You’ve just come home from your annual checkup, and this time, the doctor says your blood cholesterol levels are a little high. There’s no reason to panic -- more than a third of your fellow Americans have the same problem.
But too much of the fat-like substance can build up in your arteries. It can block your blood flow, raise the likelihood of dangerous blood clots, and put you at greater risk for heart attack and stroke.
Yes, there are medications that can help you bring your levels to a healthier range. But even if your doctor prescribes one for you, you still need to make some adjustments in your everyday life to get your cholesterol under control.
So where do you start?
Diet Is Key
The first thing you need to do to improve your health is to change what you put into your body. You can lower your cholesterol by swapping out certain foods for healthier choices.
Start by loading your plate with plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. Not only are they low in cholesterol, they’re high in fiber. That’ll keep things moving through your digestive tract. Fish, nuts, low-fat dairy, and lean poultry are good choices, too.
Saturated fat and trans fats raise the level of cholesterol in your blood. You find them in meat, skin-on poultry, full-fat dairy products, candy, fried foods, and in many processed foods. To make sure you don’t get too much of them, check out the Nutrition Facts label on a food’s package. Along with the listed amounts of saturated and trans fats, look at the list of ingredients. If it says “partially hydrogenated oil,” the food has trans fats.
A balanced diet also will help you manage your weight, which is another part of your risk for heart disease.
Good Fat and Good Cholesterol
Keep in mind that “fat” and “cholesterol” are not always bad words. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in fish and nuts help reduce LDL, the so-called “bad cholesterol,” in your blood.
Some of these foods also boost HDL, the “good cholesterol,” which flows through your bloodstream and removes LDL.
Want to maximize the effects of your new, low-cholesterol diet? Get moving. Physical activity doesn’t have much direct effect on your LDL levels, but it does raise HDL as it lowers the amount of fat in your blood called triglycerides. Exercise also helps you keep off extra pounds and lowers your blood pressure -- two other contributors to heart disease.
You should try to get a total of 30 minutes of heart-pumping exercise almost every day, like walking, running, swimming, biking, or hitting the elliptical or step machine. If you’ve been inactive for a long time, you’ll want to start off slow, walking for a few minutes at a time. Talk to your doctor about what kinds and how much exercise is right for you.
Put It Out
Your cholesterol levels are yet another reason to stop smoking. The carbon monoxide you inhale from cigarettes increases the level of cholesterol that builds up along the walls of your arteries. If you need help to kick the habit, talk to your doctor about medicines or counseling programs that can make it easier.