So you have been reading about cholesterol and realize that it’s been a few years since you checked your levels. What are you going to do? Well to start with you are older than before, it’s common for cholesterol levels to rise as people age. And maybe you don’t exercise as much as you used to, another factor which can affect cholesterol levels. So what’s the answer?
Well first of all it’s probably time for you to get your cholesterol levels checked. Go and see your doctor and talk it over. Cardiologists now recommend that all adults over twenty years old should have a cholesterol blood test at least every five years. If heart disease is an issue then that screening should be more frequent.
The normal level for cholesterol is between 150 to 200 mg%, although most people only use the number. So if you are above 200, then it’s time to do something about it. The cholesterol reading should not be taken in isolation, there are other readings which need to be considered too. The LDL, ‘bad’ cholesterol and HDL ‘good’ cholesterol readings should also be within range and triglyceride should be within range too.
If this all sounds daunting then you must realize that doing something about the levels is actually very easy. The first thing most medical experts will tell you is to make positive changes to your lifestyle. Cut back on the fatty foods, do more exercise, stop smoking and regulate your drinking.
Sometimes, in addition to the lifestyle modifications your doctor will recommend drug therapy. If you follow the doctor’s advice you should expect to see your cholesterol levels drop significantly in as little as six weeks.
So now you have decided that something has got to be done. It’s time to reduce the cholesterol levels but how much lower should you aim for? As with most things medical, it’s now time for a chat with the doctor. He or she will assess your risks and if you are in a high risk area then the doctor may try to get your LDL down to around 70. People with moderate risks should aim for around 130 and those lucky enough to be low risk can aim for 160.
Factors affecting the cardiovascular risk include family history, heart disease, being overweight or obese, diabetes, high blood pressure and if you are a smoker. And now doctors prefer to treat someone with two or more risk factors earlier.
If you are ready to work towards a lower cholesterol level then here are 10 helpful ideas to get you started.
1. Medication can help, but is it for you?
If you are making changes to your lifestyle but your doctor wants to prescribe cholesterol lowering drugs too then you can expect to see a difference in your cholesterol levels quite quickly. Perhaps your doctor considers that you have a cardiac risk and lowering cholesterol quickly is prudent. The doctor will only prescribe drug therapy when there is a good medical reason for doing so.
Michael Richman, MD, medical director of the Center for Cholesterol Management in Los Angeles, says, “Everyone should do the basics, like stopping smoking and losing weight. But these things lower the risk only modestly. They're nothing to write home about". Of drug therapy, he says it is, "the only thing that will work fast" when lowering high cholesterol.
Other experts agree with this assessment and tell us that changing your lifestyle to remain fit and healthy is important but there will be times when your doctor thinks that it is prudent to take medication. The doctor will have sized up your situation and calculated the benefits to you of taking medication.
The most common types of cholesterol lowering drugs being used are bile acid resins, niacin, statins and fibrates. But statins are the most commonly used drugs. Pamela Peeke, MD, is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and she notes that, "Statins can lower LDL cholesterol by 20% to 50%".
2. Start exercising regularly
The good news about lowering cholesterol levels is that any activity that you do can be low intensity, but it has to be done regularly. Even walking, as long as you keep up a good tempo, will provide benefits of lowering LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol and can increase HDL ‘good’ cholesterol.
Robert Harrington, MD, is a professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C., and he stresses the importance of regular exercise and says that he recommends to his patients that a 45-minute walk after the evening meal is a must.
Peeke is in agreement with Harrington and says, "I ask people to get a pedometer and aim for 10,000 steps a day. If you work at a desk, get up and walk around for five minutes every hour".
Richman also agrees that regular exercise is crucial if you are going to successfully lower your cholesterol level. He is also pragmatic in his approach when he says, "Some experts recommend seven days a week, although I think five days is more realistic".
