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While cholesterol is normally kept in balance, an unhealthy diet high in hydrogenated fats and refined carbohydrates can disrupt this delicate balance, leading to increased cholesterol levels. This imbalance is manifested in elevated LDL (bad cholesterol) and low HDL (good cholesterol), which increases the risk of heart attack or stroke. Other causes can include physical inactivity, diabetes, stress and hypothyroidism.
When it comes to cholesterol, not all types are created equal, and it is important to understand how lifestyle choices significantly impact cardiovascular health. High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is known as the “healthy” or “good” type of cholesterol due to the fact that it scavenges and removes the “bad” type of cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein or LDL) known to clog arteries. A desirable HDL level is anything greater than 60 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
While diet and exercise should be your two main options for fighting off LDL cholesterol, you can also look into the various dietary supplements that are on the market today. Consider omega-3 fish oils, artichoke extract, and green tea extract. Keep in mind that these natural products have not been fully proven to reduce your level of LDL cholesterol, but they may be able to help along the way.
Many people don't like to hear it, but regular aerobic exercise (any exercise, such as walking, jogging or bike riding, that raises your heart rate for 20 to 30 minutes at a time) may be the most effective way to increase HDL levels. Recent evidence suggests that the duration of exercise, rather than the intensity, is the more important factor in raising HDL cholesterol. But any aerobic exercise helps.
“If your LDL levels are still too high after trying these 6 nutrition-based approaches, talk to your doctor about cholesterol-lowering medications like statins, but give these 6 tips your best shot,” encourages Dr. Danine Fruge, MD, ABFP, Medical Director at the Pritikin Longevity Center. “The right eating plan, like Pritikin, can be powerfully beneficial – and there are no adverse side effects.”
Heart-healthy eating. A heart-healthy eating plan limits the amount of saturated and trans fats that you eat. It recommends that you eat and drink only enough calories to stay at a healthy weight and avoid weight gain. It encourages you to choose a variety of nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. Examples of eating plans that can lower your cholesterol include the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes diet and the DASH eating plan.
However, although low levels of HDL predict increased cardiovascular risk, particularly in healthy individuals with no history of cardiovascular events, the relationship between HDL and CHD risk is complex, with HDL-C and cardiovascular disease having a nonlinear relationship. For example, research found that HDL levels above approximately 60 mg/dL showed no further improvement in prognosis, and the EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition)-Norfolk and IDEAL (Incremental Decrease in End Points through Aggressive Lipid Lowering) studies showed that very high levels of HDL may actually be associated with an increased risk of atherosclerotic disease. [5, 6, 2]
Fiber is your friend when cholesterol is the enemy, so reach for foods that are full of soluble fiber. Just be aware that fiber comes in different forms, with one called soluble fiber and the other known as insoluble fiber. While both are good for your heart, it’s soluble fiber that’s great for your cholesterol. In addition to making you feel full, soluble fiber can actually reduce the amount of cholesterol your body absorbs. According to the Mayo Clinic, eating at least five to 10 grams of soluble fiber each day can lower both your LDL and total cholesterol levels. So better fill up your kitchen, along your body, with fiber-filled foods.