Lowering Your Blood Cholesterol

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is made in the body by the liver. Cholesterol forms part of every cell in the body and serves many vital functions. Our bodies need cholesterol to:

  • Maintain healthy cell walls
  • Make hormones (the body’s chemical messengers)
  • Make vitamin D
  • Make bile acids, which aid in fat digestion

Sometimes, however, our bodies make more cholesterol than we really need, and this excess cholesterol circulates in the bloodstream. High levels of cholesterol in the blood can clog blood vessels and increase the risk for heart disease and stroke.

  • Our bodies can make too much cholesterol when we eat too much saturated fat – the kind of fat found in animal-based foods such as meat and dairy products.
  • In addition to making cholesterol, we also get a small percentage of our body’s cholesterol from the foods we eat. Only animal-based foods such as meat, eggs, and dairy products contain cholesterol. Plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, and grains do not contain cholesterol.

plaque in the coronary artery

The Different Types Of Cholesterol

There are different types of cholesterol – and not all cholesterol is harmful.

  • Low-density lipoprotein (or LDL) cholesterol is a bad type of cholesterol that is most likely to clog blood vessels, increasing your risk for heart disease.
  • High-density lipoprotein (or HDL) cholesterol is a good type of cholesterol. HDL cholesterol helps clear the LDL cholesterol out of the blood and reduces your risk for heart disease.
Facts About Cholesterol

  • More than one-half of American adults have blood cholesterol levels that are too high.
  • Lowering your cholesterol level has a double payback: For every one percent you lower your blood cholesterol level, you reduce your risk for heart disease by two percent.
  • Even if you already have heart disease, lowering your cholesterol levels will significantly reduce your risk for death and disability.
  • As blood cholesterol exceeds 220 ml/dl (milligrams per deciliter, which are the units in which blood cholesterol is measured in the United States), risk for heart disease increases at a more rapid rate.
  • All adults should have their blood cholesterol level measured at least once every five years.
  • The liver makes most of the cholesterol in our bodies-only a small percentage comes from food. But the more saturated fat we eat, the more cholesterol our bodies make.
  • Most people can bring down their blood cholesterol levels without medication by changing the way they eat and by becoming more active.
  • Only animal foods contain cholesterol; plant foods do not contain cholesterol.
  • A medium egg contains about 213 milligrams of cholesterol, a three-ounce portion of lean red meat or skinless chicken contains about 90 milligrams of cholesterol, and a three-ounce portion of fish contains about 50 milligrams of cholesterol.

What Causes High Blood Cholesterol?

Many factors can contribute to high blood cholesterol levels or cholesterol levels that are out of balance. Some of these factors are within your control, and some are not.

To some extent, your genetic make-up determines your cholesterol level.

  • Some people inherit a condition called familial hypercholesterolemia, which means that very high cholesterol levels run in the family.
  • Some people may simply be more likely than others to react to lifestyle factors (such as lack of exercise or a high-fat diet) that push up cholesterol levels.
  • Other people, especially people for whom diabetes runs in the family, inherit high triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are another type of blood fat that can also push up cholesterol levels.

Besides your genetic make-up, many lifestyle factors affect cholesterol levels and cholesterol balance:

  • What you eat. Eating too much saturated fat (the kind found in high-fat meats and dairy products) and cholesterol can cause your body to make more cholesterol, raising your blood cholesterol levels. You can lower your cholesterol level by cutting down on animal fat and other fats and eating foods rich in starch and fiber, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • How active you are. Regular exercise not only reduces total blood cholesterol, but it lowers the bad kind of cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) while raising the good kind of cholesterol (HDL cholesterol).
  • What you weigh. Being overweight contributes to rising blood cholesterol levels. Fortunately, changes to lower cholesterol levels also help you control your weight, a double benefit.
  • Your hormones. Women get a natural boost in their HDL cholesterol (the good kind of cholesterol) from their hormones until they reach menopause. After menopause, taking estrogen can help maintain higher HDL cholesterol levels.

Why Worry About High Blood Cholesterol?

