Of all the numbers that accompany your annual physical, cholesterol gets special emphasis. For good reason: High “bad” cholesterol and low “good” cholesterol levels can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. But if your cholesterol isn’t where it should be, you can take easy steps to improve your numbers. “There are absolutely wonderful ways to manage high cholesterol,” said Leslie Cho, MD, an interventional cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, on the latest episode of the hospital’s “Health Essentials” podcast. “In 2022, heart disease is 90% preventable.” These are the best habits to lower cholesterol. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
The easiest way to lower your cholesterol? “Switch to a plant-based diet,” said Cho. That means a varied diet that’s mostly plants, which includes healthy sources of protein, such as plant-based protein (like beans or legumes) or fish, and plenty of soluble fiber, which binds to cholesterol and eliminates it from the body. Experts recommend at least 30 grams of fiber a day. “At least 30 grams of soluble fiber can really lower your cholesterol,” said Cho. “Food is a source of medicine, and we have to think about food mindfully, instead of just thinking about convenience factor.”
Regularly drinking to excess can increase your triglycerides while increasing LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lowering HDL (“good”) cholesterol. “People who drink a lot of alcohol, because alcohol is made from sugar, they have very high triglycerides,” said Cho. “And really high triglyceride increases your risk for diabetes, for pancreatitis, and having high triglycerides in women is especially problematic because it increases your risk for stroke. So it’s really important to try to control your triglycerides.” To help keep your cholesterol in a healthy range, drink only in moderation, meaning no more than two drinks daily for men, or one drink daily for women.
Being overweight (having a BMI over 25) or obese (a BMI over 30) increases the amount of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in your blood. “Excess body fat affects how your body uses cholesterol and slows down your body’s ability to remove LDL cholesterol from your blood,” the CDC says. “The combination raises your risk of heart disease and stroke.” Losing as little as five to 10 pounds of body weight can reduce your cholesterol by 5% to 10%, said Cho.
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Exercise can have “a dramatic impact on your good cholesterol and your triglycerides,” said Cho. Doctors recommend getting at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week. But if that sounds intimidating, you don’t have to start there—you can make small increases to your daily activity, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or choosing a farther parking spot and walking in instead of hunting for the front row. “These little things make a very big difference,” said Cho.
Tobacco use increases bad cholesterol and triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood), while lowering good cholesterol. The toxins in tobacco also damage the walls of blood vessels, which contributes to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), further increasing your risk of heart disease. “Smoking really truly is one of the worst things we could do, not just for your heart, but for your brain and your lungs,” said Cho. “These risk factors are additive. If you smoke and you have high cholesterol, you have now doubled your risk.”