Cholesterol is a type of fat in the blood that can cause serious health problems if you have too much of it. Having high cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease and heart attacks.
Medications can help to lower your cholesterol but there are simple lifestyle changes you can also adopt. If you already take medication to control your cholesterol levels, these healthy changes can improve the way they work.
1. Modify your diet
Staying healthy starts with what you put on your plate. “Diet is a big contributor of high cholesterol, and saturated fat is the worst culprit for causing levels to rise,” says Dr Andrew Thornber, chief medical officer at Now Patient. “It can be found in high-fat dairy foods (such as cream, whole milk, hard cheese, butter), in fatty cuts of meat and in cakes and pastries.”
Dr Thornber says that if you’re concerned about your cholesterol, you should look at your diet (and speak to your GP) and approach these foods with particular moderation.
- Start by reducing saturated fats, which can reduce your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, otherwise known as ‘bad’ cholesterol.
- Eliminate trans fats (sometimes listed as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils), which are often used in margarine and store-bought treats, such as cakes and pastries, and raise overall cholesterol levels. The Food and Drug Administration has banned the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils from 1 January 2021.
It’s not just about eliminating foods though, incorporating heart-healthy foods into your diet can really help.
- Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. While they won’t affect LDL cholesterol, they do have other benefits for the heart, including reducing blood pressure. These foods include salmon, mackerel, herring, walnuts and flaxseeds.
- Increase your intake of soluble fibre. This can help to reduce the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream and is found in foods such as oatmeal, kidney beans, brussels sprouts, apples and pears.
- Still enjoy whey protein found in dairy products. Dairy sometimes gets a bad rap but it does have some health benefits. Studies have shown that whey protein given as a supplement lowers both LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol as well as blood pressure.
2. Look at what you’re eating and how you’re cooking it
Speaking of diet, Dr Thornber says: “Make sure your plate is an abundance of colour. That means you should try to increase your intake of fruit and veg – it will provide you with lots of vitamins and fibre.”
“At least five a day (400g) of a mixture of different coloured fruits and vegetables is important,” agrees pharmacist Anshu Kaura. “A high intake of fruit and veg has been associated with a lower incidence of heart disease, elevated cholesterol levels, blood pressure and obesity.”
Even small changes like making the switch to wholegrain, when it comes to foods like bread, rice and pasta, is a much healthier option for your heart and can help lower your cholesterol in the long run.
It’s not just about what you eat but also how you cook it. If you are regularly frying your dinner, it might be time to put away the frying pan.
“Boiling, poaching or steaming are ‘much healthier ways of cooking’,” says Dr Thornber. “Also avoid using butter to cook and use healthy heart alternatives such as olive, rapeseed and sunflower oils.”
3. Increase your overall physical activity
Exercising most days can improve cholesterol. Moderate physical activity can help raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which is known as the ‘good’ cholesterol.
Thirty minutes of exercise five times a week is what you should be aiming for, even if it’s spread across shorter intervals each day.
Any physical activity that gets your heart working a little harder can be counted, including a brisk walk, a bike ride or playing a sport.
Joining a group or finding someone to exercise with can help you to stick to your goals.
Increasing physical activity can also help you to lose weight. Carrying even a few extra kilos can contribute to high cholesterol, so exercise can help improve cholesterol twofold.
4. If you’re a smoker – quit
The benefits of giving up cigarettes will not only be reflected in your cholesterol levels but some changes do occur quickly.
- blood pressure and heart rate take 20 minutes to recover from the cigarette-induced spike
- blood circulation and lung function begin to improve within three months of quitting
- your risk of heart disease is half that of a smoker within one year of quitting.
5. Cut back on booze
“Alcohol may raise HDL ‘good cholesterol’ levels in those who drink small amounts, but remember it’s also full of empty calories,” says Ms Kaura.
She explains that alcohol is a common contributor to weight gain, which is one of the biggest risk factors for high cholesterol.
“If you don’t want to give up alcohol entirely, it is best to stick within the guidelines of no more than two to three units of alcohol a day, with at least two alcohol-free days a week,” she notes.
Do you already follow any of these tips to keep your cholesterol in check?
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