When we get more cholesterol than we need – either because our body makes too much or because we eat too many cholesterol-rich foods – the surplus cholesterol circulates in the bloodstream. Along with other fat-like substances, certain kinds of this circulating cholesterol tend to deposit in the inner lining of the blood vessels.

These cholesterol-rich deposits become coated with scar tissue, forming a bump in the blood vessel known as plaque. Plaque buildup can narrow and harden the blood vessel – a process called atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

Eventually these plaque deposits can build up to significantly reduce or block blood flow, causing a heart attack or stroke. Many people experience chest pain or discomfort from inadequate blood flow to the heart, especially during exercise when the heart needs more oxygen. Smaller plaques can also burst, causing blood flowing over them to clot and clog the blood vessel.

For further information about heart attack, go to Heart Attack.

For further information about stroke, go to Stroke.

A high blood cholesterol level is especially dangerous for smokers and those with high blood pressure. High blood cholesterol, smoking, and high blood pressure are three factors that increase your risk for heart disease.

  • If you have one of these risk factors, you double your risk of heart disease.
  • If you have two of these risk factors, your risk for heart disease is four times as high.
  • If you have three of these risk factors, your risk is eight times as high.

The good news is that lowering your cholesterol level can help reduce your risk for heart disease. For everyone one percent you lower your cholesterol level, you reduce your risk for heart disease by two percent. And lowering your cholesterol can help prevent heart attacks even if you already have heart disease.

Is Your Blood Cholesterol Level Too High?

Risk for heart disease and stroke increases with rising blood cholesterol levels. As blood cholesterol exceeds 220 ml/dl (milligrams per deciliter-the units used to measure blood cholesterol in the United States), risk for heart disease increases at a more rapid rate.


All adults should have their blood cholesterol level measured at least once every five years. If your blood cholesterol level is:

  • Below 180 – your blood cholesterol level is ideal
  • 180-199 – your blood cholesterol level is acceptable
  • 200-219 – your blood cholesterol level is borderline high
  • 220 or higher – your blood cholesterol level is too high

If your total blood cholesterol level is greater than 200 (and especially if it is over 220), you should have another test to see what type of cholesterol is high.

If your HDL cholesterol level (the good kind) is:

  • Under 35 – it is too low
  • 36-50 – it is acceptable
  • Over 50 – it is ideal

If your LDL cholesterol level (the bad kind) is:

  • 130 or less – it is ideal
  • 130 to 159 – it is borderline high
  • 160 or greater – it is too high

You should also have your blood level of another type of fat – triglycerides – measured at the same time you have your blood cholesterol levels checked. High blood triglyceride levels can also increase risk for heart disease. Fortunately, these levels can be quickly lowered with weight control and more exercise.

How What You Eat Affects Your Cholesterol

How Does Fat in the Diet Affect Blood Cholesterol?

How Does Cholesterol in the Diet Affect Blood Cholesterol?

How Do Carbohydrates in the Diet Affect Bloot Cholesterol?

How Does Dietary Fat Affect Blood Cholesterol?

There are three main types of fats in food, and they affect blood cholesterol in different ways:

  • Saturated fat – Found in red meats and red meat products, such as beef, pork, and lamb, as well as dairy products; in tropical oils such as palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil; and in vegetables oils that have been chemically changed to make them solid at room temperature (a process called hydrogenation).
  • Monounsaturated fats – Found in plant oils such as olive, canola, and peanut oil. Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature but harden in the refrigerator.
  • Polyunsaturated fats – Found in plant oils such as safflower, sunflower, corn, or soybean oil. Fish, especially cold-water fish, contain a special type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3 fat that may help protect against heart disease by slowing blood clotting. Polyunsaturated fats remain liquid even at colder temperatures.

Which Fats Raise Blood Cholesterol Levels?

Although all fats are concentrated sources of calories and can contribute to weight gain (and thus, high blood cholesterol levels), saturated fat is the most harmful type of fat.

Saturated fat is the main cause of high blood cholesterol levels. When you eat too much saturated fat, your body reacts by making more cholesterol than it needs, and the surplus ends up in your blood.

Which Fats Lower Blood Cholesterol Levels?

