foods

What you eat has a direct impact on your cholesterol level. In fact, a diet rich in fiber and other cholesterol-lowering foods may help lower cholesterol as much as statin medication for some people.

Choose healthier fats. Saturated fat and trans fat raise your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Your daily intake of saturated fat should be limited to 10 percent of your calories. Monounsaturated fat -- found in olive oil is a healthier option. Nuts (walnuts, pecans, almonds) are good sources of healthy fats. Also, nuts are a good source of Omega 3 Fatty Acids, which have protective heart values.

Eliminate trans fats. Trans fats, which are often found in margarines and commercially baked cookies, crackers, and snack cakes, are particularly bad for your cholesterol levels. Not only do trans fats increase your total LDL ("bad") cholesterol, but they also lower your HDL ("good") cholesterol.

You may have noticed more food labels now market their products as trans fat-free. But don't rely only on this label. In the United States, if a food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat a serving, it can be marked trans fat-free. It may not seem like much, but if you eat a lot of foods with a small amount of trans fat, it can add up quickly. Instead, read the ingredients list. If a food contains a partially hydrogenated oil, that's a trans fat, and you should look for an alternative.

Limit your dietary cholesterol. Aim for no more than 300 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol a day -- or less than 200 mg if you have heart disease. The most concentrated sources of cholesterol include organ meats, and whole milk products. Use lean cuts of meat and low fat milk instead.

Select whole grains. Various nutrients found in whole grains promote heart health. Oatmeal and oat bran are excellent choices. Choose whole-grain breads, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice and whole wheat flour.

Stock up on fruits and vegetable. Fruits and vegetables are rich in dietary fiber, which can help lower cholesterol. Snack on seasonal fruits. Experiment with vegetable-bases casseroles, soups and stir-fries.

Eat heart-healthy fish. Some types of fish such as cold-water fish (salmon, sardines, herring, tuna, mackerel) are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to help promote heart health. These fish have less saturated fat than meat and poultry.

Drink alcohol only in moderation. Moderate use of alcohol may increase your levels of HDL cholesterol -- but the benefits aren't strong enough to recommend alcohol for anyone who doesn't drink already. If you choose to drink, do so in moderation. This means no more than one drink a day for women and one to two drinks a day for men.

Exercise regularly

Regular exercise can help improve your cholesterol levels. With your doctor's OK, work up to 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day. Take a brisk daily walk. Ride your bike. Swim laps. To maintain your motivation, keep it fun. Find an exercise buddy or join an exercise group. And, you don't need to get all 30 to 60 minutes in one exercise session. If you can squeeze in three to six 10 minute intervals of exercise, you will get some cholesterol-lowering benefits.

Don't smoke

If you smoke, stop. Quitting can improve your HDL cholesterol level. And the benefits don't end there. Just 20 minutes after quitting, your blood pressure decreases. Within 24 hours, your risk of a heart attack decreases. Within one year, your risk of heart disease is half that of a smoker's. Within 15 years, your risk of heart disease is similar to that of someone who's never smoked.

Some natural products have been proven to reduce cholesterol. However, you should discuss these with your physician. If you choose to take cholesterol-lowering supplements, remember the importance of a healthy lifestyle. If your physician prescribes medication to reduce your cholesterol, take it as directed. Make certain that you discuss any and all supplements that you are taking with your physician.

The same heart-healthy lifestyle changes that can lower your cholesterol can help prevent you from having high cholesterol in the first place. In summary, to help prevent high cholesterol, you can:

  • Lose extra pounds and maintain a healthy weight

  • Quit smoking

  • Reduce your sugar intake

  • Reduce your saturated fat, eat a low-salt diet that includes many fruits, vegetables and whole grains

  • Exercise on most days of the week for at least 30 minutes

  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all


American Heart Association (2012). Why cholesterol matters

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is cholesterol

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