7 Mistakes You're Making When Trying To Lower Your Cholesterol, According to a Dietitian
These habits might be worth a second look to achieve better heart health.
Having high cholesterol doesn't have to be a permanent fate. The consequences of high cholesterol are less than desirable to say the least—think: inflammation, atherosclerosis, heart disease. Luckily the right diet and lifestyle changes can help lower your cholesterol and change your fate to one with more positive outcomes. Here are 7 mistakes you may be making when trying to lower your cholesterol.
1. You're avoiding the dietary cholesterol
"Eating cholesterol will increase your body's cholesterol, so avoid eating foods with cholesterol." Right? That's actually untrue. Dietary cholesterol (the cholesterol in food) has minimal effect on serum cholesterol (the cholesterol levels in your body.) When you eat dietary cholesterol, your body compensates by decreasing the production of de novo cholesterol. This compensation keeps your body in cholesterol homeostasis, so there's not much change. So go ahead and eat the egg! Yolk included. As always, consume in moderation. If you're only thinking in terms of "I should limit my intake of cholesterol," you're missing a big piece to the cholesterol-lowering puzzle. Instead, shift your focus to, "I should limit my intake of saturated fat and trans fat." High intake of saturated and trans fats have both been shown to increase harmful LDL cholesterol and decrease beneficial HDL cholesterol, especially when eaten in place of healthier fats.
2. You're cutting out dietary fat completely
The goal is to limit unhealthy fats, not cut out all fat completely. In fact, if you're fully cutting out fat from your diet, you're likely not helping your cholesterol levels. Studies show that eliminating all fat from the diet is less effective in achieving healthy cholesterol levels compared to diets high in mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Consuming a diet that is rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fats, while remaining low in saturated fat reduces bad LDL cholesterol and increases the good HDL cholesterol. Focus on replacing processed, high saturated fat foods with monounsaturated fat foods like avocados, olives and olive oil, sunflower seeds and sunflower oil, and nuts like almonds, walnuts, cashews, pecans and macadamias. Incorporate polyunsaturated foods like chia and flax seeds, nuts, and fatty fish like salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel and herring.
3. You're not getting enough fiber
Don't sleep on fiber. It helps you stay full and satiated between meals, aids in weight loss, and most importantly it's indigestible—making it a superhero in the fight against high cholesterol thanks to its cholesterol lowering powers. It also adds bulk and binds cholesterol, which means less cholesterol goes to your liver and more gets excreted in bile. This leads to, you guessed it, lower serum cholesterol! Make sure you're choosing high fiber foods like oats and oatmeal, barley, fruit like pears, berries, bananas and apples, vegetables like kale, spinach, broccoli, carrots, peas and corn, lentils and beans.
4. You're skipping physical activity
Get moving, get those steps in, and get that heart rate up! You don't have to hit the gym if that's not your thing, but exercise and movement are your new best friends on your cholesterol-lowering journey. Physical activity including aerobic exercises, resistance training, and low intensity exercises like walking have been shown to improve cholesterol profiles as it increases healthy HDL and decreases harmful LDL cholesterol. Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity at least 5 days a week and I think you and exercise will be very happy together. (It's a long term love affair.) Bonus: you may lose some weight, another key piece to the cholesterol-lowering puzzle. Weight loss of 5-10% body weight has been shown to have positive effects on cholesterol levels, improving the good/bad cholesterol ratio and other risk factors of diseases like heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
5. You're overdoing it on cocktails
Don't worry, you can still enjoy your favorite alcoholic drink of choice, just do so in moderation. If you're not a drinker, please do not take this as "a RD told me to start drinking to lower my cholesterol!" moment. BUT, if you are a drinker, keep in mind that you should limit to 1-2 drinks per day if you want to have positive effects on HDL cholesterol and heart health. Enjoy your evening glass of wine, though if you're hitting the bottom of the bottle too often it's no help to your cholesterol levels (or your heart and liver health for that matter.)
6. You're not getting enough protein
Remember to pair your healthy fats and high fiber foods with adequate protein. Diets high in protein (about 1-1.5g protein per kg body weight) are associated with higher HDL cholesterol- the good kind! Studies on whey protein specifically show that incorporating whey protein into your daily intake can lower your LDL cholesterol—the bad kind.
7. You haven't quit smoking
If you're a smoker who's already done all of the above and are left wondering what's still holding you back from achieving healthy cholesterol levels, it's the cigarettes (or other tobacco products.) Smoking has negative effects on cholesterol levels, as you're inhaling you're also altering the way your body handles cholesterol via mechanisms that promote cellular change, inflammation, thrombosis and oxidative stress. The cellular dysfunction that results leads to increased cholesterol levels and clogged arteries. Kick the habit and start reversing your high cholesterol fate. Smoking was cool in the 50's, lower cholesterol is cool always!