Both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats help lower blood cholesterol levels by helping your body get rid of newly-formed cholesterol. But these fats should replace some of the saturated fat in your diet – not be used in addition to saturated fat.

However, all fats, even if they are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, are high in calories. Fat contains nine calories per gram (a measure of weight). In comparison, protein and carbohydrates only contain four calories per gram. Using a large amount of monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats to lower cholesterol will backfire, because the extra calories will make you gain weight, which will push up your cholesterol levels.

To replace saturated fat with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat:

  • Use margarine and spreads made from these oils instead of butter. (If a food lists a hydrogenated oil as the first or second ingredient, it is still high in saturated fat.)
  • Use liquid vegetable oils in cooking.
  • Use non-stick vegetable oil spray to coat cooking pans.
  • Read the ingredient labels and choose foods made with vegetable oils rather than hydrogenated vegetable oils, lard, butter, or tropical oils such as palm or coconut oil.

How Does Dietary Cholesterol Affect Blood Cholesterol?

Although a diet high in saturated fat is the main cause of high blood cholesterol levels, high cholesterol in the diet can also raise blood cholesterol levels. And usually the effect is twice as bad, because foods high in cholesterol are usually high in saturated fat.

Which Foods Contain Cholesterol?

Only animal foods contain cholesterol – plant foods do not contain cholesterol. In animals, as in humans, cholesterol is a part of all cells and serves many vital functions. Therefore, foods of animal origin – such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or milk – all contain some cholesterol.

Generally, foods high in animal fat are also high in cholesterol. Two exceptions to this generalization are liver and eggs, which are not high in fat but are high in cholesterol.

  • Liver contains large amounts of cholesterol because the liver is the body organ that makes cholesterol.
  • Eggs contain large amounts of cholesterol because they contain the nutrients and other substances to support a growing embryo (eggs also contain a very high quality of protein and are rich in vitamins and minerals).

The table below shows the approximate cholesterol content of some common animal-based foods.


Milligrams of cholesterol

3 ounces of liver


one large egg


3 ounces of lean red meat


3 ounces skinless poultry


3 ounces fish


one cup whole milk


one ounce cheese


1 teaspoon butter


one cup skim milk


How Much Cholesterol Is Too Much?

The American Heart Association and other health experts recommend that you eat less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol daily.

  • The average American man eats about 360 milligrams of cholesterol daily.
  • The average American woman eats about 240 milligrams of cholesterol daily.

What counts is your daily average over time, not your exact total each day. If you eat scrambled eggs for breakfast on Saturday but eat lean meats, poultry, and fish, along with liberal servings of fruits, vegetables, and grains the rest of the week, your daily average is likely to be below 300 milligrams.

How Do Dietary Carbohydrates Affect Blood Cholesterol?

Carbohydrates come in two varieties – simple and complex.

Simple carbohydrates include:

  • Refined sugars such as table sugar, brown sugar, and corn syrup
  • Naturally occurring sweeteners such as honey and sugars present in fruits and vegetables

Complex carbohydrates include:

  • Starches, found in grain products and starchy vegetables such as potatoes and corn
  • Dietary fiber, found in whole grain products, fruits, and vegetables

Foods rich in complex carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, breads, pasta, rice, cereals, dried beans and peas, nuts, and seeds.

Experts recommend that we get 55% to 60% of our calories from carbohydrates – mostly complex carbohydrates. The average American gets 40% to 50% of calories from carbohydrates and about 20% of calories from sugars.

How Can Eating Foods Rich In Starches And Dietary Fiber Help Lower Blood Cholesterol?

Eating more of the foods rich in starches and dietary fiber – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds – can help lower your cholesterol level in several ways:

  • Carbohydrate-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are naturally low in calories. When you eat more of these foods, you will eat less of the foods higher in fat and cholesterol.
  • Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts and seeds are good sources of dietary fiber. Dietary fiber, especially a certain type of fiber called soluble fiber, can help lower cholesterol levels by sweeping cholesterol out of the body before it gets to the bloodstream. Especially high in soluble fiber are foods such as oat bran, beans, peas, rice bran, citrus fruits, and psyllium seed (the main ingredient in Metamucil, a fiber supplement available at pharmacies and grocery stores).
  • Carbohydrate-rich fruits and vegetables also contain vitamin E, vitamin C, beta-carotene and other substances that function as antioxidantsAntioxidants help prevent cholesterol from being moved out of the blood and into the lining of the blood vessels.

