When it comes to healthy living, a cholesterol level of less than 200 tops the list of things you can (and should!) do to reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke. And, for most people, eating a balanced diet and staying physically active are the keys to achieving and maintaining a desirable cholesterol level.
"Few health issues can be resolved with a single, one-time solution," says Dr. Clyde W. Yancy of Desoto, Texas, "and keeping your cholesterol at a normal level is no exception."
Everyday choices, like the food and beverages you consume and the amount of exercise you get, can have as much impact on your cholesterol level as family history and medication, says Yancy, a cardiologist and internal medicine specialist at Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
"You have to be committed to an A-to-Z approach to keeping cholesterol low," Yancy says. "That means every day, thinking about what you can do to prevent, manage and intervene to keep your cholesterol below 200."
Check Your Level
The first step to managing your cholesterol is to monitor your level. Have your cholesterol checked periodically, and talk with your physician about what to do if your level is too high. If your cholesterol is above 200, even small changes in your diet and exercise routine can yield big results in lowering your count. Here are a few ideas:
- Wear a pedometer and walk at least 4,000 steps every day.
- Reduce food serving sizes, build meals around fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and prepare meats by grilling, baking and roasting, rather than frying.
- Avoid processed foods, baked goods and snack foods such as crackers, chips and luncheon meats. They contain large amounts of cholesterol and contribute to obesity.
- Keep your weight in a normal range for your height.
- Watch your waist. Women whose waists are larger than 35 inches and men with waists larger than 40 inches are at greater risk of cardiovascular disease.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance normally found in the bloodstream and the body. For adults, the body makes most of the cholesterol it needs to keep cells healthy and to produce certain hormones. The challenge occurs when people eat foods that have large amounts of cholesterol. These include foods made from animal products such as meat, eggs, butter, cheese and whole milk, which contain saturated fats. These fats can clog blood vessels and arteries, increasing your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and other life-threatening medical issues.
That's why building meals and snacks around food low in cholesterol and saturated fat can help lower your cholesterol level.
To further bolster the cholesterol-lowering effect of what you eat, add whole grains such as brown rice, whole grain breads, cereals and pastas, bulgur wheat, oats or barley. These high-fiber foods are believed to help carry cholesterol away from the heart and arteries. Fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt and margarine also are low-cholesterol alternatives.
"Think of your body as a fuel tank," Yancy says. "When you take in the fuel you need, your body burns it, but if you take in more fuel than you need, you store it in the form of cholesterol."
Being physically active and eating well work together to help keep cholesterol low. So, whether it's walking for 30 minutes every day, working out at the gym or just taking the steps instead of the elevators, the cholesterol-lowering potential is the same.
"Exercise not only burns fat, but it also builds muscle which is more efficient at burning calories than fat," Yancy explains. "And when you combine eating less with more exercise, not only can that have a positive effect on your cholesterol, it can also help you lose weight, which decreases your risk of diabetes and high blood pressure."