Cholesterol, a waxy substance produced in our liver that the body uses for important functions, like making hormones and digesting fatty foods, isn’t a bad thing. However, to maintain a healthy heart and cardiovascular system, keeping your cholesterol levels in check is key. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 93 million American adults age 20 or older have high cholesterol.
There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is known as “good” cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is considered the “bad” stuff. While high levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with a lower risk of heart disease, high levels of LDL cholesterol are associated with a greater risk of not only heart disease but stroke and other problems, too.
Based on current knowledge, the CDC currently recommends that individuals should maintain an LDL (“bad”) cholesterol level that’s less than 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) and HDL (“good”) cholesterol level that’s greater than or equal to 60 mg/dL for optimal heart health.
If you need to bring your cholesterol into balance, a number of lifestyle changes can make a real difference. Here are five expert-backed adjustments you can make today to support healthy cholesterol.
1. Swap out trans and saturated fats
Trans and saturated fats are double trouble for your cholesterol, as they can raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in the blood, says cardiologist Dr. Nicole Harkin, M.D., of Whole Heart Cardiology. Both trans and saturated fats are found naturally in red meat and dairy, but you’ll also find them (and in high amounts) in many fried and processed foods.
Whenever possible, limit your intake of foods that contain saturated and trans fats and opt for unsaturated fats instead. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are considered “heart-healthy” and can help to improve cholesterol, Harkin says. These fats are mainly found in plant-based sources. A few great sources: avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds.
For example, when cooking, swap butter and margarine for olive oil—and when snacking, grab a handful of nuts instead of potato chips, adds Ashley Shaw, M.S., R.D., a registered dietitian at Natus Wellness.
“Studies have consistently shown that this substitution results in decreased risk of cholesterol problems as well as heart disease,” Harkin says.
2. Eat more plant-based foods
All plants are filled with compounds called phytosterols, a key to achieving healthy cholesterol levels. “The structure of phytosterols is very similar to that of cholesterol, so they compete with cholesterol for absorption,” Shaw says. “As a result, cholesterol absorption is blocked and LDL cholesterol levels may be reduced.”
Since nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables are all high in phytosterols, you’ll do well to incorporate any and all of them as often as possible. To really support healthy cholesterol, Shaw recommends filling half of your plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal. Veggie-packed salads, black bean tacos with cabbage slaw, and fruit- and seed-topped oatmeal are all great options.
3. Commit To An Exercise Routine
Want your daily routine to support healthy cholesterol? Get movin’ and shakin’! “While exercise does not typically significantly lower LDL cholesterol, it can modestly raise HDL cholesterol,” says Dr. Harkin. Plus, “it is very important for overall heart health, and can have a significant impact on high blood pressure, body composition, and insulin resistance.”
The CDC recommends adults aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (like jogging) or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (like running) per week. That breaks down to five 30-minute sessions of moderate-intensity exercise or three 25-minute high-intensity workouts.
4. Get more soluble fiber
Not only does fiber keep things moving through your digestive system, but it is also good for heart health. Soluble fiber, a type of fiber that dissolves in water and binds with cholesterol in the intestines, preventing it from being absorbed, is particularly important.
In fact, studies have shown a diet high in soluble fiber can reduce LDL cholesterol by as much as five to 10 percent, Harkin says.
Foods high in soluble fiber include beans, whole grains (oatmeal and quinoa), seeds like flax seeds, and several fruits and veggies (including avocados, Brussels sprouts, oranges, and pears), says Harkin.
Incorporate these foods into your salads, soups, wraps, and more regularly to hit Harvard Health‘s recommended daily fiber intake—21 to 25 grams for women and 30 to 38 for men. If you struggle to meet your fiber needs, talk to your doctor about adding a fiber supplement like psyllium husk to your routine, Harkin recommends.
5. Quit smoking and drink in moderation
The many health issues caused by smoking and excessive drinking are well known at this point—and they include increasing LDL cholesterol levels. “Tobacco use can increase LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol, while excessive alcohol use can increase LDL cholesterol and triglycerides,” Harkin says.
The US Dietary Guidelines recommend women stick to one serving of alcohol per day, while men limit themselves to two. “I don’t advise my patients to start drinking alcohol for cardiovascular protection if they don’t already,” Harkin says. “I advise those who do drink, though, to stick to these limits and avoid binge drinking.”
Of course, you’ll also want to quit smoking ASAP, she says. Doing so will both improve your cholesterol and lower your risk of heart disease.