Can Exercise Lower Your Blood Cholesterol?

Being physically active can help lower your cholesterol level, whether it involves everyday activities like cleaning or gardening or a structured exercise program. Exercise helps lower cholesterol levels several ways:

  • Exercise increases the amount of HDL cholesterol (the good kind of cholesterol) in your blood, while reducing the amount of LDL cholesterol (the bad, artery-clogging kind of cholesterol).
  • Exercise promotes weight loss and weight control.
  • When you exercise, you tone up your whole body’s circulation, helping to clear away clots in the blood vessels and making the heart a stronger, more efficient pump.

What Are The Best Types Of Exercise?

You don’t have to run marathons to benefit from exercise – even modest increases in your level of physical activity can help lower your cholesterol levels.

Need To Know:

Experts recommend that all adults accumulate at least 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week. If you can’t devote a full 30 minutes all at once, several shorter periods of physical activity throughout the day can add up to 30-minute recommendation.

Vigorous activities like walking, jogging, biking, and swimming are called aerobic activities, and they are especially good at conditioning the heart and improving circulation. If you choose one of these activities, be sure to start slowly and build up gradually to avoid strain and injury.

Can Losing Weight Lower Your Blood Cholesterol?

Being overweight raises total blood cholesterol levels. In addition, it throws your cholesterol levels out of balance, raising levels of LDL cholesterol (the harmful kind of cholesterol that clogs blood vessels) and lowering levels of HDL cholesterol (the good kind of cholesterol that helps clear blood vessels).

Besides its effects on blood cholesterol levels, being overweight increases your risk for heart disease by raising blood pressure and straining the heart.

Do You Weigh More Than You Should?

Most of us can look in the mirror and tell if we are overweight. In simple, terms, if you can pinch an inch at your waist or weigh over 10 to 15 pounds more than you did when you were 20, you probably need to lose weight.

Experts now evaluate body weight using a more complex formula called body mass index, or BMI. BMI expresses body weight in relation to height. (BMI actually equals body weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared.)

Experts consider a person with a BMI of 25 to 29 to be overweight, and a person with a BMI of 30 or more to be obese. You can use the following table tell if your BMI exceeds these numbers.


Weight in pounds is equal to a BMI of:
















































































Are There Different Types Of Body Fat?

Some people carry excess weight in the hips and thighs (referred to as pear-shaped, or lower body obesity), while others carry it in the abdominal area (referred to as apple-shaped, or upper body obesity). We now know that excess fat in the abdominal area is more likely than excess fat in the lower body to cause health problems such as high blood cholesterol levels.

Since the measurement around your waistline reflects your level of abdominal fat, a waist measurement can be a good clue to whether you have too much upper body fat. You have too much abdominal fat if your waist measurement exceeds:

  • 40 inches for men
  • 35 inches for women

How Can You Lose Weight And Keep It Off?

Losing weight is hard, but keeping it off is even harder. Changing the way you eat and maintaining a regular exercise program are the two key ingredients in any weight control formula.

Fortunately, when you limit fat and cholesterol in the diet, you also cut calories, promoting weight control and helping to lower your cholesterol levels. Further, people who are most likely to succeed in losing weight and keeping it off are people who exercise regularly.

What Are The Dangers Of Dieting?

Although excess weight raises blood cholesterol levels and increases risk for heart disease and other health problems, repeated cycles of losing and regaining weight are even worse for health. A slow and steady rate of weight loss that you can maintain over the long-term is much more healthful than crash-dieting. Remember that the extra weight probably took a long time to creep on, so it will come off slowly too.

Try to focus on the positive lifetime changes you are making for your health rather than on what the scales say. If you exercise regularly and adopt healthy, low-fat foods as part of your usual diet, you may be surprised at how easily the weight will come off.

What Is The Best Way Lower Blood Cholesterol?

