Has your doctor told you it’s time to focus on lowering your cholesterol? You’re not alone. In fact, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 30 percent of Americans have high cholesterol, putting them at an increased risk for heart disease and stroke.
Since high cholesterol often doesn’t have any noticeable symptoms until it’s too late, getting tested early and often is important. Whether you have high cholesterol or just want to keep your already-healthy levels where they are, your diet and lifestyle choices have a big impact. Follow the steps below to lower your cholesterol.
What is cholesterol?
Before you start thinking about food and lifestyle changes that might impact cholesterol levels, it’s helpful to understand a little about cholesterol in general. Though we often think of cholesterol as a bad thing across the board, the body actually needs it to function properly. This waxy, fat-like substance is produced naturally by the body and can be found in every cell. It’s used to create hormones, vitamin D, and other substances that help break down and digest food.
But not all cholesterol is created equal—there are two types: good and bad. Test results will show the levels in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL) for a few different things in your body, including:
- LDL cholesterol: Also called the “bad cholesterol,” because it can create plaque that then clogs arteries or makes them less flexible. This is the cholesterol you want to keep lower. The ideal level is less than 100 mg/dL.
- HDL cholesterol: Also called “good cholesterol” because it helps remove LDL cholesterol from your arteries. Here, a higher number is preferable, and the ideal level is 60 mg/dL or higher.
- Triglycerides: The most common type of fat in the human body. Normal levels vary by age, but high triglycerides combined with low HDL or high LDL levels can cause complications. The normal level is less than 150 mg/dL.
- Total blood cholesterol: A number that is calculated by adding your HDL and LDL cholesterols as well as 20 percent of your triglyceride level. The ideal level is less than 200 mg/dL.
When looking for advice on how to lower LDL cholesterol, you might notice it has a lot to do with diet. That’s because any cholesterol that isn’t created by your own body comes from the food you eat. While making some lifestyle changes—namely regular exercise and quitting smoking—can certainly help in lowering cholesterol, focusing on a balanced diet is key. A major 2012 analysis of controlled trials with both men and women revealed that exercise alone had no effect on reducing LDL or total cholesterol, while dietary changes reduced both. If you’re looking to lower your cholesterol for overall health, follow these five dietary guidelines.
1. Limit your saturated fat intake
Saturated fat gets a bad rap, but like many things, it’s perfectly good in moderation and can actually help to lower triglycerides or slightly increase levels of HDL cholesterol. However, too much can easily raise your LDL.
Foods that are high in saturated fats include:
- Beef (particularly fatty cuts)
- Poultry (including duck)
- Beef fat
- Dairy products made from whole or reduced-fat milk
- Baked goods
- Fried foods
Again, it’s OK to indulge in some of these items from time to time, but try to limit your portions. Consider eliminating red meat and full-fat dairy products and instead opting for healthier saturated fats, like olive oil, peanuts, and salmon.
The American Heart Association recommends getting no more than 5 to 6 percent of your calories from saturated fat. For the average 2,000 calorie diet, this means that 120 or fewer calories should come from saturated fat sources—roughly 13 grams per day. To give you a clear idea of what this looks like, take the example of olive oil. This is an excellent source of healthy saturated fat that should be enjoyed in moderation. One tablespoon of olive oil contains approximately 2 grams of saturated fat, about 15 percent of your daily saturated fat intake.
2. Avoid trans fats entirely
Trans fats became particularly popular in the 1950s, when World War II limited the availability of butter. Instead, consumers opted for trans fat–filled margarine, which remained popular well into the 1990s. As the public became more aware of the adverse health effects of trans fats, however, consumers started going back to butter instead of margarine. The Food and Drug Administration has also forbidden manufacturers from using artificial trans fats in their foods.
Trans fats prevent liquid vegetable oils from expiring, and they possess no nutritional value whatsoever. Unlike saturated fats which are fine to consume in small amounts, trans fats aren’t safe at any level. They increase your LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels while reducing your HDL cholesterol—the exact opposite of what you want.
Unhealthy packaged foods like donuts, cookies, crackers, muffins, pies, and cakes potentially contain trans fat, depending on what ingredients went into making them. Thankfully, a quick glance at the Nutrition Facts on the back of any food product label will show you how many grams of trans fat are inside. Be aware, however, that products can be listed as having “0 grams of trans fat” if they contain less than 0.5 grams of it. To get to the bottom of it, scan through the ingredients list. “Partially hydrogenated oils” or “shortening” should send up a red flag, and if you’re completely avoiding trans fats, steer clear of products including these ingredients.
