Nothing gets your attention quite like your doctor asking you to sit down for a heart-to-heart about your cholesterol.
Regardless of the reason — high cholesterol can arise from genetics, inactivity, overweight or from eating certain foods — a high (200+) blood cholesterol reading is a possible signal of danger.
Too much cholesterol in the blood stream is linked to hardening or clogging of arteries and increases the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
If you want to better understand the results of your cholesterol blood test — or “lipid panel” — check out: “How to Read Your Scary Cholesterol Blood Test.”
But, even if you have received the news that your cholesterol is too high, the good news is that there are proven ways to bring it down to safe levels.
Some people find help from a popular class of drugs, statins, that lower cholesterol and reduce systemic inflammation. In many people, these drugs are extremely effective in lowering cholesterol levels.
But statins may have side effects, including muscle pain, liver damage, skin rash, higher blood sugar or even memory loss or confusion, this Mayo Clinic article says. So, many people prefer to first try changing their diet and lifestyle in ways that can naturally bring down their cholesterol levels.
Follows are nine ways to lower cholesterol naturally. Before trying these nondrug approaches, be sure to talk with your doctor and ask him or her to help you set goals:
1. Eat much better
Eat a diet that built mostly around fresh vegetables and fruits, legumes (beans, peas and lentils), whole grains, fatty fish and sources of healthy fats. You can score your own heart disease risk with this American Heart Association tool.
Try for at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise most days to raise “good” HDL by 5 percent to 10 percent or more over about three months, says US News & World Report. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s pamphlet, Guide to Lowering Your Cholesterol With TLC, has specifics.
3. Lose weight
If you’re overweight, even a modest weight loss can help reduce cholesterol levels.
4. Cut out trans fat
Eating fat helps us absorb vitamins and minerals, build cells and boost energy. Some fats are healthy but others are dangerous. Trans fat (also called “partially hydrogenated oil”), an industrially made fat, is the worst. Even small amounts raise “bad” LDL cholesterol and are linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, systemic inflammation and insulin resistance, raising the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Read food labels to spot trans fat, especially in restaurant and commercially prepared foods, snacks and baked goods.
5. Embrace healthy fats
Healthy fats are those from nuts, seeds, fish and vegetables (tip: they are liquid at room temperature):
- Monounsaturated fat, from olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, avocados and avocado oil, most nuts and high-oleic sunflower and safflower oil.
- Polyunsaturated fat helps lower triglyceride and bad cholesterol counts. They include corn oil, safflower oil and sunflower oil.
- Omega-3 fatty acids help prevent heart disease and stroke. They’re in (baked, poached or grilled) salmon, lake trout, sardines, herring, halibut, mackerel, albacore tuna and halibut, walnuts, canola oil, flax seeds and unhydrogenated soybean oil. (Fish oil capsules don’t provide the same benefits. “Eat fish instead,” says Healthbeat, another Harvard Medical School newsletter.)
- Omega-6 fatty acids and linoleic acids, also important, are in oils from corn, safflower, sunflower, soybeans and walnuts.
6. Cut back on animal fats
Saturated fats (often solid at room temperature, like butter or bacon grease) probably contribute more than other foods to raising blood cholesterol. Saturated fats include fat in ice cream, full-fat dairy and cheese, red meat (here’s help limiting red meat), coconut oil and many commercially made baked goods, crackers, chips sweets and snacks.
But low-fat diets often emphasize sugar, white breads and grains and highly processed cereals, which cause their own health problems. Don’t try to eliminate fats, experts say. Instead, replace saturated fat with healthy fats and high-fiber whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
7. Add whey protein to your diet
Studies show that whey protein supplements (found in health food stores) lower LDL and total cholesterol, according to The Mayo Clinic.
8. Boost your soluble fiber intake
Eating fibrous foods helps lower LDL and total cholesterol. It may carry cholesterol out of the body before it can be absorbed. Increase your soluble fiber, the type that absorbs water in digestion, by eating fruit, vegetables, legumes (dry beans, lentils and peas), barley, oats and oat bran. (Insoluble fiber from whole grain bread, pasta and crackers, bulgur wheat, stone ground corn meal and whole cereals and rice is important, too but has less effect on cholesterol.) Shoot for 25 to 30 grams of total fiber daily from food, not supplements, says the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center.
9. Eat foods fortified with sterols
You’ll find commercially made foods, including yogurt drinks, juices and margarine, fortified with sterols or stanols — plant materials that help block cholesterol absorption. Eating at least 2 grams daily of sterols or stanols can reduce LDL cholesterol by 5 to 15 percent, says The Mayo Clinic.
Two more (controversial) recommendations
Two common practices, refraining from eating cholesterol-containing foods and adding a nutritional supplement called red yeast rice, are subjects of debate. Here’s why:
Foods high in cholesterol: to eat or not?
In addition to the fats that cause our bodies to make cholesterol, some foods — particularly shellfish, egg yolks and organ meats like liver, kidneys and brains — contain a lot of cholesterol. Avoiding them can help reduce cholesterol levels.
However, research, including this Finnish study from the Feb. 10, 2016 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, finds little to no connection between heart disease and eating moderate amounts of cholesterol-containing foods, even among people with a gene that raises the risk of heart disease. Nevertheless, eating these foods can definitely raise your cholesterol numbers.
Red yeast rice: The jury is out
Red yeast rice is a Chinese medicine sold by drug stores and natural food suppliers. It’s made by fermenting a yeast over red rice. Several studies have indicated that red yeast rice can lower LDL cholesterol but research is scanty. Also, because alternative medicines aren’t subject to government testing, it’s hard to ensure a product’s uniformity, purity, truth in labeling or safety.
There are additional reasons for caution: Red rice yeast can affect liver function. The Mayo Clinic lists potential side effects. Avoid it if you have liver, thyroid, kidney or musculoskeletal disorders, are at higher risk for cancer, consume more than two alcoholic drinks a day, have a serious infection or have had an organ transplant, says The University of Maryland Medical Center.
Do you have experience trying to drive down your cholesterol level? Share your thoughts with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.