Pictures Slideshow: Lowering Cholesterol - 15 Tips for Avoiding Heart Disease
Reviewed by Andrew Seibert, MD on Friday, September 23, 2011
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Simple Steps to Lower Cholesterol
Has your doctor said you have high cholesterol? Then you know you need to change your diet and lifestyle to lower cholesterol and your risk of heart disease. Even if your doctor prescribed a cholesterol drug to bring levels down, you'll still need to change your diet and become more active for cardiovascular health. These simple tips can help you keep cholesterol levels in check.
Cholesterol, Good and Bad
Your body needs a small amount of cholesterol to function properly. But we may get too much saturated fat and cholesterol in our diet -- and both raise levels of LDL "bad" cholesterol. LDL cholesterol can cause plaque to build up in arteries, leading to heart disease. HDL "good" cholesterol, on the other hand, helps clear bad cholesterol from your blood. You want to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol, starting with your diet.
Portion Control: Lend a Hand
Most Americans eat super-sized meals, with portions that are twice the size recommended for good health. That can contribute to weight gain and high cholesterol. Here's an easy way to practice portion control for a meal: Use your hand. One serving of meat or fish is about what fits in the palm of your hand. One serving of fresh fruit is about the size of your fist. And a serving of cooked vegetables, rice, or pasta should fit in your cupped hand.
Serve Up the Heart-Healthy Food
Load your plate with fruits and vegetables -- five to nine servings a day -- to help lower LDL "bad" cholesterol. Antioxidants in these foods may provide the benefit. Or it may be that when we eat more fruits and veggies, we eat less fatty foods. Either way, you'll also help lower blood pressure and maintain a healthy weight. Foods enriched with plant sterols, such as some margarine spreads, yogurts, and other foods, can also help lower LDL cholesterol.
For Heart Health, Look to the Sea
A heart-healthy diet has fish on the menu twice a week. Why? Fish is low in saturated fat and high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids help lower levels of trigylcerides, a type of fat in the blood. They may also help lower cholesterol, slowing the growth of plaque in arteries. Go for fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, trout, and sardines. Just don't drop the filets in the deep fryer -- you'll negate the health benefits.
Start Your Day With Whole Grains
A bowl of oatmeal or whole-grain cereal has benefits that last all day. The fiber and complex carbohydrates in whole grains help you feel fuller for longer, so you'll be less tempted to overeat at lunch. They also help reduce LDL "bad" cholesterol and can be an important part of your weight loss strategy. Other examples of whole grains include wild rice, popcorn, brown rice, barley, and whole-wheat flour.
Go Nuts for Cardiovascular Health
Need a snack? A handful of nuts is a tasty treat that helps in lowering cholesterol. Nuts are high in monounsaturated fat, which lowers LDL "bad" cholesterol while leaving HDL "good" cholesterol intact. Several studies show that people who eat about an ounce of nuts a day have lower risk of heart disease. Nuts are high in fat and calories, so only eat a handful. And make sure they're not covered in sugar or chocolate.
Unsaturated Fats Protect the Heart
We all need a little fat in our diet -- about 25% to 35% of our daily calories. But the type of fat matters. Unsaturated fats -- like those found in canola, olive, and safflower oils -- help lower LDL "bad" cholesterol levels and may help raise HDL "good" cholesterol. Saturated fats -- like those found in butter and palm oil -- and trans fats raise LDL cholesterol. Even good fats have calories, so eat in moderation.
More Beans, Fewer Potatoes
You need carbohydrates for energy, but some do your body more good than others. Whole grains, such as brown rice or quinoa, whole-wheat pasta, and beans have more fiber and raise sugar levels less. These help lower cholesterol and keep you feeling full longer. Other carbs, like those found in white bread, white potatoes, white rice, and pastries, boost blood sugar levels more quickly, leading you to feel hungry sooner, and may increase risk for overeating.
Even 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week (20 minutes three times a week for vigorous exercise, such as jogging) can help lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol -- although more exercise is even better. It also helps you maintain an ideal weight, reducing your chance of developing clogged arteries. You don't have to exercise for 30 minutes straight -- you can break it up into 10-minute increments.
Walk It Off
If you're not used to exercising -- or hate the thought of going to a gym -- just go for a walk. It's easy, healthy, and all you need is a good pair of shoes. Aerobic or cardiovascular exercise such as walking lowers risk of stroke and heart disease, helps you lose weight, and keeps bones strong. If you're just starting out, try a 10-minute walk and gradually build up from there.
Work Out Without Going to the Gym
If exercise sounds like a dirty word to you, here's some good news: You can boost your heart health by incorporating physical activity into your day. Any kind of cardiovascular activity counts -- gardening, dancing, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Even housework can qualify as exercise -- as long as you're doing serious cleaning that gets your heart rate up and not just light dusting.
Take Charge of Your Health
If you have high cholesterol, you and your doctor may be using a number of strategies to lower cholesterol levels. You may be working on your diet, losing weight, exercising more, and maybe taking cholesterol drugs. There are other actions you can take, too, to make sure you stay on the right track.
What to Do When Eating Out
If you're eating healthy food at home to keep cholesterol in check, don't blow it when you eat out. Restaurant food can be loaded with saturated fat, calories, and sodium. Even healthy choices may come in super-size portions. Try these tips to stay on track:
- Choose broiled, baked, steamed, and grilled foods -- not fried.
- Get sauces on the side.
- Practice portion control by asking for half your meal to be boxed up before it's brought out.
Look for Hidden Traps
A close look at nutrition labels is essential for a low-cholesterol, heart-healthy diet. Try these tips:
- Check serving sizes. The nutrition info may look good, but does the package contain two servings instead of one?
- If it says "whole grain," read the ingredients. Whole wheat or whole grain should be the first one.
- A food with "0 grams cholesterol" could still raise your LDL cholesterol. Saturated fat is the other culprit to watch for.
Don't Stress Out
Chronic stress can raise blood pressure, adding to your risk of atherosclerosis, which occurs when plaque from cholesterol builds up in arteries. And research shows that for some people, stress might directly increase cholesterol levels. Reduce your stress levels with relaxation exercises, meditation, or biofeedback. Focus on your breathing and take deep, refreshing breaths. It's a simple stress-buster you can do anywhere.
When Losing Means Winning
Losing weight is one of the best things you can do to fight cardiovascular disease. Being obese increases the risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. These all affect the lining of your arteries, making them more prone to collect plaque from cholesterol. Losing weight -- especially belly fat, which is linked to hardening of the arteries -- helps raise HDL "good" cholesterol and reduce LDL "bad" cholesterol.
Follow Your Doctor's Advice
Managing your cholesterol is a lifelong process. See your doctor regularly to keep tabs on your health. Follow your doctor's recommendations on diet, exercise, and medication. Working together, you and your doctor can lower your cholesterol levels and keep your heart going strong.
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