It’s an adjustment, for sure. But the truth is, lifestyle changes really do make a difference. They can even feel good. And if your habits right now aren’t exactly something to brag to your doctor about, guess what? You could see the biggest improvement of anyone in your doctor’s waiting room.
Even if your doc reaches for her prescription pad, get going with these six strategies — because drugs are never the whole plan.
1. Become Super-Choosy About Fat
Cheeseburgers, ice cream, and ribs might taste delicious, but they’ll send your cholesterol levels in the wrong direction. It happens because of all the saturated fat you get from them.
Cuttingback on this type of fat, which comes from meat and full-fat dairy products, can lower your “bad” cholesterol. What’s a good goal? There are different views on this.
The American Heart Association recommends that people keep calories from saturated fat to no more than 5% to 6% of their total calories. That will help you lower your LDL levels between 11 and 13 points. That means if you normally eat a 2,000-calorie diet, you would have less than 13 grams of saturated fat a day.
“Reducing animal fats is the main thing, like cutting down on fatty beef and pork,” says Karen Aspry, MD, a cardiologist with the Cardiovascular Institute at Rhode Island Hospital. “But you’ll also want to eat less dairy fat, which means less cheese, butter, and ice cream.”
This is exactly what worked for David Rachford of Santa Barbara, CA. “My LDL was 160 and my doctor wanted to put me on medication, but I knew I could lower my numbers without drugs,” he says. “I started eating beef, pork, and dairy a lot less often and became way more conscious of my animal proteins.” Less than a year later, his LDL was down to 124.
You don’t need to remove all fat from your diet. If you did, it could backfire.
“In studies, people who eat some healthy fats often have lower cholesterol than those who follow a strict nonfat diet,” Aspry says. “Plus healthy fats like the kind in olive oil and nuts boost your HDL levels and lower triglycerides.” The key is making sure you choose unsaturated fats whenever possible.
Should you cut out all animal products and go vegetarian or vegan? That’s a personal call. It can be a great choice, but then again, potato chips and cheese puffs are vegetarian. You want top quality in your diet, whether you decide that that includes limited amounts of meat or not. Your doctor or a nutritionist can help you decide what’s best for you.
2. Break Up With This Fat for Good
You need to get artificial trans fats out of your diet — permanently. This isn’t one of those, “it’s good for you; no wait, it’s bad for you” wishy-washy scenarios. The info is too solid to ignore.
Not only do they raise your LDL, they also lower your good HDL cholesterol at the same time. Lots of fried foods like doughnuts and packaged food like cookies and crackers have trans fats, so make sure to check the label before you eat. And even if the package claims there are zero trans fats in the food, double-check that there’s no “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredient list. Something can claim to be trans-fat-free if there’s less than 0.5 grams per serving.
3. Block It From Your Blood
That’s what soluble fiber does. Beans, barley, oatmeal, psyllium seeds, and Brussels sprouts are just a few of the foods that have it.
All plants have fiber. The “insoluble” kind passes through you without breaking down. The “soluble” sort becomes gel-like in your gut — and helps your body get rid of cholesterol.
The strategy worked for Suzy Wilkoff of West Palm Beach, FL. “I cut out simple carbs like white bread, bagels, crackers, and white potatoes and replaced them with foods that had more fiber like oatmeal, black beans, sweet potatoes, and lots of vegetables,” she says. “Three months later my cholesterol was down 29 points!”
You may not get that exact number — maybe more, maybe less. According to the National Institutes of Health, you can expect about a 5% drop in your bad cholesterol if you add 5-10 more grams of fiber a day. Bump that up to 10-25 extra grams a day and you’ll improve your numbers even more.
Remember, just about everyone needs to eat more fiber, and plant foods are the best source. So go for it!
4. Think, “More Is More.”
With exercise, that is. It can improve your cholesterol levels, but you need to do it daily.
“The effects of exercise on your cholesterol only lasts about 24 hours or so,” Aspry says. “So it’s not good enough to head to the gym twice a week and be sedentary the rest of the time.”
A better plan: Do something
active every day for 30 minutes. “Even a walk around your neighborhood counts as long as you do it regularly,” Aspry says. “Plus, if all that moving helps you lose even 5% of your body weight, you’ll see another big impact on your cholesterol levels.”
5. Ramp It Up
You already know you need to be active. And you’re on it. So now, take it a step further.
On some days, make your cardio a little tougher than normal. Although any activity is better than none, it pays to push yourself sometimes.
A good plan: Three or four days a week, do 40 minutes of cardio where you are working out at a higher intensity.
“If you’re already active, you can do the same workouts you’ve been doing, just do them more vigorously,” says Robert H. Eckel, MD, director of the Lipic Clinic at University of Colorado.
For instance, if you usually walk, add in some spurts of jogging or faster walking. If you’re already a runner, mix in sprint intervals.
6. Give Your Job S
tress the Pink Slip
If your work gets to you, you owe it to yourself to make some changes. Research shows that people who feel stressed out about their job have higher levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and lower levels of the “good” kind (HDL).
While some jobs are naturally stressful, it’s important to do what you can to limit how burnt out you feel. Some ideas:
- Schedule short breaks into your day. A minute here, a quick walk there.
- Use all of your vacation time this year, even if you just stay at home.
- Ask your boss to prioritize your workload so you spend your time and energy wisely.
- Keep up with co-workers in your field, or explore a new career idea or going back to school. Maybe the grass truly is greener.
You might even be more productive as well as healthier.
7. No Smoking
Cigarette smoke lowers your “good” cholesterol. Although quitting may not cut your “bad” cholesterol directly, the ratio of your good to bad levels matters. So when you kick the habit, you improve that ratio — and benefit just about everything else about your health.
If you’ve tried to quit smoking, chalk that up as part of the process. Most people quit and then start again at least a couple of times. It’s worth it.