3. Eat tons of fresh fruits and vegetables
Fresh produce should form the foundation of any healthy diet. For optimal nutrition, most experts recommend you get 4 to 5 cups a day. There’s really not any bad choice here, although produce rich in pectin (such as apples, grapes, strawberries, and citrus fruits) in particular can help lower LDL cholesterol.
The barrier a lot of people run into, however, is that starting a meal with fresh produce from the farmers market requires a little more work than, say, ordering takeout. If you need some inspiration, here are a few tips to keep your fruit and vegetable intake exciting.
- Taste the rainbow. Opt for a variety of colors when buying produce—grab some juicy red apples, wholesome green spinach, and crisp orange carrots. Challenge yourself to eat fruits and veggies in all colors of the rainbow every week to get a variety of vitamins and minerals.
- Add them to your favorite foods. Toss some veggies on a pizza, mix some in with a pasta dish, or top cereals, yogurts, and ice cream with freshly cut fruit. This is an easy way to get more nutrients while also enjoying the foods you just can’t live without.
- Roast everything. Veggies like cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, onions, carrots, tomatoes, and eggplant taste great no matter how you prepare them—but they’re absolutely divine after roasting in the oven. The exposure to high heat causes their edges to caramelize, enhancing the natural flavors and making them more savory.
- Try alternative cooking methods. Instead of frying everything in tons of butter or oil, consider healthier alternatives like steaming, grilling, sautéing, and baking. If you must use oil, do so sparingly (as oils have a high calorie count), and choose ones that are lowest in saturated fats and cholesterol, like olive oil, sesame oil, or sunflower oil.
- Pair raw veggies with yummy dips. For a healthy and satisfying snack, look no further than fresh bell peppers, carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, or celery. Pick a few of your favorites, slice them up, and enjoy with a homemade salad dressing or healthy dip like hummus or vegan ranch dressing.
- Whip up smoothies. Smoothies make great on-the-go breakfasts and can be as simple as throwing some frozen fruit along with yogurt or almond milk in the blender. Try adding greens like kale or spinach for even more vitamins and minerals! Experiment with different flavor combinations, like carrot, banana, and orange or blueberry and spinach.
Incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet might sound challenging at first, but it’s easier than you might think. Remember that “all produce counts,” as the American Heart Association says—in other words, canned, dried, fresh, and frozen produce all counts toward your daily goal. Aim to eat fresh fruits and vegetables whenever possible, but rest assured that the other varieties have plenty of health benefits and nutritional value to add to your diet, too.
4. Choose healthier fats
Not all fats are bad—studies show that polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat can help lower LDL cholesterol. Find these healthy fats in plant-derived oils like olive and grapeseed, as well as seeds, soybeans, and avocados.
Snacking on nuts like almonds, walnuts, and pistachios are another great way to add more healthy fats into your diet—studies have shown that they’re incredibly good for the heart. In fact, eating just 2 ounces of nuts per day could lower your LDL cholesterol by as much as 5 percent.
Fish are another source of beneficial fats—and seafood brings plenty of other health benefits to the table, too. As a simple replacement for meat in meals, there’s nothing better—and eating more fish just might make you less tempted to eat entrees higher in saturated fat. And many fish are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which increase your good cholesterol and lower your triglyceride count. Fish with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids include:
To reap the most benefits, try eating fish two or three times a week.
5. Get plenty of fiber
We know fiber is good for us, yet many Americans still fail to get the recommended 20 to 35 grams daily amount. Luckily incorporating more fiber into your diet is easy—and doing so may lower your LDL level.
The trick is getting the right 8 of fiber. If your focus is on cholesterol, you want to take in at least 5 to 10 grams of soluble fiber each day. Insoluble fiber can also help keep your heart healthy, but soluble fiber is particularly good for improving cholesterol. The latter attracts water and turns to gel during digestion, essentially slowing the digestion process and reducing the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream.
A simple morning bowl of oatmeal or an oat-based cereal can increase your soluble fiber intake. Barley, whole grains, and beans of pretty much any variety also deliver a healthy dose. And if you really struggle to get enough fiber from food sources, try a fiber supplement—you can easily get 4 grams or more of fiber each day from these supplements.
At the beginning, all of these changes might seem overwhelming. When you need motivation, remember the long-term benefits. Eating fast food all day every day might feel good now, but it isn’t doing any favors for your health in the long run. The same goes for starvation diets and quick weight-loss schemes.
Illustration by Karley Koenig
Photo credit: Alicia Cho, Paul Delmont