Having high cholesterol puts you at risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Making healthy changes to your lifestyle such as monitoring what you eat, getting physical activity, and maintaining a healthy weight can lower your cholesterol.
If needed, your medical provider can write you a prescription for medication to help you lower your cholesterol along with your healthy lifestyle changes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 38% of adults in the United States have high cholesterol. If you’re among this group of more than 90 million American adults, bringing your cholesterol numbers down could decrease your risks for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
In this article, I talk about how your diet impacts your cholesterol level and steps you can take to lower your cholesterol. Lastly, I’ll tell you how long it may take to lower your cholesterol and when you should seek medical care.
How Diet Impacts Cholesterol
Many foods made from animal products are high in cholesterol. Changing your diet may help decrease your cholesterol levels. However, current research suggests that simply cutting out high-cholesterol foods is not the only step towards lowering your cholesterol. Rather, the key is to eat a balanced diet with a wide variety of foods.
Improving your cholesterol levels (lowering LDL and raising HDL), depends on the whole picture of your lifestyle factors. Diet is likely one of the most important ways to help lower your LDL since it is something that is done on a daily basis. Be sure to increase fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts in your diet and decrease saturated fats if you want to improve your cholesterol.
Dr. Arielle Mitton
How To Lower Cholesterol
Healthy changes to your lifestyle, including exercise, diet, and recreational activities, can help lower your cholesterol. There are also a number of effective medications to keep your cholesterol in check and minimize your chances of life-threatening incidents. The following are more details to help you lower your cholesterol.
Some common forms of aerobic exercise include activities like:
For those who have lived a relatively sedentary lifestyle, start slow. For example, begin with a slow, 15-minute walk or jog, and build up to 30 minutes. Remember to allow your body time to warm up and cool down.
The American Heart Association recommends that adults get more than 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity. This may sound like a lot, but it’s just over 20 minutes a day, or 30 minutes every weekday. Moderate-intensity exercise means your heart is beating faster, and you are perhaps breathless, but not so much that you cannot hold a conversation.
Less trans fats
In the past, dietary advice to lower cholesterol was often to go on a low-fat diet, but new research shows that not all fat is bad. When it comes to lowering cholesterol, the recommendation is to limit trans fats, otherwise thought of as “bad” fats. Trans fats increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol.
Trans fats are mostly found in processed foods, including refrigerated dough, fried foods, frozen pizzas, shortening, and some baked goods. Read the labels on food products, looking for ingredients like hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is a trans fat. Try to limit these types of food in your diet.
Soluble fiber can help decrease the amount of cholesterol in your bloodstream, and reduce your LDL cholesterol. Soluble fiber “pulls in” water and can help slow down your digestion.
Foods high in soluble fiber include:
- Brussel sprouts
You can also include more whole grains in your diet. Adult males should aim to eat 30-38 grams of fiber per day. Females should try to eat 21-25 grams daily.
Fish, shellfish, and plant-based proteins are lean, heart-healthy sources of protein. Plant-based proteins do not contain saturated fats and, as a bonus, often provide fiber. Plant-based proteins include beans, nuts, and peas.
When it comes to animal protein, opt for chicken or other white meats, and choose skinless versions. Red meats like beef, pork, and lamb tend to have more saturated fat. A recommended heart-healthy portion of cooked meat is 3 ounces. That is equal to a small thigh or drumstick of a chicken, a piece of meat the size of a deck of cards, or two pieces of sliced meat.
Many types of fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce blood pressure and triglycerides, the fat in your blood. While omega-3s don’t have a direct effect of LDL cholesterol, they are beneficial to the heart and it is recommended that American adults eat at least two servings of fish a week.
Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids include:
Shellfish like lobster and shrimp are higher in cholesterol, and less recommended. Try grilling or baking the fish with olive oil rather than frying to avoid adding extra fat and calories. Women who are pregnant should avoid eating fish which may be contaminated or high in mercury. It is possible to take omega-3 supplements if you prefer not to eat fish, but talk to your doctor before beginning any new supplements or medications.
