You know that you need to control your cholesterol levels to cut your heart disease risk. But since cholesterol isn’t something we can see or feel, like weight gain, it’s easy to forget about it and focus instead on increasing the speed on the treadmill or decreasing the number on the scale. The dangers of high cholesterol may not be immediately noticeable to you, but it takes a toll on your body, upping your risk for heart disease and even a heart attack or stroke.
Genetics can play a role in heart disease risk, but research has shown that lifestyle changes, such as what you eat and how much you exercise, can have a significant impact. The newest National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute guidelines, recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, focus on lifestyle recommendations, including changes in diet, nutrient intake and physical activity, to prevent and treat cardiovascular disease by modifying the significant risk factors like high cholesterol levels.
Consider these eight suggestions to manage your cholesterol. Remember that making any change, big or small, takes time and effort. Choose the healthy habits that fit best for you, and then work them into your daily life one by one.
Take Out Trans Fats
Many types of margarine and other non-dairy spreads, creamers and packaged baked goods and sweets contain trans fats—manmade compounds that have been shown to both elevate bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower good cholesterol (HDL). Although nutrition labels are now required to include the amount of trans fats in packaged foods, those numbers can be deceiving: Even products claiming “zero trans fats” can, by law, have up to half a gram per serving.
The FDA has mandated that companies remove trans fats from their processed foods by 2018 (note: oils will still contain low levels, due to the manufacturing process). In the meantime, get in the habit of reading food labels and try to pass on items that have “partially hydrogenated” in their ingredient lists.
Dial Down Saturated Fat
Found mainly in animal foods such as dairy and meat, saturated fat has been found to increase LDL and total cholesterol. If you enjoy these foods, try to eat them in moderation and favor leaner proteins, such as poultry, more often. Swapping out animal proteins for plant- based proteins, such as beans, soy, lentils and other legumes in some meals can further reduce saturated fat intake and have a positive effect on your cardiovascular health.
Make Room for Fish
The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish have been shown to increase HDL and decrease triglycerides. They also help bring down inflammation in the body that can lead to heart disease. Fatty fish like salmon, herring and sardines are some of the best sources for omega-3s. You can also get them from omega-3 enriched eggs, ground flax seeds, canola oil and other inflammation-fighting foods.
Eating nuts regularly has been shown to reduce LDL and total cholesterol, as well as triglycerides in people with elevated numbers. What’s more, eating nuts is also linked to a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Incorporate walnuts, almonds, pecans or another favorite into meals and snacks. Limit servings to one ounce each (roughly 24 almonds or 15 walnuts, for example). Nuts, while good for you, are high in calories and fat. Good fats are still fats, so practice moderation.
Season with Spices
Herbs such as cinnamon, ginger, red pepper, rosemary and turmeric have anti-inflammatory benefits that may help lower cholesterol levels and improve heart health. They’re also an antioxidant-packed, virtually calorie-free way to boost the flavor of your meals and snacks without upping the sodium or fat content. Cinnamon tastes great atop oatmeal, and fresh ginger makes a stir-fry sing. Add rosemary to baked squash for a new taste dimension, or red pepper flakes to tomato sauce for an extra kick. Turmeric gives steamed or roasted cauliflower an Indian-inspired twist.
Make Your Grains Whole
Swapping processed grains for unrefined (whole) grains can help put a dent in your cholesterol numbers. Whole grains are rich in fiber, which binds to bad cholesterol in the intestinal tract and helps transport it out of your body. Opt for brown rice, whole wheat breads and pastas in place of their white counterparts. You can add both variety and disease-fighting antioxidants to your diet by giving less common whole grains such as quinoa, millet, buckwheat and amaranth a place on your table.
Keep your toothbrush handy—several studies have found that the “stinking rose,” as garlic is sometimes called, may help lower cholesterol levels. A high level of antioxidants and sulfur compounds are thought to be responsible for garlic’s heart-healthy benefits. To see an effect, include one half to one whole clove in your diet per day. Add garlic to your cooking or try eating roasted cloves solo.
Get Moving—and Meditating
Regular aerobic activity helps to move bad cholesterol out of the body as well as increase good cholesterol. The more vigorous the activity, the greater the impact, but it is most important to choose a form of exercise you enjoy so you’ll stick with it. While it won’t help you break a sweat, meditation is also linked with improved LDL levels. Download a meditation CD and listen to it on your train ride home from work or before you go to sleep.