Managing your cholesterol is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of heart disease, which remains the leading cause of death for Americans. If your doctor tells you your cholesterol is high and putting you at risk for a heart attack or stroke, there are a few things you can do to bring it down -- some as close as your kitchen.
Understand the Numbers
The American Heart Association advises adults over age 20 have their cholesterol checked every four to six years. Your cholesterol report will have several numbers, and it’s important to understand what each means and how to compare them against the association's goals. Your total cholesterol number is calculated by adding together the high-density lipoprotein, or "good" cholesterol, and the low-density lipoprotein, or "bad" cholesterol, along with part of your triglycerides, which is a type of fat found in your blood. For lowest risk, total cholesterol should be below 180 milligrams per deciliter.
The best way to control your cholesterol is by eating the right fats. Eating less saturated and trans fat from foods like whole milk, ice cream, cheese, red meats and fried foods will likely help to lower your LDL and triglycerides. Replacing that bad fat with foods that have more heart healthy unsaturated fat -- like nuts, seeds, avocados and olives -- also helps to lower your bad cholesterol, and it may elevate your good cholesterol. Including some omega-3 fat in your diet can reduce your triglyceride levels further, and the American Heart Association recommends eating omega 3-rich fatty fish like salmon at least twice each week. Check with your doctor to see if you should supplement with additional omega-3.
Eating more plant foods boosts your fiber, and the heart association recommends eating at least 25 grams of fiber a day as part of a heart healthy diet. The best choices for cholesterol are apples and citrus fruits, whole grains like oats and barley and legumes like kidney beans or lentils. All are high in soluble fiber, which has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol, so try to eat a combination of these each day. Certain compounds and antioxidants found in colorful produce like berries and citrus fruits like lemons can help your heart as well. Research has shown that women who eat berries have a lower risk of a heart attack, and drinking one lemon juice drink each day has been shown to improve cholesterol.
Some people take garlic supplements or eat fresh garlic to control cholesterol, but according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, study results are mixed on whether it has much of an impact. Garlic is rich in antioxidants, though, and so can help protect the heart in other ways, and it may help to reduce blood pressure a bit. Plant sterols in the form of a pill or fortified foods like margarine have been shown to effectively reduce cholesterol. Cleveland Clinic recommends eating the equivalent of 2 grams per day. Finally, red yeast rice is another supplement used to reduce cholesterol, and several studies have found it to be effective. But it may have serious side effects like liver and muscle damage, so as with all supplements, always discuss it with your doctor first.