High blood cholesterol can have serious consequences for heart health. You can take charge of your cholesterol levels through healthy lifestyle choices.
Cholesterol isn’t all bad. In your body, cholesterol serves several important functions. It’s a building block for cell membranes, an essential part of many hormones, and is used by your body to make bile, which is necessary for proper digestion. Even though cholesterol has so many vital functions, you don’t need to consume cholesterol in foods because your body can make all the cholesterol it needs. Since your body naturally produces cholesterol, the amount you eat in foods has only a minor impact on the levels of cholesterol in your blood.
While a little cholesterol is essential for good health, it becomes a problem when there is much more than your body can use. Excess cholesterol accumulates in your blood stream and sticks to the lining of blood vessels. This buildup can lead to atherosclerosis, a narrowing and hardening of the arteries that can result in heart attack, stroke, and other serious complications (1). Although family history plays a part, cholesterol levels in the body are strongly influenced by your diet and physical activity level. This means that healthy lifestyle choices can help you manage cholesterol levels and help to keep your heart healthy (2).
Apart from managing a healthy weight and avoiding smoking, there are a number of lifestyle choices the American Heart Association recommends to help protect your heart health (2). These are three simple steps from the American Heart Association guidelines that can help you keep your cholesterol levels under control.
- Choose heart-healthy fats.
The American Heart Association guidelines recommend increasing heart-healthy fats, especially polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats while limiting unhealthy sources such as saturated and trans fat. Heart-healthy sources of fat include nuts, seeds, and fatty fish. Too much saturated fat is a concern for blood cholesterol levels because your body uses saturated fat to build its own cholesterol. When you eat a meal high in saturated fat, your body’s cholesterol production systems go into overdrive. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to seven percent or less of your total calories (2). They also recommend limiting trans fats as much as possible.
- Get more fiber, especially soluble fiber.
Getting at least the minimum recommended amount of dietary fiber every day is essential for a healthy heart. Some types of fiber, such as viscous soluble fiber like beta glucan from oats, can be especially helpful for managing blood cholesterol levels. Women should aim for no less than 25 grams per day while men need at least 38 grams per day from foods such as whole grains, beans, peas, and lentils (3). The American Heart Association recommends choosing a dietary pattern that is high in fiber (27-38 grams per day) to protect heart health (2).
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes a day.
While any amount of exercise has benefits for health, the greatest benefits for maintaining a healthy level of blood cholesterol can be seen with at least 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity, such as brisk walking. This works out to be about 30-40 minutes a day, four or five days per week. A higher level of physical activity can have additional benefits for managing cholesterol and overall health, too (2).
Keeping Cholesterol in Check
There is an important distinction between cholesterol in foods and the cholesterol level that’s measured in a blood test. In foods, cholesterol is found only animal-based products such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and milk. Limiting cholesterol from foods can help, but other lifestyle choices like limiting saturated fat, increasing your dietary fiber, and getting regular physical activity will have a greater impact on controlling blood cholesterol levels.
- Mozaffarian D, Benjamin EJ, Go AS, Arnett DK, et al. American Heart Association Statistics Committee and Stroke Statistics Subcommittee. Heart disease and stroke statistics–2015 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2015 Jan 27;131(4):e29-322.
- Eckel RH, Jakicic JM, Ard JD, et al. American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. 2013 AHA/ACC guideline on lifestyle management to reduce cardiovascular risk: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014 Jul 1;63(25 Pt B):2960-84.
- Institute of Medicine, Food Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrates, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press;2005.