Getting blocked is no bueno — whether you're talking about social media or your arteries. But you can prevent the latter and protect your heart by keeping "bad" (LDL) cholesterol in check. Learn what causes high LDL and how to combat it with a low cholesterol diet and other lifestyle changes.
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Causes of High LDL
"Good" cholesterol (HDL) is critical for healthy cells — and helping your body rid excess LDL, which, if it builds up in the arteries, ups your risk for clots that can cause heart attack or stroke, according to the Mayo Clinic.
An ideal LDL level is a reading of less than 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), while a reading of 100-129 mg/dL is considered near optimal, says the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). Higher LDL ranges include:
- Borderline high: 130 to 159 mg/dL.
- High: 160 to 189 mg/dL.
- Very high: Above 190 mg/dL.
According to NLM, many factors — some lifestyle and some out of your control — can cause your LDL levels to rise. These include:
- A diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
- A lack of exercise and/or being overweight, which can also raise total cholesterol and lower your good cholesterol (HDL).
- Smoking, which reduces your HDL.
- Age and sex: Cholesterol rises with age for both sexes, but women's tends to rise post-menopause.
- Your genes, which partially govern how much cholesterol your body produces.
- Certain medications like steroids, some blood pressure meds and HIV/AIDS medicines.
- Other diseases such as chronic kidney disease, diabetes and HIV/AIDS.
- Race: Some races have a higher risk (African Americans typically have higher cholesterol levels than whites).
Level Down Your LDL With Diet
St. Louis-based food and nutrition consultant Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, explains: "LDL cholesterol is determined by genetics, age, diet and activity levels. [You] inherit the tendency for cholesterol levels, just as with blood glucose and blood pressure. But lifestyle can manage [your] levels," — including diet.
A heart-healthy diet is a significant way you can help control your LDL, according to the NLM.
If you know you're at risk for higher LDL, advises Diekman, you should eat less foods high in saturated fat, while upping your intake of unsaturated fats and soluble fiber.
Mayo Clinic agrees, noting that just 5 to 10 grams of soluble fiber each day can lower LDL. Translation: Just one serving of fiber-rich cereal, oatmeal or oat bran can give you 3 to 4 grams alone — even more if you throw in some berries or banana.
So when you make your next trip to the grocery store, Diekman recommends you fill your cart with the following:
- Whole grains (potatoes, oatmeal, black beans, kidney beans and barley).
- Vegetables (Brussels sprouts).
- Fruits (oranges, apples and pears).
- Nuts and seeds.
- Oils made from seeds (soybean, canola, sunflower, walnut, peanut and olive).
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy.
- Lean meat, fish and poultry.
In terms of regimen, you should "consume meat and poultry occasionally," Diekman says, with "fatty fish like tuna, salmon, sardines and mackerel more often." And, for your main source of protein, she recommends plant-based from such sources as beans, nuts, tofu and edamame.
Low LDL Lifestyle
For people who have overweight or obesity, there is research that suggests that adding an avocado a day to a heart-heathy diet can help reduce LDL, says the Mayo Clinic. Avocados are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, a type of healthy fat that plays a central role in the Mediterranean diet, Mayo Clinic points out.
Consuming foods with added sterols and stanols, substances in plants that help block cholesterol absorption, may also be useful. In fact, just 2 grams of sterols a day can result in significant LDL reduction — lowering it by as much as 5 to 15 percent, adds Mayo Clinic. Look for orange juice or margarines with plant sterols.
Beyond diet, you can lower your LDL level with exercise, notes the NLM. Aim for a goal of 30 minutes every day.
Should lifestyle changes like diet, exercise and weight control not work on their own to lower your LDL, the NLM suggests supplementing your healthy lifestyle with cholesterol-lowering medications, including statins. As always, your doctor is your best resource on determining if and which medicine is right for you.
Is This an Emergency?
- Mayo Clinic: “High Cholesterol: Symptoms & Causes”
- Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, LD, FADA, food and nutrition consultant; former president, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; author, The Everything Mediterranean Diet Book; former director of university nutrition, Washington University, St. Louis
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “LDL: The ‘Bad’ Cholesterol”
- Mayo Clinic: “Cholesterol: Top Foods to Improve Your Numbers”
- Mayo Clinic: "MUFAs: Why Should My Diet Include These Fats?"