How can I maintain normal cholesterol levels?

The two main types of potentially helpful dietary fat include monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. Eating plant-based foods rich in monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) decreases the risk of heart disease because it improves blood cholesterol levels, benefits insulin levels and enhances blood sugar control. Eating foods rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat improves blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease the risk of heart disease. PUFAs may also help decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes. Omega-3 fatty acids are a particular type of polyunsaturated fat found in some fish. Omega-3 fatty acids are especially beneficial to the heart and have been shown to protect against irregular heartbeats, lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of coronary artery disease. Of the different types of fat, saturated fats and partially hydrogenated trans fats are the most undesirable.

Excessive cholesterol consumption in the diet can raise the total serum cholesterol level and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats lower disease risk, while saturated trans fats increase disease risk. Most foods that contain saturated fat also contain cholesterol. So cutting back on these foods will help decrease both saturated fat and cholesterol. Foods high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats include nuts, seeds, fatty fish and vegetable oils (such as olive, canola, sunflower, soy and corn). Foods high in saturated fats and partially hydrogenated trans fat include red meat, butter, cheese and ice cream, as well as processed foods made from partially hydrogenated oil. The exception to this is tropical oils, which are high in saturated fat but contain no cholesterol. The key to a healthy diet is to choose foods that have more good fats than bad fats.
There are things you can do to try to keep your cholesterol levels within healthy ranges. In addition to getting your cholesterol screened regularly (every five years for individuals with no heart disease risk factors), take these steps:
  • Be physically active for at least 30 minutes, most days of the week (preferably every day, if possible).
  • Lose weight if you are overweight.
  • Increase your intake of whole grains, with an emphasis on soluble fiber. Eat at least 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day, preferably from whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes.
  • Increase your intake of poly- and mono-unsaturated fatty acids and reduce your intake of saturated and trans fats. Limit your saturated fat consumption to less than 7% and your intake of trans fat to less than 1% of your total daily calories.
  • Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants. Eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
  • Consume moderate amounts of alcohol, defined as equal to or less than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.
To help keep healthy cholesterol levels:
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes every day. This can help balance cholesterol levels in your blood.
  • Eat healthy. Be extra careful with the amount and types of fat and oil in your diet.
  • Stay at a healthy weight. Lose extra weight if you need to.
  • Don't drink too much alcohol. If you drink, have no more than 1 or 2 drinks a day.
  • Lower your stress. Take time for yourself. Do things that make you feel happy and calm.
  • If your doctor has prescribed medicine for cholesterol, take it faithfully. You may not notice a change in how you feel. But the medicine is important. It can help protect your health -- and your life.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.