6 Ways to Lower Your Cholesterol

You eat meals full of lean protein and green veggies and exercise daily — only to be told by your doc when you go in for your annual blood work that your “bad” cholesterol is elevated. What gives?  

It turns out high cholesterol is extremely common and can be caused by a variety of factors — some of which are out of your control. Keep reading to learn how to decode your cholesterol, find out what causes high cholesterol, and get tips on lowering cholesterol from an expert. 

What is cholesterol, exactly? 

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that’s carried through your blood attached to proteins, explains Jamie Lee McIntyre, RDN, nutrition communications consultant at JamieLeeRDN.com

There are two types of cholesterol in your blood: LDL, which is known as “bad” cholesterol, and HDL, or “good” cholesterol. A high level of LDL is associated with a higher risk of heart disease and stroke, while a high level of HDL lowers your risk. 

“LDL can build up along the walls of your arteries, forming a plaque which can restrict blood flow,” says McIntyre. “HDL cholesterol picks up the extra cholesterol and transports it back to the liver away from the blood.” 

There’s also dietary cholesterol, which is different from the cholesterol in your blood. “We use the same word for cholesterol found in food and what your doctor will measure via blood test,” says McIntyre. “Most recent research shows that eating foods with dietary cholesterol does not directly affect the amount of cholesterol in your blood.” 

Translation: Cutting out foods with dietary cholesterol, like eggs and shrimp, won’t do anything to lower the cholesterol in your blood. In fact, these foods are actually good sources of lean protein, so there’s no reason to skip them. 

tips on lowering cholesterol

On the other hand, saturated fats found in animal products, as well as trans fats (also called partially hydrogenated oils) found in fried and processed foods, do have a big impact on blood cholesterol levels, notes McIntyre.

“The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to five to six percent or less of your total calorie intake, and 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a limit of less than 10 percent of your total daily calorie intake,” she says. 

How is cholesterol measured? 

Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood. 

McIntyre says it’s ideal for women to have an HDL below 50 mg/dL and for men to have an HDL below 40 mg/dL. Meanwhile, for those without risk or history of heart disease, it’s recommended to maintain an LDL near or below 100 mg/dL. For those with a history, it’s recommended to maintain an LDL of below 70 mg/dL.

When it comes to total cholesterol (HDL and LDL combined), below 200 mg/dL is ideal. 200 mg/dL or higher is considered borderline high, while 240 mg/dL or higher is considered high. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, close to 94 million American adults have total cholesterol levels higher than 200 mg/dL, while 28 million Americans have total cholesterol levels higher than 240 mg/dL. 

What causes high cholesterol?

There are several factors that can contribute to high cholesterol, including ones you can’t control – like genetics and age. 

When it comes to genetics, “the presence of certain gene variants can contribute to familial hypercholesterolemia, which can be identified in blood cholesterol testing in infancy or childhood,” says McIntyre. It’s also possible to “inherit” learned behaviors or a lifestyle from your family and caregivers that contribute to the development of high cholesterol over time, adds McIntyre.

Other factors that can contribute to high cholesterol include a diet low in fiber and high in saturated fat, lack of exercise, and smoking and alcohol use, says McIntyre. 

How do you lower your cholesterol? 

The good news is, there are some easy steps you can take to lower your cholesterol if yours is high or borderline high. 

Note that “the same approach is used to treat high cholesterol regardless of whether the high cholesterol was genetically passed down or developed over time,” says McIntyre. “If there is presence of a known gene variant, or a known family history of high cholesterol, blood tests may be recommended at more regular intervals during youth compared to individuals without a family history.” 

Here are a few tried-and-true tips on lowering cholesterol. 

1. Add more fiber to your diet. “Because fiber reduces absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream, you’ll want to consume five to 10 grams of soluble fiber each day, and at least 25 to 35 grams of total dietary fiber each day,” says McIntyre. Soluble fiber specifically reduces LDL cholesterol. You can find soluble fiber in foods like oats, kidney beans, brussels sprouts, apples, and pears. To up your overall fiber intake, nosh on fruits and veggies (especially those with skin), beans and legumes, whole grains and whole grain flour products, nuts, and seeds, suggests McIntyre. 

2. Make avocado your new food BFF. “Avocados are a potent source of both fiber and monounsaturated fatty acids [a healthy fat],” says McIntyre. Research out of Penn State suggests eating one small avocado per day, as part of a heart-healthy diet, may be able to help improve LDL cholesterol. 

3. Look for foods fortified with sterols and stanols. These are substances found in plants that help block the absorption of cholesterol. “Margarines, like Benecol, and orange juice with added plant sterols can help reduce LDL cholesterol,” says McIntyre. You only need a little bit to experience the benefits, she notes: “Adding two grams of sterol to your diet every day can lower your LDL cholesterol by five to 15 percent.”

4. Prioritize lifestyle changes. In addition to incorporating the above foods into your diet, other lifestyle changes can help lower high cholesterol. These include increasing physical activity, limiting alcohol, and quitting smoking, says McIntyre.

5. Talk to your doctor about medication. In some cases, meds may be helpful in lowering your cholesterol. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, your doc may prescribe a cholesterol-reducing medication such as a statin if your LDL is 190 mg/dL or higher; you’ve already had a heart attack or stroke; or you’re between the ages of 40 and 75 and have diabetes or a high risk of developing heart disease along with an LDL of 70 mg/dL or higher. 

6. Keep up-to-date with your blood work. A blood test measures your LDL, HDL, and total cholesterol. These labs are part of a standard lipid panel, which your doctor may run as part of a physical exam. “Regular blood work and keeping up-to-date on preventative screenings is your best way to monitor your blood cholesterol levels since overt signs and symptoms don’t typically accompany high levels,” says McIntyre.

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About Christina Heiser

Christina Heiser is a freelance writer who covers beauty, health, nutrition, and fitness. As a lifelong New Yorker, she loves exploring her city by foot, cheering on her favorite local sports teams (Let's go, Mets!), and checking out all of the trendy boutique fitness studios. Christina graduated from St. John's University in 2010 with a degree in English and a passion for reporting. After graduating, Christina went on to work for EverydayHealth.com and WomensHealthMag.com, covering everything from beauty to fitness to celebrity news. Now, she contributes to a variety of beauty- and wellness-focused websites including aSweatLife, NBC News Better, Total Beauty, and What's Good by Vitamin Shoppe.