5 ways to improve your cholesterol (without medication)

Jeannette Mcintyre Guest Columnist
Wednesday, September 22, 2021
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Have you ever wondered why your healthcare provider measures your cholesterol and wants you to lower it? Maybe a better term is “improve” your cholesterol, because not all cholesterol in the blood is bad. High blood cholesterol is known as an important factor in how likely a person is to develop cardiovascular disease, or have a heart attack or stroke. However, some cholesterol is also necessary to the body. It’s an important molecule for making hormones (like estrogen and testosterone) and building new cells.

Cholesterol comes in different types. LDL is commonly known as ‘bad cholesterol’ and reducing LDL reduces risk of heart disease and stroke. HDL is known as ‘good cholesterol’ and higher levels are associated with lower risk of heart disease and stroke.

Cholesterol levels are also determined partially by factors you can’t really change. For instance, genetics (did your parents have high cholesterol?), age and sex. However, lifestyle choices can help your efforts to improve cholesterol levels, or keep them at healthy levels.

IMPROVE YOUR DIET:

Dietary changes can lower bad cholesterol by about 5-7% on average. However, if your starting diet is pretty unhealthy, you can lower your bad cholesterol levels by up to 30%. General principles for making your diet healthier include:

— Eating more whole foods. This means more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, lower fat dairy products, and lean meats. Also consider reducing (not eliminating) highly processed versions of these foods when possible. Consider a piece of fruit over a piece of fruit leather, or brown rice or quinoa instead of white rice.

— Try replacing saturated fats (like butter or coconut oil) with unsaturated fats (like olive oil) in cooking. A general rule of thumb is that saturated fats are solid at room temperature and unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Food products are also labeled with their saturated fat vs. unsaturated fat contents. Saturated fats (and trans fats, which we’ll address below) are the biggest dietary offenders in raising bad cholesterol. Choosing unsaturated fats most of the time can make a big difference.

— Choose leaner cuts of meat most of the time. Consider buying lean ground beef instead of full fat and consider choosing chicken breasts over chicken thighs.

— Watch out for trans fats. These fats were initially created as a “healthier” alternative to saturated fats, but unfortunately, they are actually a very potent way to increase bad cholesterol. All foods are required to be labeled with the amount of trans fat they contain by the federal government. Trans fat is only contained in processed foods and does not occur in nature. If possible, trans fats should be avoided entirely.

MOVE YOUR BODY:

Physical activity can help you lose weight and increase your good cholesterol, in addition to helping you feel great! General activity recommendations for optimal health include either 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise weekly, plus two sessions of full body strength training, but any movement is better than none. Increasing exercise helps keep blood sugar in the normal range, reduces blood pressure, reduces stress and improves happiness. It also keeps bones strong as we age, and helps to prevent age-related loss of muscle mass, which otherwise reduces metabolism over time and leads to weight gain. Consider trying different varieties of activity like walking, running, bicycling, swimming, dance, aerobics, rowing, yoga, pilates, or hiking. Eventually you just might find something you like!

Start gradually with an amount of exercise that makes you feel good and doesn’t make you super sore afterwards. Most people are much more likely to continue a habit that feels good and you can gradually increase over time.

ADDITIONAL GUIDANCE:

— Quit smoking: The nicotine in tobacco products causes bad cholesterol to go up and good cholesterol to go down, in addition to increasing inflammation in the blood vessels and causing cholesterol to build up in the arteries. It only takes about 5 years of not using tobacco to see a substantial drop in the risk of heart disease and after about 10-15 years, the risk of heart disease and stroke is similar to that of someone who has never used tobacco!

— Lose weight: If you’re overweight or obese, losing 5-10% of your body weight can help you reduce total cholesterol and bad cholesterol, as well as lowering blood sugar levels and blood pressure.

— Reduce alcohol intake: Studies show that up to 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women can raise your good cholesterol and possibly even lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. However, amounts of alcohol greater than that can damage the heart and increase bad cholesterol. So, enjoy your wine, but in moderation.

Make sure to talk with your medical provider about ways to improve your cholesterol and whether or not you may need medication due to factors outside your control that affect your cholesterol.

(Dr. Jeanette McIntyre, MD, is a family medicine physician with clinical interests including obstetrics and gynecology, mental health and healthy lifestyles. To schedule an appointment today, call 406-233-2500 or book online at sclhealth.org/HRclinic)

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