Cholesterol numbers too high? These five diet and lifestyle strategies let you nudge numbers down without medication. By: Maureen Callahan, MS, RD
Lower Your Cholesterol
Ours is a pill-popping culture, so it's no surprise the default method for lowering high cholesterol levels is usually medicinal. Drugs are readily available. They're effective. And the pill approach requires very little effort. Yet studies show that diet and lifestyle changes can be as or even more powerful than many drugs. Better yet, these natural methods help lower heart disease risk without negative side effects. Employ one (or all five) of these strategies and chances are cholesterol numbers will improve. Already taking cholesterol-lowering meds? These changes can enhance a drug's effectiveness.
The ultimate goal: total cholesterol less than 200 mg/dl; 100 mg/dl or less for LDL or "bad" cholesterol, and 40 mg/dl or higher for HDL or "good" cholesterol.
1. Get Moving
Hop on a bike. Walk around the neighborhood every day. Lift weights. Try dancing or kickboxing your way through an aerobic workout. Studies confirm that moderate intensity activity on an almost daily basis (yes, we mean exercising) can reduce cholesterol levels 10 to 20 percent. It also boosts levels of HDL, or "good" cholesterol.
One more thing: Get a doctor's O.K. if you've been inactive. Otherwise, the American Council on Exercise recommends starting out with 20 minutes of moderate intensity walking four days per week. Build up to one hour of walk-jogging (aerobic classes) six to seven days per week. Find routines to get you started with our Ultimate Move Finder.
Eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is important to health for a lot of reasons. But when it comes to lowering cholesterol levels, soluble fiber, the kind found in oats, apples, and barley, is most adept. Studies suggest at least 3 grams of soluble fiber is needed. Start with a half cup of either oats (2 grams soluble fiber), black beans (2.4 grams), or Brussels sprouts (2 grams). Other good sources: sweet potatoes, asparagus, turnips, citrus fruits, peas, and strawberries. Starting your morning with a bowl of oatmeal, like this version with apples, hazelnuts, and flaxseed is always a heart-healthy, fiber-filled way to start your day.
One more thing: To reap the most benefits from soluble fiber make it part of a diet low in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol, says the American Heart Association.
3. Lose Weight
If you're already implementing the first two strategies (exercise and fiber), numbers on the scale may already be dropping. If not, make a concerted effort to lose weight since studies show that losing even as little as five to ten pounds can lower total cholesterol levels dramatically. Not overweight? Concentrate efforts on maintaining a healthy weight.
One more thing: For long-term success with weight loss, the Mayo Clinic suggests making small, sustainable changes. Slowly work more activity into your daily routine. Bring a healthy lunch from home instead of eating out. It all adds up.
4. Focus On Good Fats
Peanut butter, nuts, olive oil, and fats found in fish, avocados, and plant foods don't raise blood cholesterol levels and in some cases even help to lower them. The hitch: some of these good fats are high calorie, so eat them in moderation. What to limit or avoid? Artery-clogging saturated fats (red meat, butter) and trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils). Oh, and keep in mind that it's healthier to replace those harmful saturated fats with small amounts of good fats rather than with carbs.
One more thing: Missing butter? Try cholesterol-lowering spreads like Benecol® or Take Control® that block the body's absorption of cholesterol.
Studies confirm red wine raises levels of HDL or "good" cholesterol. It doesn't hurt either, according to a 2010 review from the Journal of Cardiovascular Research, that wine is rich in antioxidants (quercetin, resveratrol, proanthocyanidines), which protect the heart by decreasing inflammation and oxidative stress. If you imbibe, the American Heart Association advises women put a limit on alcohol to one drink (one 5 ounce glass of wine) per day and up to two drinks per day for men.
One more thing: Don't drink? This isn't a call to start; these same antioxidant compounds can be found in grape juice, green tea, and many fruits and vegetables.
More Cholesterol-Lowering Tips
Spoiler alert: While diet and lifestyle changes can promote dramatic drops in cholesterol for many folks, sometimes they don't do the trick, particularly in people with a genetic disposition for high cholesterol levels. If that's the case, a doctor can prescribe medications (probably less of them if you're being scrupulous about diet and exercise) to bridge the gap. Also important, if you're a smoker, quit smoking. Studies on smoking suggest mixed results with smoking raising LDL levels in some studies and having little impact in others. Yet there is no doubt that smoking is a strong risk factor for heart disease.