Making gradual and permanent changes in your diet and lifestyle can help you lower your cholesterol levels. Not only will these changes reduce your risk for developing heart disease, but they will also reduce your risk for other serious conditions such as high blood pressure, cancer, stroke, and diabetes.

The main lifestyle changes to help you lower your cholesterol levels are:

  • Reduce fat and cholesterol in your diet.
  • Eat more foods rich in carbohydrates and fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Increase your level of physical activity.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight.

In addition to lowering cholesterol levels, if you smoke cigarettes or have high blood pressure, quitting smoking or moderating your sodium intake can also significantly reduce risk for heart disease.

How -To Information:

Consider taking a systematic approach to lowering cholesterol, one step at a time:

  1. Find your starting point, or think about what needs to be changed. Sometimes this means keeping a diary for a few days to record your normal food intake or patterns of exercise.
  2. Once you have identified your problem, make a commitment to change.
  3. Plan how you will start to make a change. If many changes are required, plan which change you will make first.
  4. Check up on yourself to see how well you are carrying out and keeping up the changes.

Of course, it is unrealistic to expect to make many lifestyle changes all at once. However, as you will see, there is plenty of overlap. For example, regular exercise will help you lower your cholesterol and lose weight, which further lowers your cholesterol.

When making changes, you need to pace yourself. Make adjustments to your way of living in whatever order is easiest and don’t rush. Gradual change is more likely to be permanent than many rapid and drastic changes. When you change your diet or exercise routine, don’t think of it as going on a temporary diet or exercise program. Instead, think of it as adopting a healthier way of living to continue for life.

Also, don’t feel you have to give up any favorite food completely when making dietary changes. If you really enjoy certain high-fat foods:

  • Eat them in smaller portions (example, one cookie instead of three).
  • Find a version of the food that is lower in fat (example, ice milk instead of ice cream).
  • Find a substitute for the food that you like almost as well (example, popcorn instead of peanuts).

All of the above changes are healthy for the entire family. Not only will these changes help you lower your cholesterol level, but they will also help reduce the entire family’s risk of developing chronic health disorders such as heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, and obesity.

Reducing Total Fat

Ounce for ounce, fat contains over twice the calories that protein or carbohydrates do. So even if saturated fat is the type of fat most likely to raise harmful blood cholesterol levels, you should limit intake of all fats. Eating too much fat, no matter what kind, can make you put on excess weight. Eating too much fat can also increase your risk of certain types of cancer, such as breast or colon cancer.

To limit total fat intake:

  • Broil, bake, boil, or roast foods rather than fry.
  • Use non-stick pans or coat pans with a thin layer of non-stick spray.
  • Add less fat to food during both cooking and eating. Some examples include using jam instead of margarine on toast, a non-fat or low-fat salad dressing instead of a high-fat dressing, lemon juice instead of butter on vegetables, or salsa instead of sour cream on baked potatoes.
  • Experiment with butter substitutes, spices, and other flavorings as alternative to fat.
  • Look for low-fat alternatives to foods, such as a bagel instead of a doughnut, pretzels instead of potato chips, or a round steak instead of a t-bone steak
  • Try new fat-free products like yogurt, cookies, or crackers.
  • Read labels, which offer excellent information to help you compare fat content of prepared foods.

Reducing Saturated Fat And Cholesterol

To reduce the fat and cholesterol intake in your diet, start with changes that are relatively easy to make. For example, many people find it easy to switch from 2% milk to 1% or skim milk. Once you have adjusted to one change, pick another change to work on.

Here are some simple changes that will help you greatly reduce saturated fat and cholesterol in your diet.

Egg yolks:

  • Eat no more than three eggs yolks weekly.
  • Eat as many egg whites as you like – they contain no cholesterol.


  • Buy lean meats such as fish, poultry, veal cutlet, pork tenderloin, or flank steak.
  • Trim as much fat off meat as possible.
  • Broil, barbecue, or roast meat on a rack rather than fry them. This allows some of the fat to escape during cooking.
  • Limit the amount of hamburger you eat, and buy the leanest type available.
  • Replace high-fat prepared meats like sausage and luncheon meats with lower-fat meats like lean turkey or chicken.
  • Remove the skin from chicken or turkey before you cook or eat it.
  • Try to eat fish twice weekly. Fish contains a type of fat called omega-3 fat that may help prevent heart disease.

