Q: During a recent physical, blood work indicated that my cholesterol was too high. This concerns me because heart disease runs in my family. I’m a little overweight, but I don’t really want to have to take pills to get my cholesterol under control. What do you recommend? – Steve; Lakewood, CO
A: That’s a great question Steve. The National Cholesterol Education Panel recently updated their guidelines for cholesterol management. According to the NCEP, desirable levels are:
- Total Cholesterol – less than 200 mg/dL
- LDL (bad) Cholesterol – less than 100 mg/dL (optimal); 100-129 mg/dL (near or above optimal)
- HDL (good) Cholesterol – 60 mg/dL or above
So unless your physician has advised you otherwise, these are your targeted levels. That said, there are actually several lifestyle changes you can make that could preclude you from having to resort to statins or other cholesterol-lowering medications:
- If you’re a smoker, you need to quit. The nicotine in cigarettes tends to increase both the LDL and triglyceride levels in your blood.
- Get up and move! This will not only help you shave off that excess weight, which is likely contributing to your high cholesterol, but exercise helps to raise the levels of HDL (good cholesterol) in your bloodstream. Look for little ways to add some extra movement into your daily routine, like taking the stairs or parking further away from your destination. Try incorporating 30 minutes or more of moderate physical activity into your schedule at least four days of the week. Even a 30-minute walk most days of the week will help reduce your total cholesterol reading.
- Adjust your diet – switch to heart-healthier fare. Start by avoiding or eliminating saturated and trans fats, which are found in animal proteins and dairy products as well as highly processed foods, “tropical” oils, and some nuts such as peanuts and cashews. Limit your consumption of eggs, as they are high in dietary cholesterol. Opt instead for lean cuts of meat and skinless poultry, low-fat dairy and skim milk, egg substitutes, and olive and canola oils. Next, increase the natural fiber in your diet. Good sources are fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans. Finally, increase the omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. These can be found in some fish, such as salmon and herring, as well as walnuts and almonds.
Now, you need to be aware that for some people – particularly those with a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol – these lifestyle changes may not be enough to lower your levels. Case in point: Several years ago, my editor and Operations Manager, Debby, also discovered that her cholesterol was dangerously high, but like you, she didn’t want to have to resort to taking statins. Her doctor gave her six weeks to bring it under control naturally and she immediately modified her diet and kicked her fitness regimen into high gear. Mind you, this six-week period coincided with the holidays – so no stuffing or pecan pie for Debby on Christmas or Thanksgiving. Her resolve was inspiring. Six weeks later she returned to the lab for a blood draw and was astonished to discover that her overall and LDL cholesterol levels had actually increased! High cholesterol runs in her family and the lifestyle changes didn’t so much as make a dent in her cholesterol levels. Turns out she deprived herself for nothing; the good news is that Debby’s the only person I know who dropped weight that holiday season. And, she’s been taking statins ever since. For many people, though, these “natural” remedies are enough to reduce overall cholesterol levels and keep them under control. Try them and see – and best of luck!