Cholesterol is a type of fat. Our body makes our own, and we also eat foods that contain cholesterol. Cholesterol is not bad. It helps us digest foods, produce hormones, and gives structure to our cell walls. Our bodies have an optimal level of cholesterol levels.
When we disrupt this balance through things like poor diet, inactivity, and chronic stress, we put our body and blood vessels at risk. When your doctor draws your lipid blood panel, they are usually looking at four things: LDL, HDL, triglycerides, and total cholesterol. I’m a visual person (and let’s be real, none of us have time to read long paragraphs), so let’s break these down into an image:
A statin is a type of drug that works to lower your cholesterol by restricting the enzyme involved in your own body’s cholesterol production.
As with any medication, statins do come with some side effects. The most common symptom, is muscle aches/pain, occurring in about 5 percent of people on a statin (1). Other less common side effects include increased blood sugar, inflammation in the liver, and confusion (2). Unfortunately, statins are also known for decreasing the levels of coenzyme q10 in the body, which is involved in many nerve and muscle pathways (3).
Statins can improve some cholesterol numbers and may reduce the risk of a heart attack (4). Doctors may recommend a statin to you for reasons like family history/risk, for example. For most of us, though, statins do not address the most common root cause…an unhealthy lifestyle! Improving diet, exercise, and stress may reduce your risk of heart attack by up to 80 percent (5)!
My point in saying this isn’t for you to go willy nilly and nix your statins. Instead, it is SO IMPORTANT to understand that we cannot take a drug and call it good. We have to make lifestyle modifications our primary focus in order to make REAL change in our health!
Disclaimer: Please talk to your doctor before starting or stopping any medication.
It’s important to address the ROOT cause of your high cholesterol levels. For most people, this means improving your diet and lifestyle. These 7 interventions can set you on the fast track to improved cholesterol levels and more importantly…a healthier heart!!
Coldwater fish have two fatty acids, abbreviated EPA and DHA. These are a type of omega-3 fat. EPA/DHA has extremely effective anti-inflammatory properties (6). and has been shown to significantly lower triglycerides in numerous large review studies (7).
The best types of fish for getting in your EPA/DHA are salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and albacore tuna. Try to aim for 4 oz of fish at least two times per week. If you don’t eat fish regularly, you may want to consider taking a fish oil tablet. I usually recommend at least 1000 mg/day total of EPA + DHA to start, but you may need more if your triglycerides are excessively high. Talk to your doctor about this.
My favorite fish oil brand is called OmegaGenics by Metagenics. This company ensures their supplements are third-party verified, meaning you can trust that what’s on the label, is actually in the product! Click here to receive a 10% discount through my online store!
Fiber can bind cholesterol and help excrete it, effectively lowering total and LDL cholesterol (8). We need at least 30 grams of fiber per day. The average American only eats about 14 grams of fiber per day. Any type of fiber is beneficial for your heart and arteries, but soluble fiber is especially helpful in lowering cholesterol.
Sugar is a main driver of high cholesterol and inflammation (9). A great place to start decreasing sugar is limiting sweetened drinks. This includes soda, Kool-Aid, lemonade, energy drinks, etc. However, this ALSO includes juice and pre-bottled smoothie drinks.
Smoothie drinks like Naked can have as much sugar as a can of coke. “BUT it’s natural sugar!”. True – the sources of sugar come from fruit. But, excessive amounts of even natural sugar will still affect our blood sugar levels. A better option (besides sticking to water) is to make a smoothie at home. For your smoothie, keep the fruit to 1 cup, and include good sources of protein and wholesome fats for a more balanced blend.
Related Post: Sugar and Cholesterol: The Unexplained Connection
So long is the low-fat diet. Lower carbohydrate diets with higher sources of wholesome fats can help lower triglycerides while increasing HDL (10, 11). The majority of your fats should come from mono and polyunsaturated fats: nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, etc. These fats can provide more satiety (fullness), and help to balance blood sugar, which then reduces your tendency to snack on sugary foods. Pay less attention to calorie levels, and instead focus on eating REAL foods (fewer ingredients, and less processed).
Physical activity is the number one thing you can do to raise your HDL (the good one). This doesn’t mean you have to join a gym! Walking is an extremely effective method for losing weight and improving cholesterol. Have a spouse, friend, or furry companion that can keep you accountable? This keeps you motivated. Small goal setting is also helpful in this scenario. If walking doesn’t toot your horn, find something you enjoy (riding a bike, swimming, rock climbing, etc.). Exercise is honoring your body, not punishing it.
Only 50% of Americans eat enough magnesium (12). This powerhouse mineral has tons of benefits in the body. Specifically, magnesium is shown to lower CRP, a protein that increases when your body is inflamed (13). Since high cholesterol and heart health is highly related to inflammation – this is only going to help you.
Foods high in magnesium:
Dark leafy greens, organic dark chocolate, almonds, sesame seeds roasted, sunflower seeds, broccoli, pumpkin seeds, black beans, avocado, banana.
When people think of Vitamin K, most people go to Vitamin K1, which helps with blood clotting. It’s forgotten sibling, Vitamin K2, helps remove calcium buildup from the arteries (14). While this vitamin may not directly lower cholesterol, calcium buildup is a key component of the artery-clogging plaque. Good sources of Vitamin K2 include hard cheeses with whole milk, egg yolk, chicken breast, ground beef, butter, and liver. Grass-fed animals contain higher levels of Vitamin K2 compared to grain-fed.
You may notice that the best sources of Vitamin K2 also contain saturated fat, which has been accused of causing heart disease since the 1970s. This recommendation is quite controversial in the medical community. A large review of nearly 350,000 people followed for over 20 years showed a lack of evidence connecting saturated fat to the development of heart disease (15).
While saturated fat should not be the primary source of fat in your diet, do not be afraid to add these Vitamin K2 powerhouses because of the saturated fat content. Most importantly, ensure your K2 sources are high-quality, grass-fed, and pasture-raised animal sources. But, as always, plants should still be the predominant part of our meals.
For years, medical professionals have told people to avoid eggs because of their cholesterol content (and many still do). I see it quite often, patients come to me and have swapped their protein-rich egg breakfast for a cold cereal higher in sugar and lower in protein.
The effect of the cholesterol we eat on the cholesterol content in our blood is not strong (16). In fact, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans even removed their cholesterol restriction in 2015. We shouldn’t be eating 5-egg omelets every day with highly processed meats. But, 1-2 eggs paired with high fiber foods (like beans, sautéed veggies, avocado, etc.) can be a healthy breakfast option to keep us satisfied until our next meal or snack.