Dairy products:

  • Use margarine instead of butter, choosing a margarine that has a liquid oil rather than a hydrogenated oil listed as the first ingredient.
  • Choose a lower-fat milk. If you use whole milk, switch to 2%. If you use 2%, switch to 1% or skim milk. (All types of milks have the same amount of calcium and other vitamins and minerals.)
  • Use non-fat or low-fat yogurt.
  • Use plain non-fat yogurt instead of sour cream.
  • Cut down on the amount of regular cheeses you eat. Look for lower-fat cheese that contains less than 3 grams of fat per ounce.
  • Sprinkle a little Parmesan cheese on food to give it a cheesy taste. Parmesan cheese is strong tasting, so a little goes a long way.

Tropical oils and processed oils:

  • Check food labels to see what the main type of fat in the food is. Limit foods that list palm oil, coconut oil, or a hydrogenated oil as one of the first type of fats. (Food labels list ingredients in order from greatest to least by weight.)
  • Be suspicious of commercial baked goods such as doughnuts, sweet rolls, brownies, and cookies, which are a major source of saturated fat.

Nice To Know:

About 60% of the saturated fat in the American diet comes from three food sources:

  • Hamburger
  • Cheese
  • Whole milk

Cutting down on these foods, or cutting them out, can go a long ways toward helping you cut down saturated fat and cholesterol.

Increasing Starches And Fiber

Including more starches and fiber in your diet can help you lower your cholesterol level, as well as reduce your risk for obesity, cancer, high blood pressure, and other diseases. Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, and legumes are naturally low in fat, cholesterol-free, and rich in starches and dietary fiber.

A certain type of dietary fiber, called soluble fiber, may help lower cholesterol levels by sweeping cholesterol out of the body before it gets into the bloodstream. Foods rich in soluble fiber include oat bran, dried beans and peas, some fruits, and psyllium seeds (the main ingredient in Metamucil, a fiber supplement).

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts and seeds also contain antioxidants, which are substances that help protect body cells from damage. Examples of antioxidants are:

  • Vitamin C (in citrus fruits)
  • Beta-carotene (in carrots)
  • Vitamin E (in vegetable oils)

To damage artery walls, cholesterol must first be chemically changed through a process called oxidation. Antioxidants help prevent cholesterol from being chemically changed and help prevent cholesterol from moving out of the blood and into the lining of the blood vessels.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Guide Pyramid recommends that you eat the following number of servings of these plant foods daily:

  • 6-11 servings of grains (1 serving equals 1 slice of bread, ½ of a bun, ½ cup of pasta or rice)
  • 3-5 servings of vegetables (1 serving equals 1 cup of raw leafy vegetables or ½ cup cooked vegetables)
  • 2-3 servings of fruits (1 serving equals 1 medium apple, peach or orange; ½ cup of berries; or 3/4 cup juice)

How-To Information:

To include more starches and fiber in your diet:

  • Keep a food diary showing the number of servings of fruits, vegetables, and grains you get daily. If the number is low, gradually try to increase servings of the groups lacking by adding fruits, vegetables, or whole grains as side dishes or snacks.
  • Buy breads and cereals that list a whole grain as the first ingredient – they contain more fiber and vitamins and minerals.
  • Whenever possible, choose raw fruits and vegetables rather than processed ones.
  • Steam vegetables until crisp-tender, rather than boiling them until soft.
  • Whenever possible, leave skin on fruits and vegetables.
  • Add lemon juice, butter flavoring, or other seasoning to vegetables rather than fat.
  • Try including several meatless meals weekly. Start with breakfasts, then gradually add two or three lunches or dinners weekly.

