If you just stepped out of your doctor’s office after learning that you have high cholesterol, you probably have a lot of questions. Your physician may have recommended that you make some lifestyle changes. Below is a list of changes you can make right now to help improve your numbers.
Before we get to the list, it’s important to understand what we mean by “lowering cholesterol.” The two numbers on a cholesterol panel that people usually want to lower are LDL and triglycerides. HDL (known as “good” cholesterol) is the number that most people are trying to increase. OK, onto the list:
1. Lay off the Alcohol.
There is some evidence that moderate alcohol intake can boost your “good” HDL cholesterol, but too much alcohol increases a person’s risk for heart disease. Moderate alcohol intake is defined as one drink per day for women and two a day for men. Excessive alcohol use can cause weight gain, which is known to raise your LDL cholesterol. It also is likely to increase triglycerides, raise blood pressure, and increase a person’s risk of stroke. To maximize heart health and keep cholesterol levels normal, limit to moderate drinking.
2. Cook with Olive Oil.
Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fat, which has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol. Instead of eating fried chicken from your local corner store, make a chicken stir-fry at home using olive oil. You’ll be glad you did.
3. Stress Less.
There is some evidence that stress can raise LDL, and stress makes it harder for the body to clear out triglycerides from the blood. It’s hard to tell if stress causes people to make lifestyle choices that raise these numbers, or if the stress itself causes the change. Either way, reducing stress is a great way to improve your health. Stress can come in many forms, including relationship troubles, problems at your job, health issues, and worry about personal finances. None of us can get rid of stress completely, but it’s a good idea to look at the sources of stress in your life and see what changes can be made. Meditation, gentle exercise, and counseling are helpful for many people looking to reduce stress.
4. Eat Your Veggies.
Study after study has found that people who eat more vegetables and fruits tend to have better cholesterol numbers. This is likely because fruits and veggies replace less healthy foods, and also because of the fiber and other nutrients that come in the plants themselves. If you’re looking to improve your cholesterol, a good goal is to eat five cups of fruits and vegetables every day, and make most of that vegetables. If you’re not much of a veggie eater, increase your intake slowly – eat an extra one cup per day for a week, then increase to two extra cups for a week, and so on. Also, be sure to drink plenty of water. If you go from zero to five cups per day, your digestive system will have trouble adjusting, and you could get pretty uncomfortable.
5. Enjoy Foods Rich in Soluble Fiber.
Fiber comes in two forms – soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fiber has been shown to improve LDL cholesterol. Good sources of soluble fiber include oatmeal and other foods made with oats, bran, apples, citrus fruits, bananas, beans, legumes, and ground flax seeds. As mentioned above, increase your fiber intake slowly and drink plenty of water when eating more of these fiber-rich foods.
Regular moderate physical activity can raise your “good” HDL cholesterol. It can also help you lose weight, which is another way to improve your cholesterol numbers. Try to exercise for at least 30 minutes, five times per week. You can break up the time into ten-minute sessions done throughout the day if that works better for your schedule. Pick a few activities that you enjoy and be consistent!
7. Eliminate Trans Fats.
Small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats are found in dairy products and some other animal-based foods. These are not the problem. Artificial trans fats are found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Not only do artificial trans fats increase LDL cholesterol, but they also decrease HDL cholesterol, so they should definitely be avoided. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is found in many snack foods including cakes, cookies, frozen pie crust, ready-made frosting, and donuts (especially the shelf-stable kind). It is also frequently found in fried chicken and other fried foods as well as refrigerator dough used to make cinnamon rolls and biscuits. Even non-dairy coffee creamers – especially the powdered variety – often contain these oils. Look for the words “partially hydrogenated” on food labels to spot hidden sources of trans fat, and stay away!
8. Eat more Foods High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids.
People who eat plenty of foods high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids tend to have higher HDL levels and lower triglycerides – both good things! Walnuts, which contain the plant form of omega-3 fatty acids, have been reported to lower both total cholesterol and triglycerides specifically in people with high cholesterol. The best food sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fatty fish like trout, salmon, sardines, anchovies, halibut, mackerel, and tuna. Sardines and salmon are especially good choices as they are lower in mercury than tuna.
Grass-fed beef and other grass-fed meats also have a significant omega-3 content. Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids must be converted in the body to an animal form before they can be used, so they are not as beneficial as animal-based sources. But they’re still worth eating, especially for vegetarians. Plant sources of omega-3 include flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. So add some anchovies to your next homemade pizza, mix ground flax seeds in with your morning oatmeal, and look for 100% grass-fed beef when shopping at the grocery store in order to help improve your cholesterol.
9. Quit Smoking.
Smoking lowers a HDL cholesterol, and it may also make LDL cholesterol more dangerous. Smokers are also at higher risk than non-smokers for having stroke or heart attack. If you currently smoke cigarettes, ask your doctor to help you stop smoking now. Wondering about vaping? Research has not yet shown if vaping with nicotine affects blood cholesterol.
10. Spice up Your Cooking.
Spices taste delicious, but did you know that they are good for you too? Spices are full of antioxidants and other compounds that help reduce inflammation, which is good news for people with high cholesterol. Specifically, turmeric (found in curry powders), coriander, and ginger are great choices. Whip up a curry or stir-fry with ginger and serve with plenty of vegetables to get you started receiving the benefits of these spices.
11. Eliminate Foods with added Sugar.
People who eat a lot of foods made with added sugar are more likely to have high triglyceride levels and low HDL cholesterol. Frequently eating foods with added sugar leads to weight gain, which can lead to higher LDL and total cholesterol levels. Added sugar comes in many forms, not just from table sugar. Corn syrup, cane sugar, rice syrup, dextrose, palm sugar, and sucrose are just some of the words that mean “sugar” on a food label. If you consume a lot of added sugar, start making changes now! Drink coffee black or with just milk and no sugar. Drink unsweetened iced tea instead of sugary soda. Choose breakfast cereals low in sugar. A few changes to your daily sugar habits can make a big difference!
Try these tricks to improve your blood cholesterol, and then see what your doctor says about your numbers. You might be surprised by the changes!