Have you or a loved one just been diagnosed with high cholesterol? It’s important to know exactly what this means and how to combat it. High cholesterol is extremely common in the United States, with 94 million adults being considered borderline for the condition.
While it isn’t a rarity, this is not to say that it shouldn’t be taken seriously. High cholesterol can lead to serious and even fatal health issues if left untreated, like a heart attack or stroke. The good news is it can be managed and sometimes reversed with diet and lifestyle changes.
What Is Cholesterol?
There are two types of cholesterol – blood cholesterol and dietary cholesterol. Blood cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance produced by our livers and is essential for good health because it helps us to digest fat and produce hormones, cell membranes, and vitamin D.
Since cholesterol can not travel on its own, our bodies create proteins called “lipoproteins” as a form of transportation for our cholesterol. There are two types of lipoproteins – low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol because it carries cholesterol to your arteries. If LDL levels are too high, this can create build-up known as cholesterol plaque which can limit blood flow, raise the risk of blood clots, and cause heart attacks or strokes if a blockage is created. On the flip side, HDL is the “good” cholesterol and helps to return LDL to your liver to be processed out of your body and prevent buildup from happening.
While high cholesterol is sometimes hereditary, it can also occur due to poor diet. Dietary cholesterol is found in animal foods such as meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. Either way, when experiencing high cholesterol, it’s important to make diet and lifestyle changes to regulate your levels.
Reversing High Cholesterol
Every case is different, but in general, the following diet and lifestyle changes are recommended to combat high cholesterol. Talk to your doctor about what is right for you. In some cases, these methods should be combined with medication to get the condition under control.
- Limit animal products and eat more plant-based meals. Plants are packed with nutrients and fiber, so they are key players when trying to reduce cholesterol. Research shows that plant-based diets lower cholesterol levels more effectively than other diets. In 2017, 49 studies were reviewed comparing plant-based diets with omnivorous diets, and plant-based diets lowered total cholesterol more than omnivorous diets.
- Eat more “good fats.” While what the medical field preached in past decades caused the dawn of many “low fat” diets, not all fat is bad for you! Monounsaturated fats are in foods like olives and olive oil, nuts and nut butters (particularly almonds, cashews, pecans, and macadamias), avocados, and canola oil and are considered “good fats” and help to raise the HDL cholesterol, lower LDL cholesterol, and reduce oxidation which contributes to clogged arteries. Additionally, polyunsaturated fats are considered heart-healthy and also help to decrease LDL and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that is particularly good for you. Seeds and tree nuts are all good sources.
- Maintain a moderate weight. While a healthy weight is different for everyone, in general, maintaining a healthy body mass index (BMI) plays a role in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. Every 10 pounds of excess fat produces roughly 10 mg of cholesterol per day. If your cholesterol is high, losing weight can help to reduce LDL and raise HDL!
- Exercise regularly. Exercise, exercise, exercise – we as doctors can’t stress it enough! We may sound like a broken record, but exercise is the holy grail of health, and the American Heart Association has actually found that just 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week can lower cholesterol levels. While the exact impact varies based on the individual, it’s clear that exercise in any form is beneficial.
- Limit alcohol. Have you ever heard that a glass of red wine a day is actually good for your health? This is still a hot topic for debate in the medical community, and while this theory is still being tested, the consensus is – if you’re going to drink, drink in moderation! Heavy alcohol consumption harms the liver (which helps to rid our bodies of excess cholesterol), increases the risk of heart disease, and prevents a whole slew of health issues. While I know it’s tempting to grab a few drinks after a long day; it’s much safer to go on a power walk to reduce stress.
- Avoid smoking. At this point, we all know smoking is bad for us. Smoking actually changes how our bodies handle cholesterol and alters the function of our immune cells. Remember the description earlier about how HDL returns cholesterol back to our livers to be rid of our bodies? When our immune cells aren’t functioning properly, it inhibits this process and inhibits the production of HDL, causing build-up and increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other life-threatening issues.
Keep An Eye On Cholesterol
Keeping an eye on cholesterol is critical, and while it is very common, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. All adults over the age of 20 should visit their doctor regularly to have their lipid levels checked as part of a comprehensive exam. Even someone who is very conscious of their health has the potential for high cholesterol since genetics also play a role. While these lifestyle and diet tips are critical for both preventing and reversing high cholesterol, medication is sometimes necessary, so talk to your doctor to determine what is right for you. To get started on your journey to a healthy and happy life, schedule a FREE meet and greet with me by visiting www.drlifestyle.org.