First of all, what is cholesterol? Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that our bodies need to build healthy cells. Although it often gets a bad rap (and too much can be dangerous), the truth is that our bodies simply couldn’t function without cholesterol.
Not all cholesterol is the same. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – or “bad cholesterol” – can make plaque in your arteries, putting you at risk for hardened arteries (atherosclerosis), heart disease, vascular issues and more. On the other hand, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) – “good cholesterol” – actually helps remove that bad cholesterol from your bloodstream.
If you have high cholesterol levels, it usually means that you have too much LDL and not enough HDL. High cholesterol levels affect around one in every three Americans. But there are changes you can make today to help lower your LDL and increase your HDL.
Lifestyle changes to lower your cholesterol
Here are ten things you can do to lower cholesterol without the use of medication, including foods that lower cholesterol, light exercise ideas and more.
1. Read those nutrition labels to avoid trans fats
You’ve probably heard this advice over and over again because it’s one of the easiest things you can do to help control your diet: read nutrition labels.
Nutrition labels can help you understand which good nutrients you’re eating, and they can also help you avoid trans fats, one of the worst ingredients for your cholesterol levels.
Trans fats, also known as “hydrogenated oils” or “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil,” are sneaky ingredients that may be good for food manufacturers, but they’re not so good for you.
Trans fats help make products last longer so they’re easier to ship and store. They’re common in many processed foods, and they’re also present in many baked goods that use margarine or shortening. Unfortunately, they also contribute to raising bad LDL cholesterol levels – while reducing good HDL cholesterol levels.
So if you really want to lower your cholesterol, read labels and try to avoid trans fats whenever you can. They’re some of the biggest offenders when it comes to high cholesterol, and cutting them out of your diet can make a big impact.
2. Choose meats with fewer saturated fats, like fish or chicken
Refrigerator looking a bit emptier than usual? Before you head out to the store to restock, take a moment to review your shopping list and see if there’s an opportunity to make some easy protein switches.
For starters, go easy on red meats. Many red meats are high in saturated fats, which can raise bad LDL cholesterol levels. For healthier alternatives, choose skinless chicken or skinless turkey more often, and avoid processed meats. You can also try working more fish into your diet.
Fish is low in saturated fats, and many kinds contain omega-3 fatty acids, which benefit your heart health and can boost your good HDL cholesterol levels. Here are some examples of types of fish you can try to include in your diet:
- Oily fish like Atlantic or Pacific salmon, Atlantic mackerel or tilapia
- Shellfish like shrimp and crab
- Freshwater fish like lake herring and trout
- Saltwater whitefish like cod and grouper
- Tuna steaks or fillets and canned light tuna
All that said, steak and hamburger can be hard to resist. When you’re grilling out, choose leaner cuts of meat. Like anything, it’s okay to have some saturated fats in your diet. You just need to eat them in moderation.
3. Get more soluble fiber with whole grain bread, kidney beans, quinoa and more
You probably know fiber as something that can help you with your digestive health. But if you thought fiber was only for digestion, think again: It can also help build your cardiovascular health.
A low-cholesterol food list is rich in soluble fiber (fiber that can dissolve into water). Soluble fiber grabs cholesterol in your gut – before it gets into your bloodstream – and helps lower bad LDL cholesterol levels.
Foods rich in soluble fiber include:
- Whole grain bread
- Kidney beans
It’s easy to build more of these types of foods into your diet. Try oatmeal and whole grain toast for breakfast, curried lentils for lunch, or turkey chili with kidney beans for dinner.
But one thing that’s important to remember here is that not all “good” foods are created equal. Generally, the more processed a grain or bean, the less likely it is to have healthy benefits and nutritional value. Whenever you can, try to stock up on fresh ingredients.
4. Boost unsaturated fats and fiber by snacking on fruits, vegetables and nuts
There’s nothing wrong with grabbing a snack between meals to boost your energy or settle your rumbling stomach. But common snack foods like chips, microwavable popcorn, cookies, pastries or crackers are high in trans and saturated fats.
On the other hand, snacking on fruits, vegetables and nuts not only helps you avoid bad fats, but also helps you get good fats and fiber.
Raw nuts are high in unsaturated fats – which are the best kind of fats. Nuts are great for a heart-healthy diet because they raise your good HDL cholesterol levels and lower your bad LDL cholesterol levels. Other examples of foods that are high in unsaturated fat include avocados and olives.
Nuts – along with many fruits and veggies – can also be a great source of soluble fiber. Adding as many of these foods as you can to your diet can be a double-dose of cholesterol-reducing impact.
Not sure where to start? Here are some suggestions:
As with meats and whole grains, remember that more processing means less benefit. For example, you won’t get as much value from applesauce as you will from eating a whole apple. So, if you’re able to, try to get raw fruits, veggies and nuts (unsalted if you can).
5. Embrace low-fat milk, cheese and yogurts
Choosing to lower your cholesterol doesn’t mean you have to give up everything you enjoy – it’s simply about making smarter choices. When it comes to dairy, this is a big area where picking a healthier alternative can be an easy win.
For items like cheese, milk, cream and yogurt, use low-fat dairy products instead of the regular versions. If you’re feeling experimental, try soy milk, too. Who knows? It could become your next craving.
