September is National Cholesterol Education Month, so let's chat about the importance of maintaining healthy blood cholesterol levels and explore dietary and lifestyle changes that can support a healthier heart.
Cholesterol itself is often mistakenly believed to be harmful, but it plays an important role in the body and acts as a precursor to vitamin D and many hormones.
You’ve probably likely heard of HDL (“good”) and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes each as the following:
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol can decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke because it carries cholesterol to the liver, which removes it from the body.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol makes up most of the cholesterol in the body. High LDL cholesterol builds up as plaque on the walls of your blood vessels, which can lead to heart disease and stroke.
HDL and LDL cholesterol are usually ordered as part of a standard blood test taken during an annual exam at the doctor’s office. The lipid panel also measures total cholesterol and triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood.
Abnormal blood cholesterol levels can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. The good news is that there are steps we can take to manage our cholesterol levels effectively.
Nurturing heart health through diet
Eating a well-balanced diet rich in plant-based foods can support healthy cholesterol.
Choose heart-healthy fats — Choose unsaturated fats found in olive oil, avocados, nuts and fatty fish like salmon, which help raise HDL levels and lower LDL levels.
Fiber-rich foods — Eat more whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes. Fiber can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels.
Omega-3 fatty acids — Fatty fish, chia seeds and flaxseeds are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower triglycerides and heart disease risk.
Limit saturated and trans fats — Eat fewer foods that are high in saturated and trans fats, such as fried and processed foods.
Promoting heart health through lifestyle choices
In addition to eating a balanced diet, other lifestyle choices can improve cholesterol.
Regular physical activity— Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, such as brisk walking, jogging, swimming or cycling.
Don’t smoke — If you smoke, seek support to kick the habit for good. Smoking can lower HDL cholesterol and damage blood vessels.
Limit alcohol — According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults who choose to drink should limit their intake to two drinks or less in a day for men and one drink or less in a day for women. Drinking less is better for health than drinking more.
Stress management — Chronic stress can impact cholesterol levels and heart health. Try practicing stress-relief techniques such as meditation, yoga and deep breathing.
Regular health checkups, medication
Regular checkups are the best way to monitor cholesterol levels. In some cases, lifestyle changes may not be sufficient, and medication may be recommended by a healthcare professional to manage cholesterol levels effectively.
Small, consistent changes to your nutrition and lifestyle choices can have a big impact on your heart health. Eating a diet rich in heart-healthy fats, fiber and nutrients, along with engaging in regular physical activity and managing stress, can support optimal cholesterol levels.
Kristen Carli, MS, RD, is owner and registered dietitian nutritionist at Camelback Nutrition & Wellness. Reach her at camelbacknutritionwellness.com/contact.