3. Saturated fat is bad!
Earlier thinking advised that cholesterol rich foods were the problem and it was these items that we should cut back on. However today’s thinking now accepts that cholesterol rich foods such as eggs do not really add to the amount of cholesterol in the body. Today the experts have identified that saturated fat is the main contributor to increased cholesterol levels. So if you are eating eggs the answer is to boil them or fry them in unsaturated fat or oil.
Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the author of several books on nutritional issues. Her new book is entitled, Tell Me What to Eat If I Have Heart Disease. And she takes the view that removing saturated fats is a must. She is a supporter of what she calls ‘smart fats’, that is olive oil or canola oil for cooking and tells us to avoid butter, vegetable oil, margarine and lard. She also recommends cutting back on meat and meat products and replacing them with oily fish.
She starts by saying, "One of the first things to do when you're trying to lower your cholesterol level is to take saturated fat down a few notches". After this, "The second thing to do is to start eating more 'smart' fats".
4. Fiber helps
As part of a healthy balanced diet you will find fruit, vegetables and whole grains in abundance. These types of foods are high in fiber and generally have lots of antioxidants too. Soluble fiber is known to reduce levels of cholesterol, and Beckerman describes its action as, "acting like a sponge to absorb cholesterol". Soluble fiber can be found in many foods but the highest amounts are contained in oats, barley and dried beans.
5. Dump meat and eat fish
As part of your lifestyle changes you should be cutting back on meat and meat products and substituting them with fish. The best fish, with the most omega 3 fatty acids are salmon and tuna, along with sardines. Beckerman also points out that, "Fish oil supplements can have a profound effect on cholesterol and triglycerides”. He goes on, "There's a lot of scientific evidence to support their use."
Although fish oil supplements are generally thought of a safe, it is wise to talk with your doctor before taking them if you take any anti-clotting drugs.
Nutritional and medical experts agree that we should all be eating fish two or three times every week. And Magee says, "Salmon is great, as it has lots of omega-3s”. Tinned tuna is also a good source of omega-3.
The best source of omega-3 fatty acids are considered to be fish and this is why the American Heart Association recommends them. Fish oil supplements are acceptable but our bodies seem to get more benefits when we get the required nutrients from food rather than supplements.
It is not only fish that is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Some plants which contain substantial levels of it are soybeans, flaxseeds, canola and walnuts. Oils derived from these foodstuffs are also very high in omega-3s.
However the omega-3 from plants are not the same as in the fish and the best omega-3s to keep the heart healthy come from fish.
6. Drink moderately – with caution
It’s not every day that the medical world tells you to drink alcohol, but it has been found that moderate alcohol intake everyday can cause the levels of ‘good’ cholesterol to increase by up to 10%. Moderate consumption means one drink for women and two drinks for men. However the American Heart Foundation cautions about excessive drinking and recommends that if you are tee total then stay that way. Do not start or increase your alcohol intake as this can lead to other medical issues.
7. Go green
Research into green tea appears to suggest that it contains ingredients which can help lower cholesterol. However the research has limitations in that further large scale work must be carried out before conclusive evidence is found. The small scale study was carried out in Brazil and it was found that the group taking green tea capsules, on average had a 4.5% decrease in their levels of cholesterol compared to those who took the placebo.
Even without the proven benefit of reducing cholesterol green tea is a much healthier option than fizzy drinks loaded with sugar.
8. Nuts are good
There has been lots of research showing that eating nuts, in particular walnuts and almonds, can lead to small drops in cholesterol levels. However as part of a healthy diet nuts must be eaten in moderation because of the very high calories they contain.
9. Go low fat and stanols
Most large food manufacturers produce margarine style spreads but with an added cholesterol lowering feature. By using stanols the spread can help to bring cholesterol levels down, but remember that the spread still has lots of calories so keep it thin.
10. Stop smoking
It seems that this is the advice given for every ailment under the sun, and yet it is good advice. If you smoke then you are lowering your levels of HDL ‘good’ cholesterol whilst increasing your risk of heart disease and many cancers.