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Managing Your Cholesterol

Try these simple lifestyle changes to improve your cholesterol levels.

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Understanding and managing your cholesterol is one of the keys to leading a healthy lifestyle. If your cholesterol is high, you’re at a greater risk for heart disease and stroke. Learning about your numbers — and making healthy changes — may help you to lower it.

Understanding your LDL cholesterol levels

If your LDL "bad" cholesterol is high, it can cause a fatty buildup in the arteries which is called atherosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries"). Every person is different. Your doctor may suggest different levels or goals for your cholesterol numbers. This may be based on your history or risk for heart or other diseases.

What can you do to improve your LDL cholesterol?

Now that you know what LDL cholesterol means, let’s see how you can make a difference. Read on to learn ways you may be able to improve your cholesterol level. 

Healthy change 1: Eat well

Making healthy food choices is an important way to improve your cholesterol level. It can seem to be easier said than done. But small changes can add up.

Know the terms

Knowing the meaning of the following terms may help you better understand your options and make smart choices at the grocery store:

Reduced or Less: Contains 25 percent less of a nutrient — such as fat or salt — than the original version.
Low: Contains a small amount of a certain nutrient.
Free: Has none of a certain nutrient, or an amount that’s too small to measure. Note: Just because the product is labeled “free” or “reduced” doesn’t always mean it’s a healthier choice.

Make smart swaps

Making simple substitutions in what you eat can make it easier to lead a healthy lifestyle. Use this helpful chart to make healthy swaps during your next trip to the grocery store.

Category High-fat option Healthier swap
Meat 80% lean ground beef 97% lean ground beef or ground turkey
  Deep-fried seafood Grilled or broiled salmon, tuna, tilapia or shrimp
  Dark chicken or turkey meat White chicken or turkey meat without skin
  Bacon or sausage Ham*
Dairy products Whole or 2% milk or milk products Fat-free, or low-fat mild or milk products
  High-fat and/or high-calorie yogurt Low-fat or fat-free yogurt
Sweets and snacks A brownie with chocolate frosting Apples with fat-free caramel dip
  Potato chips and dip Raw vegetables and fat-free dip or hummus
  A handful of crackers A small handful of nuts or seeds
  Chocolate chip cookies Your favorite fruit
Butter Regular stick butter Trans-fat free liquid or tub margarine

*High salt content; keep portion size small.

Make sense of labels

Learning how to read food labels can help you make healthier choices. While grocery shopping, bring your healthy swaps list and compare food labels along the way. Choosing foods lower in calories, saturated and trans fats may help you better manage your cholesterol.

Choose the right fats

When it comes to helping improve your cholesterol level, not all fats are created equal. It’s important to be aware of “bad” fats and “good” fats in your diet.

"Bad" fats – When you can, eat less of these.
Saturated fats – These fats raise total blood cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels. Sources of bad fats:
• Fried fast foods
• Sweets: cookies, cake, brownies
• Some packaged foods: frozen dinners, ice cream, rising crust pizza, frozen pies and desserts, potato chips, microwave popcorn
• Full-fat dairy products: whole milk, whole-fat cheese
• Certain oils: coconut oil, palm oil and vegetable shortening
• Fatty meats: sausage, marbled beef, skin-on chicken or turkey, and bacon
Trans fats — These are created from partially hydrogenated liquid oils, trans fats raise LDL cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol — This waxy, fat-like substance is found in all parts of the body. Eating too much of it can lead to heart disease.
"Good" fats – Choose these more often.
Unsaturated fats — These fats can be good for you when eaten in moderation. Unsaturated fats come in two forms: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Sources of good fats:
• Plant oils: olive, soybean, corn, sunflower and canola
• Nuts: small handful of hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, pecans
• Seeds: poppy, sunflower, pumpkin, sesame
• Fresh fish: salmon or trout
• Avocado
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats — These fats may lower LDL cholesterol.

Healthy change 2: Move more

We all know that exercise can help us improve our health and lose weight. It can be hard to fit into our busy lives — but every little bit counts. Fitting in just three 10-minute sessions of exercise each day could help you to improve your cholesterol level and live a healthier life.

Here are some easy tips to help you get moving:

  • Set your alarm clock just five minutes earlier. Try some warm-up exercises such as walking in place. Then, try some jumping jacks. Consider doing a few stretches after you’re done.
  • Take the steps instead of the elevator or escalator.
  • If you sit all day during work, take a few 10-minute walks around the office or outside with co-workers.
  • While you’re at work, stop every hour or two to stretch.
  • Move while you watch TV — lift hand weights, do sit-ups, or walk or jog in place.
  • Park your car as far away from the entrance as possible — every step counts.
  • Get off the bus a few blocks early, and walk the rest of the way.
  • Dance to a favorite song when it comes on the radio.
  • Play with your kids or grandkids.
  • Plant or tend to a garden.

Be sure to talk with your doctor before starting an exercise plan or before you start significantly increasing your activity level.

Healthy change 3: Lose weight

If you’re overweight, losing weight is one of the steps you can take to lower your cholesterol. Even losing a small amount of weight can make a difference. Use the tips provided for eating well and moving more to help you lose weight and keep it off.

Healthy change 4: Quit smoking

Quitting smoking does more than lower your risk for certain cancers or breathing problems. It can also lower your risk for heart disease. Do you wish you could finally quit? Thinking about why you want to quit is the first step. Keeping your reason in mind throughout the quitting process can help to keep you on track. Also, be sure to talk with your doctor about quitting. Nicotine gum, patches and medicines have been found to help people quit. Ask your doctor what might be best for you. You can find helpful support and resources by visiting SmokeFree.gov or calling 1-800-QUITNOW (1-800-784-8669).

Healthy change 5: Managing your medicine

Medicines can be an important part of managing cholesterol. Your doctor may suggest you take a cholesterol-lowering medicine to help improve your cholesterol level. Currently, statin medications are considered the cornerstone of cholesterol lowering treatment (with only a few exceptions).

Do you drink alcohol?

If you don’t drink, experts do not recommend that you start. However, if you do drink, limiting yourself to one drink a day if you’re a woman or two drinks a day if you’re a man may lower your risk for heart disease. There are some circumstances where you should not drink at all. Keep in mind, drinking more alcohol than the amounts outlined above can actually raise your blood pressure and triglycerides, and increase your risk for heart disease and stroke. Be sure to talk with your doctor about consuming alcohol in moderation.

Reduce Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Risk in Adults. Accessed: November 2, 2015.
American Heart Association. 2013 ACC/AHA Guideline on Lifestyle Management to Reduce Cardiovascular Risk. Accessed: November 2, 2015.
United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Accessed: November 2, 2015.

Last Updated: September 19, 2015