Lifestyle changes can help reduce cholesterol, keep you off cholesterol-lowering medications or enhance the effect of your medications. Here are five lifestyle changes to get you started.
High cholesterol increases your risk of heart disease and heart attacks. You can reduce cholesterol with medications, but if you'd rather make lifestyle changes to reduce cholesterol, you can try these five healthy lifestyle changes. If you're already taking medications, these changes can also improve their cholesterol-lowering effect.
1. Lose weight
Carrying some extra pounds — even just a few — contributes to high cholesterol. So losing as little as 5 to 10 pounds (about 2 to 5 kilograms) can help reduce 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. If you eat when you're bored or frustrated, take a walk instead. If you pick up fast food for lunch every day, pack something healthier from home. If you're sitting in front of the television, try munching on carrot sticks instead of potato chips as you watch.
And, look for ways to incorporate more activity into your daily routine, such as using the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Take stock of what you currently eat and your physical activity level, and slowly work changes in.
2. Eat heart-healthy foods
Even if you have years of unhealthy eating under your belt, making a few changes in your diet can reduce cholesterol and improve your heart health.
• Choose healthier fats. Saturated fats, found in red meat and dairy products, raise your total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the "bad" cholesterol. As a general rule, you should get no more than 10 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat. Instead, choose leaner cuts of meat, low-fat dairy and monounsaturated fats — found in olive, peanut and canola oils — for a healthier option.
• Eliminate trans fats. Trans fat can be found in fried foods and many commercial baked products, such as cookies, crackers and snack cakes. But don't rely on packages that are labeled "trans fat-free." In the United States, if a food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, it can be labeled "trans fat-free." Even though those amounts seem small, they can add up quickly if you eat a lot of foods that have a small amount of trans fat in them. Instead, read the ingredients list. You can tell if a food has trans fat in it if it contains partially hydrogenated oil.
• Limit the cholesterol in your food. Aim for no more than 300 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol a day — less than 200 mg if you have heart disease. The most concentrated sources of cholesterol include organ meats, egg yolks and whole milk products. Use lean cuts of meat, egg substitutes and skim milk instead.
• Select whole grains. Various nutrients found in whole grains promote heart health. Choose whole-grain breads, whole-wheat pasta, whole-wheat flour and brown rice.
• Stock up on fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are rich in dietary fiber, which can help lower cholesterol. Snack on seasonal fruits. Experiment with veggie-based casseroles, soups and stir-fries. If you prefer dried fruit to fresh fruit, limit yourself to no more than a handful (about an ounce or two). Dried fruit tends to have more calories than does fresh fruit.
• Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids can help lower your LDL ("bad") cholesterol. Some types of fish — such as salmon, mackerel and herring — are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include walnuts, almonds and ground flaxseeds.
3. Exercise on most days of the week
Whether you're overweight or not, exercise can reduce cholesterol. Better yet, moderate physical activity can help raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the "good" cholesterol. With your doctor's OK, work up to 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day. Remember that adding physical activity, even in 10-minute intervals several times a day, can help you begin to lose weight. Just be sure that you can keep up the changes you decide to make.
Taking a brisk daily walk during your lunch hour
Riding your bike to work
Playing a favorite sport
To stay motivated, find an exercise buddy or join an exercise group. And remember, any activity is helpful. Even taking the stairs instead of the elevator or doing a few sit-ups while watching television can make a difference.
4. Quit smoking
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. Within 15 years, your risk of heart disease is similar to someone who never smoked.
5. Drink alcohol only in moderation
Moderate use of alcohol has been linked with higher levels of HDL cholesterol — but the benefits aren't strong enough to recommend alcohol for anyone who doesn't already drink. 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. Drinking too much alcohol can lead to serious health problems, including high blood pressure, heart failure and stroke.
If lifestyle changes aren't enough...
Sometimes healthy lifestyle changes aren't enough to lower cholesterol levels. Make sure the changes you choose to make are ones that you can continue, and don't be disappointed if you don't see results immediately. If your doctor recommends medication to help lower your cholesterol, take it as prescribed, but continue your lifestyle changes.