1. What’s your number?
There usually are no symptoms associated with high cholesterol, so it’s important to have your levels tested every year.
Healthy levels of cholesterol, according to the Center for Disease Control:
Total: under 200 mg/dL
LDL (“bad” cholesterol): under 100 mg/dL
HDL (“good” cholesterol): minimum of 40 mg/dL
If you find out you have high cholesterol, you might feel a little stressed. Don’t panic! There’s plenty you can do to lower your numbers.
2. Why me?
Your diet may be introducing more cholesterol than your system can handle. But genetics plays a big role, too. Some people can have bacon-on-bacon sandwiches every day without a problem. Others stick to kale juice, quinoa, and lentils and still watch their cholesterol levels rise.
While you can’t change your parentage, diet and lifestyle changes can bring your levels into a healthy range.
3. LDL and HDL
LDL stands for low-density lipoproteins. LDL makes up the majority of the body’s cholesterol and is “bad” because high levels increase the risk of heart disease or stroke.
HDL (high-density lipoproteins) is the “good” cholesterol because it can reduce the risk of heart disease or stroke. HDL may even absorb bad cholesterol and get it flushed from the body. So basically your arteries are a bar, LDL is the jerk trying to ruin everyone’s fun, and HDL is the bouncer.
When you need to lower your cholesterol, make sure you look at ways to increase your HDL as well as lower your LDL and overall cholesterol levels. A higher HDL count can even help counterbalance an elevated LDL, although it’s always a good idea to try to get your LDL in the ideal range.
4. Heart-healthy foods = your new BFF
Ready for some good news? While diet can contribute to elevated cholesterol, the same is true in reverse. There are plenty of delicious foods that can lower LDL and boost HDL. At the same time, try to cut back on foods that increase LDL. This multi-pronged approach has a better chance of succeeding.
Many of the foods on this list check more than one nutritional box, making it easier to reduce blood cholesterol levels and support cardiovascular health.
5. Lowering LDL: Fiber
When you need to drop your LDL count, look to fiber. Soluble fiber binds to cholesterol and drags it kicking and screaming out of the body. Some good sources include whole grains, beans and lentils, and nuts.
According to the Mayo clinic, daily recommendations for fiber intake:
Men under 50: 38g
Men over 50: 30g
Women under 50: 25g
Women over 50: 21g
6. High-Fiber Breakfast: Spiced Pear Baked Oatmeal
Oatmeal is the loofah that scrubs away at the LDL in your system. It’s also a yummy breakfast. Recipe here.
7. High-Fiber Lunch: Chicken and Sweet Potato Salad
Fiber-rich sweet potatoes are also high in Vitamin A and beta-carotene. Recipe here.
8. High-Fiber Dinner: Espresso Black Bean Chili
Beans are high in protein as well as fiber. Skip the latte: this bold chili includes generous amounts of garlic and tomato, which contain compounds that can reduce LDL and total cholesterol. Recipe here.
9. High-Fiber Fruits and Veggies
You can get fiber from a supplement, but eating fresh fruits and vegetables is incredibly beneficial for overall wellness, and for cardiovascular health in particular. These fiber-rich foods are also full of naturally occurring vitamins and antioxidants.
Extras: add flaxseed meal to oatmeal or yogurt. Sprinkle chia seeds into a smoothie, or make a healthy pudding.
10. Fat: Good or Bad?
Just like good cholesterol and bad cholesterol exists, there is good fat and bad fat. Or is there?
Doctors once thought that avoiding saturated fats lowered the risk of cardiovascular disease. In response to the negative view of fat, the food industry created low-fat and fat-free foods. Taking out fat also removed flavor, so manufacturers compensated with extra sugar.
Overly processed foods and fast food are high in empty carbs and trans fat. Newer research suggests that it’s possible that red meat and high-fat dairy products like cheese aren’t the culprits they were once thought to be. However, nutritional advice changes frequently—just ask the egg.
If you’re trying to lower your cholesterol, it’s probably a good idea to monitor your intake of foods high in saturated fat. But it’s just as important to avoid refined, processed, and artificially sweetened foods.
11. Heart-Healthy Fats: Avocado Smoothie
Avocados have gotten a bad rap for being high in fat, but they’re full of oleic acid—very similar to the fat composition of olives and olive oil. Just in case that wasn’t enough, each luscious green alligator pear is full of beta-sitosterol (a plant-based fat), which reduces the amount of cholesterol absorbed from food.
That said, even monounsaturated fat is best in moderation, or as a substitute for another fat. Spread a few slices of avocado on whole-grain toast instead of butter. Or try this simple smoothie, with a fiber boost from another super green food: kiwis. Recipe here.
12. Good Fats, Good Food
In terms of unsaturated fats, poly and monounsaturated fats have different health benefits.
Polyunsaturated fats—found in fish, walnuts, and flax seed oil—reduce LDL and lower triglycerides, a type of fat that can increase the risk of heart disease. There are two types of polyunsaturated fats: omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Research has shown that omega-3s help prevent and even treat heart disease and stroke.
Monounsaturated fats—found in olive, canola, and sunflower oils, and most nuts—can also improve HDL’s anti-inflammatory capabilities.
The Mediterranean diet, which is high in omega-3s and relies on olive oil as a main source of dietary fat, is considered one of the most heart-healthy nutritional approaches in the world.
13. Increasing HDL: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Improve your ratio of LDL to HDL by adding nuts and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. Salmon especially is a great source of omega-3s, which can help reduce blood pressure and the risk of blood clots.
Try this oven-steamed salmon, which gets an extra dose of fiber from Beluga lentils.
If fish isn’t your thing, make walnut and spinach salad. Walnuts are a great source of omega-3s, and spinach is full of many compounds that support heart health.
14. Other Healthy Habits
Beyond diet, there are other lifestyle changes that will have a significant impact on your cholesterol.
Frequent physical activity is important. Anything that gets your heart rate up—walking, swimming, biking—is good. If you don’t exercise regularly, start slowly, and try to build up to 30 minutes 5 times a week.
15. Quit Smoking
It’s not easy, but quitting smoking can increase your HDL cholesterol by up to 10 percent. It’s also better for your health overall.
Moderate use of alcohol has been linked with higher levels of HDL cholesterol. The key word is moderate. For healthy adults, the Mayo clinic defines moderate alcohol use as “up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.”
Red wine especially is linked with heart health. A compound called resveratrol might help reduce LDL, increase HDL, and prevent damage to blood vessels and blood clots.
However, if you don’t drink alcohol, don’t feel that you need to start. The American Heart Association does not recommend that you use alcohol to raise your HDL levels.