Making these changes can help keep your cholesterol levels in a healthy range.

Advertisement

Cholesterol has a reputation for increasing your risk for heart disease and stroke. But what exactly is cholesterol and why should you worry about your cholesterol levels? Read on to find out more about cholesterol, and the five habits you can break to improve your cholesterol levels.

Donuts sitting on a table
Credit: Getty Images / the_burtons

What is cholesterol and why is it important?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is naturally made by the liver. It is an essential ingredient for digestion and helps your body produce hormones and vitamin D (from the sun).

Cholesterol is also present in foods, including eggs, shellfish, red meat and full-fat dairy products. Still, eating more dietary cholesterol generally does not affect your blood cholesterol.

Cholesterol travels through the bloodstream by binding to proteins called lipoproteins. When you hear your healthcare providers talking about cholesterol, they refer to the concentrations of the "bad" cholesterol, also known as low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and the "good" cholesterol, also known as the high-density lipoproteins (HDL) cholesterol.

Simply put, the more LDL cholesterol present, the more cholesterol is attached to the walls of the arteries, which becomes plaque. As the plaque builds up, blood flow becomes restricted, making the heart work harder. This buildup can lead to heart problems, like stroke or a heart attack.

The good news is, HDL cholesterol prevents cholesterol from accumulating by taking it away from the blood vessels and back to the liver, where it gets broken down. In other words, the more HDL cholesterol is present, the lesser your risk for heart disease and stroke.

5 habits to break to improve cholesterol levels

Your risk for high cholesterol is determined by several factors, including genetics and age. Fortunately, what you eat, your body weight, whether you smoke and exercise can make a difference in your cholesterol levels. Talk to your doctor about testing your cholesterol levels. They may recommend medication if they're high but breaking some of these habits can help you improve your levels and be healthier in other ways. To improve your cholesterol levels, here are our top five habits to break.

1. Eating too much added sugar

Added sugars are forms of refined carbohydrates added to foods and beverages during production and in meal preparation. Unlike naturally occurring sugars, which are found in vegetables, fruits and dairy products, consuming added sugars may raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol, leading to an increased risk for coronary heart disease. In short, reducing your added sugar intake may help to improve your HDL cholesterol levels.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting added sugar intake to no more than 100 calories a day for women and 150 calories a day for men, equivalent to about 6 teaspoons and 9 teaspoons, respectively.

Added sugars are found in food and drinks, including sodas, energy drinks, some yogurts, breakfast cereals and oatmeal, cereal bars, desserts, baked goods and more.
To cut back on your added sugar intake, check the nutrition label for added sugars. Read the ingredient list as added sugars come in various names including, brown sugar, molasses, agave, honey, fructose and high-fructose corn syrup.

If you drink soda regularly, consider cutting back on the amount you drink. You can also reduce the serving size of foods that provide added sugars, and try making sweet treats without added sugar.

2. Eating too many refined grains

Like added sugars, refined grains provide minimal nutritional value as the bran and germ, which include essential nutrients like dietary fiber, are stripped during the manufacturing process.

As a result, the starchy part of the grain remains. When consumed, it becomes absorbed into the blood sooner, causing sudden spikes in the blood sugar level and triggering the pancreas to produce and release more insulin. Over time, this could lead to weight gain, increased triglyceride levels, insulin resistance and a greater risk for coronary heart disease.

Refined grains include white flour, white pasta and noodles, potato chips, cakes, cookies and more.

Whole grains, such as whole barley, whole oats, millet, buckwheat and spelt, on the contrary, are good for your heart. Dietary fiber helps stabilize the blood sugar and prevents sudden spikes by slowing down the absorption of sugar.

Whole grains may also help improve your cholesterol level. Including an extra serving or two in your diet may reduce the LDL cholesterol level and the risk of coronary heart disease by 10 to 20 percent.

To get into the habit of eating whole grains, start by replacing one meal with whole grains and slowly work towards including whole grains as part of most meals and snacks. Try these high-fiber whole-grain recipes to get you started.

3. Not getting enough dietary fiber

Besides whole grains, other foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes also have dietary fiber.

Specifically, the soluble fiber present in these foods acts as a sponge that binds to dietary cholesterol and fat and removes them in the stools.

For example, beta glucan, a form of soluble fiber found in bran and whole grains such as oats and barley, may reduce LDL cholesterol levels. Oats, in particular, could potentially decrease total cholesterol by five percent and LDL cholesterol by seven percent.

Men and women are recommended to consume 38 grams and 25 grams, respectively, of fiber per day. While there are no specific recommended amounts for soluble fiber, consider including at least 10 grams of soluble fiber as part of your diet if you have high cholesterol.

When you increase your fiber intake, start slowly and make sure you are also increasing your water consumption to minimize the likelihood of constipation. (Here are 5 easy ways to add more fiber to your diet.)

4. Not eating enough omega-3 fats

Until recently, saturated fats found in red meats, pork, poultry skin and full-fat dairy products were blamed for increasing one's risk for high cholesterol and heart diseases. Emerging research suggests that saturated fats can still be a part of a healthy diet, but consuming more polyunsaturated fats may reduce LDL cholesterol levels.

The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than five to six percent of calories from saturated fats. This amount is equivalent to 11 to 13 grams of saturated fats on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Additionally, including fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines as part of the diet rich in omega-3 fats, a type of polyunsaturated fat, may also increase your "good" HDL cholesterol. The AHA suggests consuming fatty fish at least twice a week. Try and reach for other omega-3 rich foods such as walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds. These 35 salmon dinner recipes can give you some inspiration to eat more omega-3's.

5. Being inactive

Finally, you will notice a significant improvement in your cholesterol levels when you eat well and exercise simultaneously. Engaging in regular physical activity promotes weight loss and healthier cholesterol levels by helping reduce your LDL levels and improve your HDL levels. Any physical activity helps, including brisk walking, jogging, running, swimming, cycling and yoga. Strength building exercises, such as weight lifting, may also be beneficial in dropping the LDL level.

If you are inactive, it is never too late to start. Start slowly by exercising in increments of ten minutes, and work towards exercising at least 30 minutes daily, with 150 to 300 minutes per week. Talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program.

Bottom line

Eating well by reducing added sugars and refined carbohydrates, choosing whole grains, vegetables and fruits, beans and legumes more often, including omega-3 fats as part of your diet, along with exercising regularly, can help improve your cholesterol levels.