Making these changes is helpful because full-fat dairy products contain saturated fat as well as cholesterol. By picking a low-fat (or non-fat) version, you’re building healthier levels of cholesterol in your bloodstream.
6. Prepare your food a little differently
It’s not only what you eat – it’s how you eat it. Just as you can change what you buy in the grocery store, you can also choose healthier ways to make your food that help lower your cholesterol naturally. For example:
- Consider trimming fat and removing the skin (either before cooking or before eating) when cooking meat or fish. This helps you get the protein while reducing fat intake.
- Focus on boiling, broiling, baking, poaching or grilling. These are better methods of preparation than deep frying or breading, which can add extra fat.
7. Substitute healthy oils in place of butter and margarine
Of course, it’s not always realistic to avoid fats when you’re whipping up a tasty meal. When you do need to add fat for cooking, baking or pan frying, use healthy oils instead of solid fats, like butter, margarine, shortening and lard.
Solid fats are high in saturated fats, but oils are high in unsaturated fats, which – remember – are better for you. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends using oils that have less than 4 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon (and no trans fats).
Many times, it’s easy to swap a solid fat to a healthier one. Try using olive oil, sunflower oil or grapeseed oil in place of a solid fat.
For example, if you’d rather use olive oil than butter, substitute three quarters the amount of butter in a recipe with olive oil. You might also bring out some new, surprising, subtle flavors, too.
8. Try having one vegetarian meal every week
Don’t let the word “vegetarian” scare you. By choosing a smartly prepared vegetarian meal, you’re hitting multiple cholesterol-lowering goals at the same time, like eating healthier fats and getting more soluble fiber. Plus, many vegetarian meals are just as flavorful and filling as their meaty cousins.
Here’s one idea for a low-cholesterol recipe: Try a freshly prepared salad with a sesame vinaigrette and some grilled, spiced tofu. For dessert, add some fresh blueberries, strawberries and oats to low-fat vanilla yogurt.
The key here is to build up a routine, like making every Tuesday night vegetarian night. Once that becomes the norm, try expanding to different nights, or add a weekly vegetarian lunch, too. You can also be “flexitarian” by just eating smaller portions of meat. Over time, these modifications can really pay off.
9. Work in some more movement to your daily tasks
By keeping your body moving, you’re helping it do what it was meant to do – which can result in all-around health-enhancing perks. This includes raising good HDL cholesterol, managing blood pressure levels and many other heart-healthy benefits.
Do I need to start running every day? Do I need to join a gym or buy a bunch of home fitness equipment? If you want to, go ahead! But there are many other choices, and finding a routine that works for you is what’s most important. After all, the best exercise for heart health, is the one that you’ll stick with.
Simple swaps to get more exercise each day
Ideally, you want to aim for at least 2.5 hours (150 minutes) of moderate physical activity every week. You can break that up however you like. You might focus on doing something every day, or you could dedicate yourself to just a few days per week. The key is to just get started.
For example, do you usually take the elevator? Take the stairs instead. Do you walk your dog every day? Go a little farther than usual or walk at a faster pace. Need to go shopping? Park farther away than you normally do. Catching up on your favorite TV series? Try stretching, dumbbells or kettlebells while you’re watching rather than just sitting on the couch. Also look for chances to bring motion into your daily life, such as walking while you talk on the phone.
If you’re feeling good, work up to more intense physical activity, like swimming laps, jogging or hot yoga. Don’t overexert yourself, but remember that regular and consistent exercise has benefits beyond managing your cholesterol. It also helps reduce blood pressure and builds your overall physical, mental and emotional well-being.
Even if you just go a little farther or a little faster than you usually do, that extra activity will be a big step in the right direction for your health.
10. Work with your doctor on a lower cholesterol plan (especially if you’re overweight or you smoke)
Lowering your cholesterol doesn’t mean going it alone. Your primary care doctor is a helpful partner along your journey.
Your doctor can work with you to create an action plan just for you – one that combines diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes to help you lower and manage your cholesterol.
For example, losing weight and quitting smoking can be big helpers for lowering cholesterol. Quitting smoking can raise your good HDL cholesterol levels, and losing weight can lower your bad LDL cholesterol levels significantly.
But these two tasks aren’t easy. Fortunately, your primary care doctor can be a great resource to help you get started and find practical ways to stick with it. Plus, help with quitting smoking and losing weight may already be covered if you have health insurance.
Whether you want to quit smoking, lose weight or just learn more about how your personal health would benefit from lower cholesterol levels, regular check-ins with your doctor are key. They can also perform cholesterol tests – the only way to actually measure cholesterol – to check your progress and help you make adjustments based on the results.
You can begin lowering cholesterol naturally today
By making changes to your diet, getting more exercise, quitting smoking, losing weight (if you need to) and connecting with your doctor, you’ll be well on your way to better cardiovascular health that has a lasting effect.
Sound like a lot to take on? Don’t be intimidated. Bringing down your high cholesterol doesn’t have to mean changing your life completely. Rather, start with changing your mindset. Instead of thinking of it as moving away from things, you’re moving toward new habits that will help you create a healthier and more enjoyable future.
Now is always the right time to start taking care of your heart health. If you need a little support, lean on friends and family. And don’t forget that your doctor is always there for you with advice, motivation and encouragement so you can reach your goals and live healthier.