High cholesterol can be addressed through three main lifestyle changes: exercise, eating fewer animal products, and weight management. It’s important to keep an eye on your cholesterol through regular testing because side effects are usually nonexistent and high cholesterol can have a cumulative effect over time. Being aware of your cholesterol levels, even from a young age, is key.
A quick recap on cholesterol
Your total cholesterol score takes into account your LDL (low-density lipoprotein), HDL (high-density lipoprotein), and 20% of your triglycerides. Your LDL is the “bad” cholesterol that can cause plaque buildup in your arteries; HDL is the “good” cholesterol that essentially acts as a cleanser and removes excess cholesterol from your body; and triglycerides are the most common type of fat in your body. Learn more here.
Tips for how to lower your cholesterol
- Limit animal-based products like cheese and red meat: Decades of research shows that foods high in saturated fats (like whole milk, butter, beef, and other animal-based foods) can raise your cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease. Try to choose low-fat options instead and eat plant-based dinners at least once per week.
- Eat more avocados and fish: one of the reasons the Mediterranean diet is so healthy is because it’s full of monounsaturated fatty acids, which are commonly found in foods like fish and avocados, and have been shown to lower your LDL levels.
- Check nutrition labels for trans fats: trans fats, also known as “hydrogenated oils,” are so problematic that some states have restricted their use and in 2018 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned adding artificial trans fats to food products. Trans fats can be found in highly-processed foods like cookies and frozen pizza and in fried food. Be sure to check nutrition labels next time you’re at the grocery store.
- Remember, exercise is medicine: exercise can lower your HDL by helping you lose fat and gain muscle. Ideally, the American Heart Association recommends you get 20 minutes of exercise every day or 30 minutes of exercise five times a week. That means a total of 150 minutes every week. Here are a few easy exercises to do throughout the day to help you meet your goal.
- Make a weight loss plan: if you’re overweight, achieving a healthy weight can help lower your cholesterol. To determine what’s best for you, try something like a food diary or food tracker. Once you’ve decided where you’d like to focus, set healthy habits and weigh yourself no more than once weekly so that you can be aware of any major changes in your weight. There’s no need to weigh yourself more than once a week because of normal fluctuations in weight due to daily water intake.
- Use olive oil instead of coconut oil: although coconut oil might sound healthy, it’s full of saturated fats. Try olive oil or canola oil instead.
How long does it take to lower my cholesterol through lifestyle changes?
Lifestyle changes can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to take effect. The amount of time it takes to see any changes will depend on your treatment plan, current cholesterol levels, and family history. Cholesterol management is a lifetime commitment. If you recently received a high total cholesterol score on a blood test, be sure to talk with your doctor about developing a plan.
What about statins?
For some people, lifestyle changes aren't enough to manage high cholesterol. In those cases, many doctors will prescribe medication, such as a statin. Statins help your liver slow down the production of cholesterol. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to cholesterol management: talk with your doctor if you have questions about your cholesterol.