Nearly one in three Americans have high cholesterol, a condition without signs or symptoms, which is believed to up your risk for heart disease and stroke. Could you be one of them? Scary, right? But then, is it all bad? Let’s first ask the question: What is cholesterol? Healthline defines it as “a substance made in the liver that’s vital to human life. You can also get cholesterol through foods and, since plants do not create it, you can only find it in animal products like meat and dairy.” There, you already now have a hint at the first step you can take to start lowering your levels of cholesterol.
It is especially the so called “bad” type known as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) which may be associated with plaque buildup in the arteries that you want to keep in balance with HDL . “I tell patients that you have to start somewhere and just keep going,” says Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, an attending cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “As you adopt lifestyle changes, everything starts shifting, and the improvements you see at 6 weeks often increase by 3 months.” What’s more, if you already take medications such as statins to improve your LDL cholesterol levels, these changes can improve their cholesterol-lowering effect and may lead to the need to eliminate medication with your doctor’s supervision.
Whether or not you are on medications, if you can make a few lifestyle changes like switching to a plant based diet to improve your cholesterol levels.
1. Eat Heart-Healthy Foods
A few changes to your diet can reduce cholesterol and improve your heart health:
- Reduce saturated fats. Saturated fats, found primarily in red meat and full-fat dairy products, raise your total cholesterol. According to MedicalNewsToday, these should be at the top of your list of foods to avoid or at least cut back consuming. Decreasing your consumption of saturated fats can reduce your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — the “bad” cholesterol.
- Eliminate trans fats. Trans fats, sometimes listed on food labels as “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil,” are often used in margarines and store-bought cookies, crackers, and cakes. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils by Jan. 1, 2021. You should be doing the same right now by reading food labels and avoiding anything that says “partially hydrogenated” on the package.
- Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. While omega-3 fatty acids don’t affect your LDL cholesterol, they do have other heart-healthy benefits, including reducing your blood pressure. Plant foods with omega-3 fatty acids include walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds. Fish species such as shark, swordfish, and king mackerel, while also being rich in omega-3 fatty acids, should be avoided, as they might be high in mercury. In lieu of eating fish, use a clean, 3rd party tested fish oil such as Phamax Finest Pure Fish Oil
- Increase soluble fiber. Soluble fiber can reduce the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream and is found in such foods as oatmeal, kidney beans, Brussels sprouts, apples, and pears. WebMD warns, however, that: “Too much fiber at one time can cause abdominal cramps or bloating.” Increase your intake slowly.
- Chill Out and Laugh More: Get lost in a good book or meet a friend for coffee and watch more silly pet videos. This increases your HDL level, says Steinbaum.
- Add More: Adding more veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, and organic whole grains to your diet can help lower your levels and reduce plaque buildup.
2. Exercise Most Days of the Week and Increase Your Physical Activity
Exercise can help raise your HDL cholesterol level. With your doctor’s approval, work up to at least 30 minutes of exercise five times a week or 20 minutes vigorous aerobic activity three times a week. Consider wearing a fitness tracker so that you can monitor your heart rate. Modern devices provide heart rate recommendations based on your age and fitness goals. Adding physical activity, even in short intervals several times a day, can be beneficial and can even help you to lose some weight. Consider these:
- Taking a brisk daily walk during your lunch hour.
- Riding your bike to work.
- Playing a favorite sport.
- Doing yardwork after getting home from work.
To stay motivated, consider finding an exercise buddy or joining an exercise group at the local gym.
3. Quit Smoking
Quitting smoking improves your HDL cholesterol level. The benefits take effect quickly:
- Within 20 minutes of quitting, your blood pressure and heart rate recover from the cigarette-induced spike.
- Within three months of quitting, your blood circulation and lung function begin to improve.
- Within a year of quitting, your risk of heart disease is half that of a smoker.
4. Lose Some Weight
Carrying even a few extra pounds contributes to high cholesterol. If you’re overweight, drop just 10 pounds, and you’ll cut your LDL by up to 8%. Small changes add up. If you drink sugary beverages, switch to tap or spring water. Snack on air-popped popcorn or oven baked pretzels — but keep track of the calories. If you crave something sweet, try some delicious fruit.
5. Drink Alcohol in Moderation
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65. Up to two drinks a day are suggested for men age 65 and younger. Too much alcohol has been shown to lead to serious health problems. These include high blood pressure, heart failure, and strokes. Better yet, eliminate it completely.
If Lifestyle Changes Aren’t Enough …
Sometimes healthy lifestyle changes may not initially be enough to lower cholesterol levels. Daily use of freshly ground flax seed and/or supplementing with beta sitosterol will often provide additional support for optimizing cholesterol levels. If your doctor recommends medication to help lower your cholesterol, take it as prescribed while continuing your lifestyle changes. These lifestyle changes can help you keep your medication dose low.