Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in America, accounting for about one in every four deaths each year. And, according to the CDC, nearly one in three Americans has high cholesterol, which is a contributing factor to heart disease—those are sobering statistics.
Certain health conditions, family history, and your lifestyle can raise your risk of developing high cholesterol. Some, like family history, are out of your control, while others, like diet and exercise, are very much in your control. If you’re using your Aaptiv app for regular workouts, then you’ve got the exercise box checked. To learn more about how your diet impacts cholesterol, and how you can eat your way toward a lower number, we asked the experts.
“When it comes to cholesterol-lowering, there are many different routes you can take, but unless your health care provider tells you otherwise, it’s best to start with taking a closer look at your diet,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and the author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table.
Below, Taub-Dix and Malina Malkani, MS, RDN, CDN, a media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the creator of the Wholitarian Lifestyle, share their top tips for lowering your cholesterol.
Eat more soluble fiber
“Our bodies lack the enzymes needed to digest soluble fiber from foods,” says Malkani. “Because of this, soluble fiber binds to cholesterol in the digestive system and helps drag it out of the body through waste before it enters circulation.” She notes that foods containing soluble fiber include oats, barley, fruit—especially berries—and beans. “Regular consumption of soluble fiber has shown reductions in both total and LDL cholesterol by five to ten percent in as little as four weeks,” she adds.
Taub-Dix agrees, noting that “soluble fibers rule when it comes to lowering cholesterol at the table.”
Eat more heart-healthy fats
“Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats have been shown to directly lower LDL cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease,” says Malkani. To get the most nutritional value, she suggests choosing heart-healthy fat sources like avocados, nuts, fatty fish, and olive oils.
Omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood can be especially helpful in reducing triglyceride levels. According to Taub-Dix, fish like mackerel, salmon, and herring are particularly rich in Omega-3s. “If you’re not eating much seafood, increasing your intake to just two times per week could be beneficial,” she says, noting that supplements may be a helpful complement to a fish-rich diet. “The delicious and satiating qualities of these healthy fats could also help promote fullness and help those who want to lose weight while keeping portion sizes in mind,” she adds.
Avoid trans fats
Artificial trans fats have been linked to higher LDL cholesterol levels, inflammation, and heart disease, says Malkani, so those should be avoided as much as possible. To be sure that you’re not ingesting trans fats masquerading under a different name, she advises checking food labels for hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils.
Eat foods rich in phytosterols
Phytosterols are plant compounds that are structurally similar to cholesterol. “They help lower cholesterol levels by blocking the absorption of cholesterol into the intestines,” says Malkani. She notes that nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes are all good sources to add to your diet.
Cook with a variety of herbs and spices
“Loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, seasonings like turmeric, garlic, and ginger may help lower cholesterol when eaten regularly,” says Malkani. Herbs and spices are also a great way to add flavor to your meals without reaching for the salt shaker.
Eat more fruits and vegetables
Fruits and veggies contain many healthful properties, including antioxidants. “Antioxidants help reduce the risk of heart disease by helping to prevent LDL cholesterol from oxidizing and forming plaque in the arteries,” says Malkani. “Studies show that adults including at least four to five servings of fruits/vegetables a day have six percent lower cholesterol than those eating fewer than two servings per day,” she adds.
The 411 on Exercising to Lower Your Cholesterol
Now that you’re armed with the knowledge necessary to eat a cholesterol-friendly diet, you just need to ensure that you’re getting enough exercise. The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week. You’ll get even more benefits if you increase those numbers, but, overall, anything that reduces the time spent being sedentary will help your heart.
The type of exercise you do is less important, with cardio and resistance training both showing benefits for cholesterol. Walking, running, biking, swimming, strength training—they’re all great. However, a BMC Public Health study found that combining aerobic with resistance training was particularly effective at reducing cardiovascular risk factors, so it’s worth mixing up your workouts when you can.