If you have high cholesterol you aren’t alone: nearly half of all American adults have high cholesterol. Not all cholesterol is bad. In fact, your body makes its own and uses it for many important functions, such as producing cells and certain hormones. However, too much of this waxy substance in the blood clogs arteries.
Cholesterol is carried through the blood in molecules called lipoproteins. The two most commonly discussed in relation to heart health are low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL (bad) deposit cholesterol inside your arteries. HDL (good) carry cholesterol to the liver to dispose of it or recycle it for future cell and hormone production, which makes it less likely that excess cholesterol in the blood will be dumped in the coronary arteries where it can build up.
Your genes determine how much cholesterol your body produces naturally. The rest comes from the foods you eat. Follow these steps to help prevent, or lower, high blood cholesterol levels.
Cut back on saturated fat
Saturated fats increase LDL cholesterol. Keep your intake of saturated fat to less than 7 percent of your total daily calories. (If you eat 2,000 calories per day, this is less than 15.5 grams of saturated fat.) The main sources of saturated fat are whole milk and full-fat dairy products, butter, red meat, chocolate and palm oil.
Watch out for trans fat
Man-made trans fats are created when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil—a process called hydrogenation. Trans fats increase the shelf life of foods, but are more harmful to your lipid levels than saturated fats. It’s important to keep trans fats to less than 1 percent of total calories (under 2 grams if you’re eating 2,000 calories per day) because these fats not only raise LDL cholesterol but also lower HDL cholesterol. Many experts say there is no safe level and recommend avoiding trans fats entirely.
Most of the trans fats in the American diet are found in commercially prepared baked goods, margarines, snack foods, processed foods and commercially prepared fried foods.
Replace saturated fats with healthier ones
Most of the fat in your diet should come from unsaturated fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated). Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats may help lower your blood cholesterol level when you use them in place of saturated and trans fats in your diet. Keep total fat to less than 35 percent of total calories, or below 78 grams for 2,000 calories.
Polyunsaturated fats are found in certain plant oils—safflower, sesame, soy, corn and sunflower-seed oils. Omega-3s, a type of polyunsaturated fat, are found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel. Olive, canola, sunflower and peanut oils contain monounsaturated fats, and so do avocados.
Regular physical activity can help lower triglycerides (high levels of this common body fat combine with high LDL and/or low HDL to increase buildup in arteries). Exercise can also lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol, as well as help you to maintain (or lose) weight. Try to get at least 30 minutes of activity on most, if not all, days.
Keep weight in check
It’s especially important to lose weight if you have a cluster of risk factors for metabolic syndrome and obesity-related conditions (e.g., heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes). Risk factors include high triglycerides and/or low HDL levels, being overweight and having a waist measurement more than 40 inches (men) or 35 inches (women).
Eat more fiber
Increasing your total daily fiber intake is always a good idea, but, when it comes to lowering cholesterol, soluble fiber really counts: studies show that increasing soluble fiber by as little as 5 to 10 grams per day can reduce LDL cholesterol by 3 to 5 percent. How? Because soluble fiber becomes gel-like when it dissolves in the intestines, it binds some of the dietary cholesterol in the gut, making it unavailable for absorption.
Soluble fiber is found in foods such as oatmeal, kidney beans, Brussels sprouts, apples, pears, barley and prunes. Eating 1½ cups of cooked oatmeal provides 3 grams of soluble fiber.
Consider adding plant sterols to your diet
Studies show that eating 2 grams of plant sterols daily may improve cholesterol levels significantly when part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends these only for people who actually have high levels of LDL cholesterol. Eating them won’t prevent you from developing high cholesterol.
Plant sterols are a class of micronutrients present in small amounts in many fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, cereals, legumes and vegetable oils, and they help block the absorption of cholesterol. Plus, you can also find foods that are fortified with sterols.
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