More fruits and veggies
Eating more fruits and vegetables is associated with lower LDL levels: In a 2004 study of more than 4,000 people, scientists found that for each additional serving eaten daily—up to four—LDL levels dropped. Fruits like apples, strawberries and citrus, are high in pectin, a fiber that lowers LDL. Eggplant and okra are good examples of low-calorie vegetables that are also high in soluble fiber.
A study released in 2021 by the journal Circulation found that the heart-healthy benefits of eating fruits and vegetables levels off around five servings per day. According to the research, the optimum daily mix is two servings of fruit per day, and three of vegetables. This can be achieved by adding small amounts of your favorite fruit or vegetable to every meal. Try adding berries to your morning oatmeal, a side of chopped veggies at lunch, and a salad with dinner.
For individuals overweight, weight loss can help lower bad LDL cholesterol and fat carried by triglycerides. In one research review, scientists concluded that for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight lost, LDL levels dropped by an average of 1.28 mg/dL. Talk with your medical provider about ways to help you maintain a healthy weight.
Studies show that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption may help prevent heart disease and may raise “good” cholesterol. Heavy alcohol consumption may be a factor for cardiovascular disease and risk, and drinking too much alcohol can raise cholesterol and triglyceride levels. If you are already at cardiac risk, it is best to limit your average alcohol consumption.
There are many reasons smoking is hazardous to your health. Smoking can damage your blood vessels and heart, it also increases your risk of heart disease, including heart attack, and stroke. Smoking makes LDL cholesterol “stickier,” so it clings to the arteries and builds up and clogs blood vessels. It also lowers your HDL, the food cholesterol, as well as damages the walls of your arteries, all increasing your risk of life threatening conditions that may be a result of high blood pressure.
Sometimes lifestyle changes aren’t enough to lower cholesterol and medication is necessary. There are a variety of cholesterol-lowering drugs on the market. Your doctor or primary care provider can help pick the right choice for you based on your lab results and other medical conditions.
- Statins help lower LDL cholesterol levels more than any type of drug, by an estimated 20-55%.
- Ezetimibe reduces the amount of cholesterol that your body absorbs, which helps lower LDL by up to 25%.
- Bile acid resins and nicotinic acid (also called niacin) are also effective LDL reducers.
- Fibrates are less effective at lowering LDL cholesterol, but can be helpful in lowering triglycerides.
These drug options have a variety of side effects. Depending on your cholesterol levels and overall health, one may be a better fit for you than others. Talk to your doctor or primary care provider to figure out the best option for you. Remember, while medication can be helpful, it will be even more effective in combination with a healthy lifestyle.
How Long Does It Take to Lower Cholesterol?
Lowering your cholesterol takes time and does not happen overnight. There is not a specific time frame in which your cholesterol will reach a healthy level. How long it takes depends on several factors such as:
- How high your cholesterol level
- How much weight you need to lose
- How quickly you incorporate healthy lifestlye changes
- Your genetics and other diseases you may have
After about three months of making healthy lifestyle changes, you may see positive changes to your cholesterol levels.
When to See a Doctor
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute suggests people get their cholesterol checked every five years starting between the ages of 9-11. As individuals get older, screenings should be adjusted to every two years. Individuals over 65 should get annual cholesterol tests. Depending on results, your doctor or provider may want to test your blood pressure and cholesterol more frequently.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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The Effect of Alcohol on Cardiovascular Risk Factors: Is There New Information? (2020).
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Weight Loss and Serum Lipids in Overweight and Obese Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. (2020).
Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Mortality. (2021).
Fruit and vegetable consumption and LDL cholesterol: the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Family Heart Study. (2004).
Cholesterol-lowering effect of concentrated pomegranate juice consumption in type II diabetic patients with hyperlipidemia. (2006).