Your arteries are like an extensive highway system, delivering oxygenated blood and nutrients to all your tissues and organs. But when you have too much cholesterol in your blood, these highways can become narrow or blocked with plaque build-up. Your heart has to work harder, and it makes it more difficult for your blood to get to its destination. You probably don’t like driving through heavy traffic – neither does your blood.
A healthy diet and lifestyle can help prevent traffic and keep blood flowing smoothly throughout your body. Consider these tips your roadmap to healthy cholesterol levels.
1. Get Moving
It can be difficult to reach your health goals with a sedentary lifestyle. So, if you find yourself in your desk chair or the same spot on the sofa most of the day, it’s time to get moving. Exercise is one of the best ways to help support healthy cholesterol levels.
To understand how exercise helps your cholesterol levels, it’s important to know about the types of cholesterol in your blood.
LDL cholesterol is also often referred to as “bad” cholesterol. You can remember this with a simple mnemonic: “L” in “LDL” stands for “lousy.” LDL cholesterol travels throughout your body, leaving a trail of fatty deposits that can increase your risk for heart disease.
HDL cholesterol is known as “good” cholesterol – it sweeps in as the hero. Think: “H” in HDL stands for hero. This type of cholesterol flies through your body and helps clean up part of the mess that LDL cholesterol leaves behind.
Regular exercise can help raise HDL cholesterol levels, increasing its superpowers against LDL cholesterol. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (cardio) per week. Moderate-intensity aerobic activity includes brisk walking, water aerobics, gardening, or biking slower than 10 miles per hour. The AHA also recommends strength or resistance training twice per week – try adding body-weight exercises, yoga, or free weight exercises to your routine.
Make sure you check with your healthcare provider before starting any new exercise program. If you have to start with 5-10 minutes of physical activity at a time, that’s perfectly fine – always make sure you exercise at your own pace. As your body and your heart grow stronger, you may be able to increase the duration or intensity of your workout.
Already an avid exerciser? Make sure you’re taking steps to optimize your recovery so you can continue to reach your workout goals.
2. Fill Up on Fiber
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that your body can’t digest. So, if you can’t digest or absorb it, there can’t be any benefit, right?
Wrong. Fiber doesn’t get nearly enough credit for everything it does in your body. While cardio and strength exercises help your heart and muscles stay strong, fiber is like a workout for your gut. Since your body can’t break down fiber, it actually slows down your digestion. Fiber-rich foods help you stay fuller for longer, maintain a healthy weight, and provide food for the good bacteria in your gut.
There are two kinds of fiber:
- Soluble fiber. This type of fiber dissolves in water to form a gel-like substance. Soluble fiber-rich foods include oats, avocados, beans, and the fleshy parts of fruits and vegetables, like sweet potatoes, apples, pears, and peaches.
- Insoluble fiber. This type of fiber does not dissolve in water. Insoluble fiber is found in foods like celery, wheat bran, whole wheat flour, nuts, and the skins of fruits and vegetables.
While it’s important to include both types of fiber in your diet, soluble fiber is the reigning champion when it comes to heart health. Soluble fiber can help support healthy blood cholesterol levels. Here’s how: as soluble fiber travels through your digestive system, it binds with cholesterol and carries it out of the body before you can absorb it. Soluble fiber can also help support healthy blood pressure levels.
- Start low, go slow. Add fiber foods to your diet gradually to give your body time to adjust. As you increase your fiber intake, make sure you also increase your fluid intake to avoid stomach upset.
- Power up with plants. Plant-based foods are packed with fiber. Focus on adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet, and make at least half of your grains whole grains.
- Take your breakfast up a notch. Start your day off right with a fiber-rich breakfast. Try whole wheat toast with peanut butter and bananas, yogurt topped with nuts, or oatmeal naturally sweetened with a handful of berries.
- Make your snacks count. Follow this formula for the perfect snack: plant + protein.
3. Choose Healthy Fats
Fats are a rich, long-lasting source of energy for the body, and they’re essential for many bodily functions, but the type of fat that you choose matters.
There are three main types of fats:
- Saturated fat. This type of fat is found primarily in animal products, and it’s usually solid at room temperature. Think butter, red meat, poultry with skin, cheese, and other full-fat dairy products like whole milk and yogurt. Saturated fat contributes to higher LDL cholesterol levels.
- Unsaturated fat. This type of fat is found primarily in plant-based foods, and it’s usually liquid at room temperature. Nuts, seeds, avocados, fatty fish (salmon, herring, tuna, mackerel, etc.), and plant oils like olive, canola, or sunflower oil are rich in unsaturated fats. Most unsaturated fats are considered heart healthy and can help maintain healthy cholesterol levels when used instead of saturated fats.
- Trans fat. Trans fats are created by an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. You may see trans fats hiding in your ingredient list under the disguise of “partially hydrogenated oils.” Although the use of trans fats has decreased significantly in recent years, this type of fat may still be present in processed and packaged foods, vegetable shortening, some types of stick margarine, and fast food. Trans fats are a double whammy – they can raise your LDL cholesterol and lower your HDL cholesterol.
The bottom line: avoid foods with trans fats, limit foods with saturated fats, and opt for foods with unsaturated fats most of the time.
Now it’s time to put it into practice. Here are a few tips to make sure you’re making heart-healthy choices every day.
- Use heart-healthy cooking methods. Bake, broil, or grill instead of deep-fat frying, and opt for olive oil or canola oil instead of butter or tropical oils, such as coconut or palm oil.
- Choose reduced-fat dairy products instead of full-fat dairy products. For example, swap whole milk for 1% or skim milk, full-fat yogurt for non-fat yogurt, or full-fat cheese for reduced-fat cheese.
- Opt for lean proteins like skinless poultry, fish, or lean cuts of beef or pork. Swap meat for a plant-based protein like beans, lentils, or tofu a few times per week.
4. Avoid Smoking
If you don’t smoke, you’ve already hit this checkpoint on the roadmap to healthy cholesterol levels. But if you do smoke, it’s never too late to quit and get on the fast track to a healthier heart.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), smoking is the main cause of preventable disease and death in the United States. Smoking can also throw your cholesterol levels out of whack – it raises LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowers HDL (good cholesterol). Most of the damage smoking causes to your body is reversible, and you can start reaping the benefits the moment you put down your last cigarette.
If you’re interested in quitting but need some guidance, check out these online resources from the American Heart Association.
5. Aim for a Healthy Weight
Weight isn’t the only predictor of cholesterol levels, but maintaining a healthy weight can help keep your cholesterol in check.
If you’re taking steps towards a healthy weight, consider these tips:
- Practice plate method. Fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables, one-fourth of your plate with lean protein, and the last quarter of your plate with a whole grain or starchy vegetable.
- Opt for zero-calorie beverages. Choose water, low-fat milk, unsweetened tea, black coffee, and sparkling or fruit-infused water. Limit fruit juice, soda, energy drinks, and other sugar-sweetened beverages.
- Listen to your body. There are a lot of reasons you may eat – and hunger is just one of them. Many people eat in response to emotion, stress, boredom, or simply because it’s lunchtime. It can take some time to become completely in tune with your hunger and satiety cues, but it’s a great way to honor your body while also limiting mindless snacking. Each time you head to the kitchen for a snack or a meal, check-in with your body using this hunger scale.
Consider Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
CoQ10 is a large, fat-soluble nutrient that helps your cells produce energy. Individuals taking statin medications to lower cholesterol may have difficulty maintaining healthy levels of CoQ10, and research suggests that this may play a role in many statin-related side effects.
Choose CoQ10 -rich foods like organ meats, salmon, tuna, chicken, beef, canola and soybean oil, and pistachio nuts to promote optimal CoQ10 levels in your body, and consult with your doctor to find out if a CoQ10 supplement could be beneficial for you.
While you can’t plug “heart health” or “healthy cholesterol levels” into your GPS, you can use these tips as your guide. Healthy diet and lifestyle habits can put you in the fast lane to achieving and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. Take it one day at a time and enjoy the ride.