According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 12% of U.S. adults have high cholesterol. This puts millions of people at risk for heart attack, stroke, and other conditions.
Did you know that high cholesterol has no symptoms? It’s so important to have a regular blood test to keep levels in check. If your cholesterol is too high, you can do something about it.
If you are a health coach, and a client has an order from their doctor to lower their cholesterol, you can help. Simple dietary and lifestyle changes make a big impact on cholesterol and overall health.
Cholesterol is not inherently bad. In fact, we need it for many uses in the body, from making hormones and vitamin D to building cell structures. It is a waxy, non-water-soluble substance made by the liver. We also get cholesterol from the foods we eat.
Two types of compounds in the body, known as lipoproteins, play important roles in carrying cholesterol:
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL). This is often referred to as the “bad cholesterol.” LDL carries cholesterol from the liver to other parts of the body. This includes blood vessels, which can result in a harmful buildup of plaque.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL). The “good cholesterol,” HDL carries cholesterol back to the liver, where it removes it from the body. HDL targets and removes unused cholesterol, including the cholesterol that builds up in blood vessels.
The cholesterol level in your blood can get too high due to a number of factors, like diet, genetic mutations, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle.
You can find out your cholesterol levels with a blood test. The results tell you the LDL level and HDL level you have in your blood and indicate if you need to make any changes.
Total cholesterol is HDL and LDL. It should be below 200. A result between 200 and 239 is borderline high, while 240 and higher is too high.
A value of 100 to 129 for LDL is normal for healthy adults. It should be lower for anyone with or at risk for coronary artery disease. A value of 190 or above usually indicates a genetic condition.
The HDL value should ideally be 60 or higher.
A blood panel can be confusing to read and understand. Check out this ISSA blog to learn what it all means.
If you have a blood test for cholesterol, talk to your doctor about the results and for advice if they recommend you make changes. The total number is important, but you also need to look at the LDL and HDL values individually. When people talk about lowering their cholesterol, they mean LDL only.
It’s important to maintain higher HDL levels and lower LDL levels for many reasons. While cholesterol is a necessary substance in the body, too much LDL can have adverse health effects.
The number one reason to work on your cholesterol levels is cardiovascular health. Excess cholesterol collects in arteries. This causes them to narrow and stiffen, reducing blood flow and can result in a serious, life-threatening condition known as atherosclerosis.
When the arteries become so blocked that blood cannot flow or a small clot causes a blockage, the result can be a heart attack or stroke. High cholesterol is a major risk factor for these conditions and one that you can actually control.
Cardiovascular complications are most important to consider, but high cholesterol can increase your risk of other health problems:
High blood pressure
Peripheral vascular disease
Chronic kidney disease
A major contributor to a high cholesterol level is a poor diet. The western, and especially American, diet is heavy on saturated fats and processed foods that lead to weight gain, obesity, and high cholesterol levels.
Fortunately, changes in diet can make a big difference in your cholesterol numbers. Here are some of the best tips for lowering cholesterol with your food choices.
The biggest thing you can do to lower cholesterol is cut back on saturated fats. Dietary saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol. Populations with more saturated fat in their diets have higher rates of heart disease. Limit saturated fat to no more than 7% of your daily calories. This is 13 grams for a 2,000-calorie diet.
Foods high in saturated fats include:
Fatty cuts of beef, lamb, and pork
Poultry with the skin
Full or high-fat dairy products
Fried foods and many baked goods
Palm, palm kernel, and coconut oil
Trans fat is even worse for your health than saturated fats. They are largely artificial fats, made when unsaturated vegetable oils are hydrogenated to give them a longer shelf life. Many food producers have cut out trans fats, but look for it in the ingredient list as partially hydrogenated oil. You may see them in baked goods, vegetable shortening, microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas and doughs, margarine, and fried foods.
Not all fats are bad, and in fact, you need fat in your diet. Replace the bad fats with poly and monounsaturated fats. This includes omega-3 fatty acids.
In a study involving 115 adults, researchers replaced saturated fats in their diets with polyunsaturated fats. They saw reductions in total cholesterol and LDL of 10%. Another study showed that diets high in monounsaturated fats increased HDL levels by 12%.
For polyunsaturated and omega-3 fats, eat more walnuts, chia seeds, ground flax seeds, and fatty fish like sardines, tuna, salmon, and mackerel. For monounsaturated fats, choose olive oil, canola oil, nuts, and avocados.
Soluble fiber blocks the absorption of cholesterol in the digestive tract. You can reduce LDL levels by about 5% by consuming five to ten grams of soluble fiber per day. Ten to 25 grams per day is even better.
Good sources of soluble fiber include beans, peas, lentils, whole fruits and berries, and whole grains. You can also take a psyllium fiber supplement to increase intake. If you don’t currently eat a lot of high-fiber foods, ease into them. An abrupt increase can cause stomach upset.
These substances are found in plants and are similar in structure to cholesterol. By competing with it in the body, they may actually lower blood cholesterol levels. You can find stanols and sterols in some vegetable oils, added to certain foods, and as supplements.
It has long been assumed that dietary cholesterol contributes to blood cholesterol, but it may not really be true. Unless you have certain health conditions and your doctor directs you to cut back on cholesterol, don’t worry about it. Saturated fat is a much bigger contributor to high cholesterol.
Dietary tips are essential for lowering cholesterol. You cannot outrun or out-exercise a bad diet. For the best results, combine a healthy diet with other lifestyle changes:
Exercise. Being physically active reduces LDL and increases HDL levels. Aim to be active most days per week, even if it is low-intensity exercise, like walking.
Manage weight. Losing weight if you are overweight or obese can have a positive impact on cholesterol. It also reduces the risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes, both of which are connected to high cholesterol.
Stop smoking. Smoking is bad for health in so many ways. Cholesterol is just one of them. Smoking is associated with higher LDL and lower HDL levels. The damage it causes to cholesterol is reversible with quitting.
Lower stress. Lower or manage stress in your life to improve cholesterol levels. Research shows that stress may raise LDL and lower HDL cholesterol.
Exercise is so essential to a healthy heart. Try these workouts for the greatest heart benefits.
Managing cholesterol is one of the best things you can do for your health. If you work as a health coach, educate your clients about the importance of paying attention to cholesterol.
Encourage them to see their doctors and get regular blood tests. If they have high cholesterol, you can help them meet their goals to improve their numbers.
Check out ISSA’s Certified Health Coach program if you have a passion for food, health, and helping people. Complete the courses online and at your own pace to begin an exciting new career coaching clients to their health goals.
ISSA's Health Coach certification is for personal trainers and other health professionals who want to help clients overcome physical and mental health barriers to achieve their optimal wellness.