By Liz Thomson, as told to Kara Mayer Robinson
I’m only 32 and I’m a certified health coach and personal trainer, so it comes as a bit of a shock when people learn that my cholesterol used to be very high.
Even as a child, I had high cholesterol. When I was 10 or 11, my doctor told me it was over 300 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), which is very high, especially for an otherwise healthy child. But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I found out I have familial hypercholesterolemia. This is a genetic condition that causes high LDL, which is the bad cholesterol.
For me, it wouldn't be possible to keep my cholesterol in a healthy range without medication, but that doesn't mean my choices don't have an impact on my health. Managing a chronic condition like high cholesterol means I need to make healthy choices every day.
Choose the Right Foods
My doctor suggested eating a low-fat diet and limiting how much meat I eat, so I started to transition to a vegetarian diet. But just because something is vegetarian doesn't mean it's healthy. I've learned a lot about diet and nutrition, and now I avoid a lot of the processed foods that claim to be low-fat.
Now I focus on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. I’ve also discovered more vegetarian protein sources, so my diet is diverse. For example, whole-grain bread and whole-wheat pasta are great sources of fiber and plant-based protein.
I try to balance my plate with the foods I love, while keeping an eye on the foods that aren't so great for my cholesterol. I've been able to pretty much completely cut out trans fats just by avoiding highly processed foods and packaged junk foods. I know fiber is important for managing my cholesterol, so I eat a lot of beans and vegetables.
The biggest challenge is probably my love of cheese, which is high in saturated fat. I haven't given it up completely, but I try to enjoy it in moderation. If I'm having a slice of my favorite pizza, I'll serve it with roasted broccoli or a salad.
I think my high cholesterol diagnosis is a big part of what sparked my interest in health and wellness. I'm fascinated by food and cooking, and I love creating healthy recipes. I've enjoyed learning about plant-based protein sources like chickpeas, lentils, and tempeh. I've had fun trying new recipes and introducing my family to new foods.
Healthy Choices Every Day
If you have high cholesterol, doctors say you should avoid smoking, and if you drink alcohol, it’s best to do it in moderation. I do enjoy wine and cocktails, but like everything, I try to enjoy it in moderation. I've never smoked, and I have no desire to start, so that's an easy one to avoid.
Exercise is also important. I enjoy being active. I've become a big fan of fitness apps that I can do at home. My husband built a desk for our treadmill so we can walk and work at the same time. I think little things like that have a big impact on my health over time.
To stay on track, I try to incorporate little things throughout my day. For example:
- I try to make sure we have a vegetable at each meal. I don't buy a lot of junk food -- if it's not in the house, I won't eat it.
- I wear a fitness tracker to track my steps, and I make it a goal to get at least 10,000 a day.
- I carve out time for my workout in the morning, and I prioritize sleep at night.
These habits make it easy to stay on track, because they're built into my daily routine.
A Positive Impact
My LDL is just over 100 mg/dL now. My goal is to get that under 100. But eating healthy, exercising, and taking a statin have helped me lower my cholesterol significantly.
I have a wonderful cardiologist who has worked with me to find the right combination of medication and lifestyle changes to really see a difference in my health.
While I wouldn't wish for high cholesterol, it really has been a motivating factor for me in managing my health. I'm grateful that it pushed me to develop healthy habits. If it hadn't been for my diagnosis, I don't think I would have fallen in love with cooking, and that has become such a big part of my life.