Control Cholesterol with Lifestyle Changes

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More than 100 million American adults have high cholesterol, putting them at risk of developing heart disease. If you’re one of them, your doctor has probably talked with you about making lifestyle changes. It’s part of a complete plan to manage cholesterol.

Lifestyle changes can enhance your cholesterol-lowering drugs and lower your risk of heart disease. They may even keep you off medicines altogether. That’s motivation to change your habits.

Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet

It can be overwhelming to think about changing the way you eat. The good news is that small changes can make a difference, and making changes in steps will help ease the transition. Consider these components for a heart-healthy diet:

  • Limit cholesterol in your diet. Dietary cholesterol comes from animal products. Your daily intake goal should be less than 300 mg, or less than 200 mg if you have heart disease.

  • Choose healthier fats. Saturated fats and cholesterol in red meat and full-fat dairy contribute to high cholesterol levels. Instead, eat foods with unsaturated fats, such as fish and tree nuts. Cook with olive oil or canola oil instead of butter or margarine. And choose low-fat or non-fat dairy products.

  • Eat lean proteins. You can find sources of protein without saturated fat and cholesterol. Skinless poultry, beans, fish, legumes, and tree nuts are all examples. Consider adding one meatless dinner per week to your routine. But you don’t have to eliminate red meat completely. Instead, limit how often you eat it, and choose lean cuts.

  • Include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Plant products don’t contain cholesterol and are naturally low in fat. They also add soluble fiber, vitamins, and nutrients to your diet. Soluble fiber can help lower your cholesterol levels.

  • Increase omega-3 fatty acids. Fish is a great source for omega-3 fatty acids. Oily fish, such as fresh salmon, tuna and mackerel, have the most. Other sources include almonds and walnuts. Omega-3 fatty acids help boost your good cholesterol and lower triglycerides. If you’re interested in an omega-3 fatty acid supplement, talk with your doctor first.

  • Use healthier cooking methods. Baking, broiling, grilling, poaching, roasting, and steaming are the healthiest ways to cook. Remember to avoid cooking with butter or high-fat sauces. Instead, use cooking spray or broth, and season with herbs and spices. You could also lightly sauté or stir-fry with a small amount of vegetable oil.

Exercise Most Days of the Week

For some people, exercise may be more daunting than dietary changes. But like diet, making small changes in steps is the key to lasting habits. And it’s well worth it. Moderate exercise for 30 minutes a day most days of the week can help raise good cholesterol and lower the bad.

Talk with your doctor first, and then start with 10 minutes of exercise per day. After you master that interval, add time until you reach the 30-minute goal. Pick an activity you can stick with, such as:

  • Brisk walking

  • Riding a bike

  • Swimming laps

  • Water aerobics

Having a regular exercise partner will help keep both of you on track and make the workouts more enjoyable. Also, incorporate activity into your regular day by taking the stairs and parking far away.

Lose Weight and Keep It Off

If you’re overweight, losing 5 to 10% of your body weight can improve your cholesterol. This is often easier to say than to do. Keep in mind that weight loss should be gradual—around a couple of pounds per week.

Dietary changes and exercise will help you get there. The equation is pretty simple—the energy you use for physical activity must be greater than the energy you eat in calories. Ask your doctor for specific daily caloric intake goals to promote weight loss.

Quit Smoking

Quitting smoking can improve your good cholesterol levels. It also lowers your risk of heart disease. In fact, your risk of heart disease is cut in half one year after quitting. Ask your doctor for help and get started today. Don’t be discouraged by a setback. Understand that it sometimes happens, and start quitting again.

Stay in Touch with Your Doctor

Be sure to keep follow-up appointments with your doctor to check your progress. It can take time to see the benefits of lifestyle changes. And sometimes these changes are not enough to reach your cholesterol goals. Even if you end up starting cholesterol-lowering medicines, sticking with your lifestyle changes can help keep your dose as low as possible. 

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Dec 26

  1. September is National Cholesterol Education Month. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  2. Your Guide to Lowering Your Cholesterol With TLC: Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

  3. Top 5 Lifestyle Changes to Improve Your Cholesterol. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.

  4. Lifestyle Changes to Lower Your Cholesterol. American Academy of Family Physicians.

  5. Lifestyle Changes and Cholesterol. American Heart Association.

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