Eight ways you can lower your cholesterol through diet and exercise

Worried about your cholesterol levels? A doctor shares eight ways you can lower it naturally through diet and exercise.

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that our bodies need to function properly. However, having too much of it in our blood can be a problem. When we talk about ‘high cholesterol’, it means there’s an excess of this fatty substance circulating in our bloodstream.

To help us understand more about high cholesterol and how to lower it through diet, Dr Bhavini Shah (GMC 7090158), a GP from LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor offers her expertise.

What is high cholesterol?

High cholesterol is when there is too much of a fatty substance called cholesterol in our blood. Too much cholesterol can cause a build-up in our blood vessels This can be risky because it makes it harder for blood to flow. 

Over time, this can increase the risk of heart-related problems or strokes. So, managing cholesterol levels is essential for maintaining good health.

What causes high cholesterol?

High cholesterol is mainly caused by having an unhealthy lifestyle. This includes eating too much fatty food, not getting enough exercise, smoking and drinking and being overweight.

You may also be more at risk if it runs in your family. Other surprising factors that can contribute to high cholesterol are thyroid issues or some types of medication.

Getting tested for high cholesterol

High cholesterol does not typically cause symptoms, so you can only find out if you have it from a blood test. 

Your GP may recommend a blood test to see if your cholesterol is high, particularly if you are over 40, overweight or cholesterol and heart issues run in your family. You can also use a home blood test to check cholesterol levels. 

A cholesterol test measures the levels of different types of cholesterol in your blood, including Non-HDL (often called ‘bad’ cholesterol), HDL (‘good’ cholesterol), and total cholesterol.

What are healthy cholesterol levels?

A good target cholesterol level depends on factors such as your age, any health conditions you have and your risk of heart disease. However, if you have recently been ill, had a baby or taken medication then your levels may vary.

Healthy adults should have:

  • Below 5mmol/L of total cholesterol in their blood
  • Above 1.0/mmol/L or above 1.2/mmol/L for women of HDL (good cholesterol)
  • Below 4mmol/L of non-HDL (bad cholesterol) 

Eight ways you can lower your cholesterol through diet and exercise

If you are worried about your cholesterol levels, here are eight ways you can help to lower it naturally through diet and exercise.

1) Choose healthy fats

To lower your cholesterol, you should try to cut down on fatty food, particularly food that contains saturated fat. Foods high in saturated fats include red meat, sausages and pies, full-fat dairy products, and fried foods.

Instead opt for unsaturated fats such as avocado, nuts and seeds, olive oil and oily fish like mackerel and salmon. 

2) Eat more fish

Fish such as salmon and mackerel contain omega-3 fatty acids which is a type of unsaturated fat that can help lower cholesterol levels. 

They do this by lowering triglycerides – a type of fat that enters your blood after eating. Some research has suggested that they can help by lowering blood pressure, preventing blood clots, improving circulation and keeping your heart rhythm steady 

3) Increase your fibre intake

Eat more fruits and vegetables like beans, broccoli and  sweet potatoes as well as whole grains. These foods are high in fibre, which can help reduce LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol). 

4) Avoid processed foods

Ultra-processed foods can contain high amounts of sugar, salt and fat. Eating too much processed food can potentially increase the risk of obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

If you want to lower your cholesterol you should avoid ultra-processed foods such as microwave and ready meals, cakes and biscuits, cereal, cheese, and bread. 

5) Avoid cholesterol-rich foods

Some foods, like red meats, egg yolks and whole milk are high in cholesterol. Limit your intake of these foods.

Instead opt for foods with low-cholesterol such as oats, whole wheat bread, brown rice, and even popcorn. Additionally, fruits and berries, such as blueberries, strawberries, apples, oranges and grapes are all low-cholesterol foods. 

6) Watch your portion sizes

Be mindful of portion sizes to avoid overeating, which can contribute to weight gain and higher cholesterol levels.

7) Exercise regularly

You should aim to do at least three hours of exercise per week, especially if you are trying to lower cholesterol. Try some fast paced walking, swimming or cycling if you are looking for a place to start.

8) Quit smoking

Smoking damages blood vessels and lowers HDL cholesterol so quitting is beneficial for your overall health, as well as for lowering cholesterol. Smoking can increase your risk of serious problems like heart disease, stroke and cancer.

9) Limit alcohol

Try to avoid drinking more than fourteen units of alcohol per week and avoid binge drinking. Drinking too much can contribute to higher cholesterol levels.

What should you do if you’re concerned about cholesterol? 

As high cholesterol typically shows no symptoms, many people are unaware that their levels are high. Therefore it is advisable to have regular check-ups and blood tests to monitor cholesterol levels and take steps to manage them if needed.

If you have concerns about your cholesterol, it’s best to discuss them with your GP who can arrange a blood test and suggest any lifestyle changes you can make or if treatment is necessary.

Author: Dr Bhavini Shah, GP from LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor