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Changes in Diet and Lifestyle for Healthy Cholesterol Levels

About 1 in every 3 adults in the United States has high cholesterol. Cholesterol, which is a fat-like substance found in cells of the body, is necessary for good health. However when we start having high levels of cholesterol in our blood, it increases our risk for heart disease and stroke among other conditions. In this blog, we will talk about changes we can make in our diets and every day lives that can help us have healthy cholesterol levels!

When dealing with high cholesterol, the most important and effective change to be made is with regards to diet. It was once believed that high cholesterol foods directly contributed to high blood cholesterol levels. This is not necessarily true! Today, we know that high cholesterol foods can often be also rich in saturated fats, which appear to have a greater impact on cholesterol levels. However, some high cholesterol foods like fatty fish can have certain types of unsaturated fats that are actually healthy and are protective against heart disease when consumed in moderation.  This is why we need to know more about a food than just the total amount of fat it has. Diets high in saturated fats, trans fats, refined grains, and added sugars are linked to elevated cholesterol levels in the body.

High saturated fat, trans-fat, and cholesterol foods include:

  • Fatty cuts of red meat
  • Bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and other processed meats
  • Cold cuts such as salami and bologna
  • Full-fat dairy such as whole milk, regular cheese, cream and ice cream
  • Egg yolks
  • Margarine
  • Hydrogenated oils: found in packaged snacks, fried foods, coffee creamers, and baked good
  • Saturated oils: palm, palm kernel, and coconut oil
  • Deep fried foods
  • Baked goods: cookies, cakes, pastries, muffins
  • Packaged snacks: chips, crackers, cookies

Refined grains include:

  • White bread
  • Some cereals
  • Pasta
  • Crackers
  • Noodles
  • White rice

Added sugars are found in:

  • Packaged snacks: chips, crackers, cookies, granola bars
  • Condiments: BBQ sauce, ketchup, some salad dressings, jam and jelly
  • Some tomato sauces and soups
  • Baked goods: cookies, pastries, cakes
  • Some yogurts and cereals
  • Ice cream
  • Candy
  • Beverages: soda, juice, sports drinks, energy drinks, flavored coffee drinks, iced tea

Implementation of a heart-healthy, high-fiber diet is recommended in order to lower cholesterol levels. Consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean proteins, and unsaturated oils is encouraged.

Specific healthy diet changes include:

  • Snacking on fruit or vegetables instead of chip, crackers, or cookies
  • Aiming to eat 4-5 servings of fruits or vegetables each day
  • Choosing whole grain bread, wheat pasta, oats, and brown rice in place of refined, white alternatives
  • Incorporating beans and nuts into meals and snacks
  • Choosing lean proteins such as skinless chicken or turkey breast, egg whites, lean beef, beans, and soy alternatives (tofu, vegetable burgers)
  • Including fatty fish and seafood 1-2 times each week (salmon, tuna, mackerel)
  • Incorporating heart-healthy fats found in fatty fish, nuts, seeds, avocadoes, and olives
  • Using olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil, or sunflower oil instead of coconut or palm oil
  • Limiting butter, margarine, shortening and hydrogenated fats in the diet
  • Swapping all full-fat dairy for low-fat alternatives such as fat-free or reduced fat milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • Baking, grilling, sautéing, broiling, boiling or steaming meats, vegetables, and starches instead of breading or frying
  • Monitoring calorie intake and portion sizes of meals and snacks
  • Hydrating with sugar-free, low calorie beverages such as water, flavored sugar-free water, and unsweet tea instead of soda, juice, and sweet tea

There are a few other key lifestyle modifications to consider when aiming to lower cholesterol. Excess body weight is a major risk factor in the development of high cholesterol. If you are overweight or obese, gradual weight loss is recommended. Even a 5-10 pound weight loss can aid in lowering cholesterol levels! Once at a healthy weight for your body, aim to maintain your weight through diet and exercise.

Daily movement is essential in maintaining a healthy weight, as well as in lowering cholesterol! Limit long sedentary periods during the day by getting up from your desk to walk or stretch every 30-60 minutes. Regularly scheduled physical activity is also encouraged. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity each week along with 2-3 strength building sessions. Aerobic activity includes walking, running, swimming, dancing, biking, or any other exercise that increases your heart rate! Strength exercises include body weight movements (squats, push-ups), resistance band exercises, free-weight exercises, or use of weight lifting machines. Activity should be dispersed throughout the week – for example in 30 minutes blocks, 5 days a week. Certain medical conditions can require you to be cleared by your primary care physician or cardiologist before starting or advancing an exercise program so please do make sure to check with your doctor first.

Smoking is another risk factor for developing high cholesterol; therefore, cessation is strongly recommended! Uncontrolled diabetes and high blood pressure increase the risk for developing high cholesterol. If you have any untreated, co-occurring conditions, be sure to work with your primary care physician to get these under control! If you don’t have a primary care physician or would like to establish care at Birmingham Direct Primary Care for Dr. Efe to be your primary physician, you can sign up by clicking on “schedule an appointment” button below.

Take care and have a great rest of the week!  Dr. Efe Sahinoglu and the Birmingham DPC team

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