Can You Prevent High Cholesterol?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on July 09, 2023
3 min read

Cholesterol is a waxy substance in your blood that your body uses to make hormones and digest fats. But your body doesn’t need much of the stuff to do these jobs. Extra cholesterol can build up inside your arteries. That can make it harder for blood to flow to major organs like your heart and brain. This raises your chances of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

If you smoke or have diabetes or high blood pressure, your risk is even higher.

But you don’t need to wait until you have high cholesterol to do something about it. Here are some steps you can take right now to keep your numbers in a healthy range.

Diet is one of the best ways to keep your cholesterol under control. Saturated fats, found in fried foods, red meat, and full-fat dairy, can raise your cholesterol levels. Limit these and other high-fat foods. Go for lean chicken or fish and low-fat or fat-free dairy products instead.

Trans fats are double trouble. They raise your bad cholesterol and also lower your good cholesterol. For this reason, the FDA banned them. But you can still find them in some foods, including processed and pre-packaged stuff.

Instead of processed foods, focus on fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, nuts, and healthy cooking oils (like olive or canola). Cutting back on sodium and sugar-sweetened foods and drinks is also good for your heart.

Even a little extra weight can increase your cholesterol levels. Losing just 5 pounds can make a difference. If you’re not sure where to start, commit to very small changes. For instance, you can drink tap water or seltzer instead of a soda, or park farther away from a store entrance so you walk a few more steps than usual.

After your liver breaks down alcohol, it rebuilds it as cholesterol and triglycerides, another substance in your blood that increases your risk of heart problems or stroke. Men younger than 65 should have no more than two alcoholic drinks each day. Women of all ages and men over 65 should limit themselves to one drink.

At least 150 minutes of activity each week can help keep your cholesterol levels low. You don’t need to do it all at once. Every type of movement, from working in your yard to taking a walk around the block, counts toward this goal.

Smoking injures the walls of your arteries. This makes cholesterol more likely to “stick” to them. As soon as 20 minutes after you stop smoking, your blood pressure and heart rate return to normal. Within 3 months, your blood flow improves.

High cholesterol doesn’t have symptoms. A blood test is the only way to find out if you have it. Most people need a cholesterol screening every 5 years. But if you’re at higher risk for heart problems -- for instance, if heart trouble runs in your family, or you’re overweight or have diabetes -- more frequent tests are a good idea. Talk with your doctor to find out what timeline is best for you.

Lifestyle changes are often enough to prevent high cholesterol, but some people need extra help. If your numbers go up in spite of your efforts, your doctor may tell you to stick with these healthy habits and start cholesterol-lowering medication as well.