If you regularly enjoy bacon at breakfast or a cheeseburger with fries at lunch, your diet could be steering you toward high cholesterol. Common in adults and even in children, high cholesterol levels can lead to serious health problems.
Since high cholesterol levels don’t cause specific symptoms, and can be affected by your family history, it’s important to have your blood tested periodically. This can be a part of your regular checkups.
Fortunately, you won’t have to ban the burgers entirely. With some smart food swaps, you can improve your health without sacrificing taste.
Breaking down the facts on cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fatty substance in your bloodstream. It helps your body build cells, make hormones and vitamins, and digest food. While cholesterol is necessary to keep your body healthy, too much of the wrong kind can increase your chances of a heart attack or stroke.
- Low-density lipoproteins (LDL): This is often called "bad" cholesterol. Too much of it can lead to a buildup of plaque in the arteries, blocking blood flow. LDL is found in certain foods, which we’ll talk about below.
- Triglycerides: This is the most common type of fat in your blood. To store calories that your body doesn’t need right away, your body converts them into triglycerides for later use. Having a high level of triglycerides can increase your risk of heart disease.
- High-density lipoproteins (HDL): This is known as "good" cholesterol, because it helps remove LDL and triglycerides from your bloodstream. Regular aerobic exercise helps your body make more HDL.
When your cholesterol is too high
Exercising regularly, not smoking, and making good food choices are the most effective ways to maintain healthy cholesterol levels. If your LDL and triglyceride levels are high, talk with your doctor about the best way to bring them down. It’s a good idea to adjust your lifestyle, regardless of whether you take medication for high cholesterol.
Tips for heart-healthy eating
If you need to lower your LDL levels, cut down on these foods:
- Butter, cream cheese, and other foods high in saturated fats
- Margarine, fried foods, and other foods high in trans fats
- Sausage, bacon, ground beef, and other fatty meats
- Whole milk products
- Muffins, croissants, cookies, and other rich baked goods
Remember: When you buy packaged foods, check the label for saturated fat and trans-fat content.
This list may sound like you have to cut out all the good stuff, but remember: It’s fine to get started with small changes. Just reducing unhealthy foods can make a big difference. As always, moderation is key. It’s also helpful to focus on what you can eat. You may be surprised at the wide range of delicious options.
Healthy can be tasty
Making small changes to your diet can go a long way to lower your cholesterol. Start by planning your meals for the week ahead, then get reacquainted with your neighborhood grocery store. While you’re there, shop for these healthy food swaps:
- Instead of a blueberry muffin in the morning, add berries and almonds to a bowl of oatmeal. Oats and fruit are rich in fiber, and nuts contain monounsaturated fats. These "good" fats and fiber can lower LDL levels.
- Instead of fried or scrambled eggs, try an egg white scramble filled with flavorful veggies like onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Add a little of your favorite hot sauce to spice it up.
- Instead of white bread and mayonnaise on your turkey club, opt for a high-fiber, whole-wheat bun and a hummus spread.
- Instead of red meat or processed deli meats, add fish to your menu twice a week. Fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which helps your body make good cholesterol. It’s also versatile enough to make delicious meals like fish tacos and salmon burgers.
- Instead of frying chicken, fire up the grill or roast a whole chicken in the oven. For a delicious, heart-healthy meal, lightly coat some chicken breasts and cauliflower florets with olive oil, season them with pepper, garlic, and (a little) salt, and roast them at 375 degrees until done. (Note: The chicken will need to go in about 20 minutes before the cauliflower.)
- Instead of potato chips and chocolate bars, try pretzels and cocoa-dusted almonds. Your salty cravings and sweet tooth will be satisfied, but the rest of your body will be happy, too!
Want more tips?
These small changes can go a long way toward keeping your body healthy. Learn more about how to make healthy eating habits an everyday part of your life.