Some people need prescription drugs to improve their cholesterol levels. For many others, making a few smart lifestyle changes will do the trick.
You went for a routine blood test, and the results are in: Your cholesterol numbers are high. That means you’ve joined a club of about 86 million adults in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So, what’s next?
Medications can help lower cholesterol, but they’re not always necessary. If you have had a heart attack or stroke, then you should be on a statin, which is a cholesterol-lowering prescription drug, says preventive cardiologist Suzanne Steinbaum, D.O. And if you’ve had an imaging test done that spotted plaque in your arteries, you may need to take meds too.
Beyond that, lifestyle tweaks “might be the best way to manage your high cholesterol,” says Dr. Steinbaum. Get your doctor’s approval first. Even if you do need a prescription, lifestyle changes will still be recommended. Try these five ways to revamp your habits and get your cholesterol numbers to a better place.
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Reduce the Saturated Fat in Your Diet
Saturated fat is a type of fat in foods like meat, full-fat dairy, eggs, and coconut oil. These fats raise levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol in your blood, which can cause plaque to form in your arteries.
“I recommend eating a low-saturated fat diet for six to eight weeks,” says Dr. Steinbaum. Limit or replace animal fats, butter, and cheese in favor of heart-healthy sources of unsaturated fats, such as nuts, seeds, and avocado, she says.
After that time, ask your doctor to recheck your cholesterol levels. “If your numbers are coming down, that’s an indication that you may be able to manage high cholesterol through diet and exercise,” Dr. Steinbaum explains. If not, your body may need extra help getting rid of excess cholesterol, and a statin may be in order.
Eat More Fiber
Fiber fills you up and keeps your digestion regular—and it also has an impact on cholesterol. When you eat a type of fiber called soluble fiber, it attaches to cholesterol during digestion and escorts it out of the body, explains the National Lipid Association. A good goal is to eat 5 to 10 grams of soluble fiber every day. Oatmeal, quinoa, avocado, beans, broccoli, sweet potatoes, apples, and berries are all good sources of this nutrient.
When you have high cholesterol, you have a higher risk for heart disease and stroke. Reducing your salt intake doesn’t change your cholesterol levels, but it will improve another risk factor for heart problems: blood pressure.
Dr. Steinbaum says it’s important to tackle these two issues at the same time. Many high-sodium foods are also high in saturated fat, such as processed meats, pizza, chips, and cheese. Cutting back on those will deliver a duo of heart-protective benefits. Most people should aim to consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day.
Recommended reading: Sodium: The SilverSneakers Guide for Older Adults
Stay Physically Active
It seems pretty clear that exercise is good for heart health, but that doesn’t mean people do enough of it. Not even a quarter of American adults meet the physical activity guidelines for cardio and resistance exercise, according to the CDC. Those guidelines call for a minimum of 150 minutes (about 2 and a half hours) a week of moderate-intensity cardio exercise, plus two to three strength-training sessions a week.
If your cholesterol is high, that’s your sign to start moving more—starting now. Exercise improves levels of “good” HDL cholesterol—the kind that helps remove “bad” LDL from your blood and body.
Regular activity has other cholesterol-lowering benefits too. “Your metabolism improves with exercise, and activity also decreases belly fat, which can help lower your cholesterol,” says Dr. Steinbaum.
While you’ll want to get your heart rate pumping to reap these benefits, you don’t have to overdo it, says Dr. Steinbaum. Moderate intensity means you’re exercising at a pace where you can still speak, but you can’t sing. Adding strength training may also boost these benefits.
Recommended FREE SilverSneakers On-Demand Workout: Exercises to Lower Blood Pressure for Seniors
Breaking a tobacco habit is much easier said than done—without question. But smoking not only damages your lungs, it raises your “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (another type of fat in your blood) and lowers the good kind.
Quitting can help improve your heart-protective HDL cholesterol levels. Three years after your quit date, the increased risk of developing heart disease is already slashed in half.
If you’d like help quitting, your doctor can help connect you with free resources near you. Or use the quit tools at smokefree.gov.
Lose a Little Weight
Being overweight or obese is a risk factor for high cholesterol, says the CDC. But research shows that losing just 5% to 10% of your body weight can make a difference. Making healthy nutritional changes can help you reach that attainable goal. Many of the tips here, like cutting saturated fat and upping your fiber intake, can help you easily eat fewer calories.
See our sources:
Number of American adults with high cholesterol: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Statins: National Library of Medicine
Saturated fat: American Heart Association
Fiber: National Lipid Association
Physical activity in U.S. adults: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Exercise and cholesterol: Hypertension
Smoking and cholesterol: Journal of Atherosclerosis and Thrombosis
Weight loss and cardiovascular risk: Translational Behavioral Medicine
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