Simple steps to manage your cholesterol

by Kaiser Permanente |
Happy family eating together at dinner table

There’s a lot to look forward to this holiday season. Autumn weather, family get-togethers, and of course, plenty of your favorite foods! As you bookmark recipes, it’s also good to be mindful of how much cholesterol is in those decadent dishes. Eating too many sweets, fried foods, and meat-heavy meals can push your "bad" cholesterol to an unhealthy level.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance. Your body makes cholesterol, and it also comes from certain foods you eat. It travels through your blood and is needed for many of your body’s functions — like making new cells, hormones, and acids that help with digestion. But having too much cholesterol in your blood, known as high cholesterol, can lead to health problems.

Bad versus good cholesterol

High cholesterol usually refers to "bad" cholesterol called LDL (low-density lipoprotein).

Dr. Mingsum Lee, a cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente’s Los Angeles Medical Center, explains that LDL cholesterol can build up in our artery walls over time. "That buildup leads to a condition called atherosclerosis," Dr. Lee says. This is a narrowing of the arteries. "This increases people’s risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke."

"Good" cholesterol, or HDL (high-density lipoprotein), absorbs LDL cholesterol in the blood and helps remove it from the body. This brings down total cholesterol. More HDL cholesterol means less risk of heart disease and stroke.

So how can you find a healthy balance of "good" and "bad" cholesterol?

3 ways to keep cholesterol in check

Dr. Lee recommends 3 ways to keep your cholesterol under control during the holidays — and all year long.

Keep up an exercise routine

Staying active can lower your blood pressure and raise your "good" HDL cholesterol. Plus, regular exercise can relieve stress and help with symptoms of depression and anxiety. No matter which type of exercise you prefer, what matters is sticking with it.

"I follow the American Heart Association’s guidance on exercise: about 2.5 hours a week," says Dr. Lee. "Try making short bursts of exercise, like walking or taking the stairs, part of your daily routine."

Make heart-healthy food choices when you can

"A heart-healthy diet is high in fiber," Dr. Lee says. It can help keep LDL cholesterol lower. Try to eat whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits. Oats, lentils, and sweet potatoes are great options with lots of soluble fiber. And fiber supplements can be another way of getting more soluble fiber.

"We also recommend foods that are high in healthy fat and low in saturated fat," Dr. Lee adds. This includes high-fiber foods like nuts, soy, and avocados, and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon.

It’s also important to avoid foods that increase LDL cholesterol.

"We want to reduce the saturated fats," Dr. Lee explains. "Saturated fats tend to raise our LDL cholesterol levels. So choose low-fat instead of whole-fat dairy. Cook with vegetable oils instead of animal fats."

Try to avoid processed foods that are high in sugar, sodium, and carbohydrates, as well as alcohol. Limit fast foods, packaged treats, and animal fats like butter. These foods tend to raise LDL cholesterol. They can also increase inflammation in the body — which can hurt your heart health.

Maintain healthy habits

Not getting enough sleep, stressing out, smoking, and drinking alcohol all have negative impacts on your heart. And when the heart isn’t working efficiently, it’s less able to clear LDL cholesterol from the body.

That’s why it’s important to maintain healthy habits. Set a sleep routine where you can get 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night. Quit smoking to protect your heart and overall health. And if you find yourself feeling more stressed than usual, check out our many resources for anxiety, addiction, and more.

Find out if you’re at risk for high cholesterol

A nutritional diet, regular exercise, and good habits can help you stay healthy. But high cholesterol tends to run in families, so even with healthy habits, you may still want to get your cholesterol level checked.

"High cholesterol usually doesn’t come with warning signs," Dr. Lee says. "It’s important that everybody test their cholesterol level to know where they stand." Talk to your doctor about when you should have a cholesterol test.

The holiday season can bring joy — but also more stress and opportunities to indulge than usual. But staying active, eating well, and maintaining your routines can help ensure you’re protecting your heart health all year long.

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