Cholesterol: Know your numbers

You may know a lot of things about yourself, but do you know what your cholesterol level is? Do you know what those numbers mean?

Your HDL is the “good” cholesterol. HDL absorbs cholesterol and carries it back to the liver which then flushes it from your body. High levels of HDL can lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.

Your LDL is the “bad” cholesterol and makes up most of the cholesterol in the body. High levels of LDL increases your risk for heart disease and stroke.

When you combine these two numbers they make up your cholesterol level and depending on how high it is (particularly how your LDL cholesterol is), you may need to make some changes to your lifestyle and eating habits. Too much LDL cholesterol can build up on the walls of your blood vessels which then decreases blood flow. When blood flow to the heart is blocked, it can cause a heart attack.

But this is all preventable depending on your lifestyle and eating habits. Here are the best things to eat to lower your cholesterol, and keep your blood pressure in check. Plus there are added benefits for your bones and digestion, as well as your vision and mental health, when following these suggestions:

  • Whole grains. Eating a bowl of oatmeal, bran, barley, or Cheerios for breakfast gives you 1 to 2 grams of soluble fiber. Adding a banana or strawberries gives you another half-gram of fiber. Soluble fiber can reduce the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream. Five to 10 grams or more of soluble fiber a day decreases your LDL. Nutrition guidelines recommend getting 20 to 35 grams of fiber a day. On average, we only get about half of the soluble fiber that we need on a daily basis.
  • Beans. Beans not only are rich in soluble fiber, but they also take longer to digest. This is especially helpful if you are trying to lose weight, since you feel fuller for longer. Black-eyed peas, lentils, navy beans and kidney beans are all good choices to eat. Eating 25 grams of soybeans and foods like tofu and soymilk every day can lower LDL by 5% – 6%.
  • Nuts. Research has shown that eating two ounces of nuts a day can help lower LDL. So if you do want to snack between meals, have a handful of almonds, walnuts, or peanuts.
  • Fruits and Veggies. Apples, grapes, strawberries, oranges, and grapefruit among others are rich in pectin which helps lower LDL. Eggplant and okra are low in calories and also a good source of soluble fiber.
  • Fish. Eating fish such as salmon, tuna or trout  two or three times a week can lower LDL levels. The omega-3 fats in fish are known to lower LDL levels and triglycerides in the bloodstream, and also protect the heart by preventing abnormal heart rhythms. 
  • Vegetable oils. Replace butter, lard, shortening and bacon grease with canola, sunflower, or safflower oil when cooking and at the table helps to lower LDL.

Other lifestyle changes are also in order to really make an impact on your cholesterol levels. 

  • Exercise. If you don’t currently have a work-out routine, adding physical activity can help you lose weight and improve cholesterol. Even moderate physical activity can raise HDL (the good cholesterol) and help you lose weight. Before you begin, consult with your doctor, but 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week, or 20 minutes of more vigorous exercise three times a week can help you lose weight and improve your cholesterol. Walking, jogging, or riding a bike are all great ways to improve your health and don’t require a gym membership. If you can’t stay motivated, find a walking buddy or join a group to keep yourself accountable.
  • Quit smoking. Did you know that when you quit smoking your HDL cholesterol level improves. Within 20 minutes of quitting, your blood pressure and heart rate recover. Within three months of quitting, your blood circulation and lung function begin to improve. Within a year of quitting, your risk of heart disease is half that of a smoker. Better yet, don’t ever start smoking and teach your children the same.
  • Lose weight. Like we mentioned above, changing eating habits and exercising will help you lose weight. If you like to snack, try nuts or air-popped popcorn or pretzels. Sherbert instead of ice cream is also a good choice when cutting calories. Drink water instead of soft drinks – even diet ones, to help lose weight, too.
  • Drink less. If you drink alcohol, limit your consumption. Some studies have linked moderate use of alcohol with higher levels of HDL cholesterol, but it’s not suggested as a means to lower your total cholesterol. Women of all ages and men over 65 should limit consumption to one drink per day, while men younger than 65 can have up to two drinks per day. Drinking too much alcohol can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke and liver damage.

If diet and exercise are not enough, your doctor may recommend medication to help lower your cholesterol. Be sure to take it as prescribed, but don’t stop making changes to your lifestyle. Keeping up with a health diet and regular exercise will keep you on a healthy path. So, as we go into the new year, start fresh with a plan for a happy and healthy 2021.