Eating Out

Eating out is certainly possible but requires more careful planning for low-fat, low-cholesterol eating. When eating out:

  • Choose a restaurant with heart-healthy items marked on the menu.
  • Ask how foods are prepared, and don’t hesitate to make special requests, such as for the sauce or dressing to be served on the side.
  • Avoid foods described as fried, breaded, creamed, or buttered, as well as salads that already have a dressing on them.
  • Order fresh fruit or sherbet for dessert. For a special treat, share a rich dessert with several people so you all get a taste but no one overdoes it.
  • If you must eat at a fast-food restaurant, order a plain hamburger or a vegetarian pizza with a thick crust and half the cheese. Try to avoid or limit fries, onion rings, chicken nuggets, and other fried foods.

Reading Food Labels

Use food labels to help you identify foods high in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Start by searching the front of the food package for nutrient claims such as “low-fat” or “low-calorie.” These terms now have standard definitions and provide dependable information:

  • “Fat-free” means less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.
  • “Low-fat” means 3 grams or less per serving.
  • “Reduced fat” or “less fat” means at least 25% less per serving than a similar food.
  • “Light” means 33% fewer calories or 50% less fat per serving than the reference food.

Next, read the “Nutrition Facts” panel, usually found on the side or back of the food package. The Nutrition Facts panel lists the total calories per serving near the top of the panel. It also lists the calories from fat.

To figure the percentage of calories from fat in an individual food, simply divide fat calories by total calories and multiply by 100. Remember, a low-fat diet means that less than 30% of calories come from fat. If one food provides 50% of calories from fat, you must balance it with other lower-fat foods to stay within the 30% guideline.

The Nutrition Facts panel also lists the grams of total fat, saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, and monounsaturated fat and the milligrams of cholesterol in a serving of the food. The “% Daily Value” shows what percentage of total recommended intake of fat and cholesterol the food provides, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Controlling Your Weight

If you weigh more than you should, losing weight is an important step toward lowering your cholesterol levels. To lose weight, you will need to cut calories and boost your activity level. Fortunately, when you lower your fat and cholesterol intake and eat more starches and fiber, you automatically lower your calorie level.

Cutting your calories involves changing both the type of food you eat and the way you eat. Since fat is a very concentrated source of calories, eating more of the low-fat foods that help you lower your cholesterol levels (such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) will also help you cut your calories.

If you tend to eat even when you are not really hungry, you may also need to change the way you eat. To help you cut calories:

  • Eat three main meals, including breakfast.
  • Plan for low-fat snacks in the morning and afternoon.
  • Keep a food diary to help you identify problem areas or situations that trigger overeating.
  • Always eat in the same place when you are home, which will help keep you from nibbling frequently.
  • Sit down while you eat.
  • Keep problem foods out of the house (or at least off the counter and less accessible).
  • Find substitutes for favorite foods that are high in calories; for example, angel food cake instead of richer types of cakes, pretzels instead of potato chips, bagels instead of doughnuts.

For most people, permanent weight loss is impossible by reducing calorie intake alone. When you cut calories, some of the weight you lose comes from muscle tissue in addition to fat loss. When you severely cut your calorie intake, your body reacts as though it were being starved, slowing down its metabolism and making it harder to lose weight.

Exercising regularly helps you lose weight in several ways:

  • Exercising while cutting calories helps you maintain muscle tissue and burn a higher percentage of body fat.
  • Exercising re-sets the body’s metabolism, countering the effects of calorie restriction.
  • Exercise burns calories.
  • Exercise keeps you out of the kitchen and away from food.

Exercising Safely

Most people think they have to really work up a sweat for physical activity to count. Although deliberate forms of exercise such as walking, jogging, or swimming are great, smaller periods of less intense physical activity also help lower cholesterol, control weight, and reduce your risk for heart disease.

Experts now recommend that all adults accumulate at least 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week. This doesn’t mean, however, that you need to jog or swim 30 minutes a day. You can also benefit from several shorter periods of physical activity throughout the day.

The best activities for your heart are those that use the large muscles of your body, particularly those in your legs, making them demand more oxygen to do their work. Examples of such “aerobic” activities include:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Rowing
  • Bicycling
  • Swimming
  • Skating
  • Cross-country skiing

In addition to these deliberate forms of exercise, try to include more activity throughout your day:

  • Park farther from work and walk the extra distance, or better yet, walk to work if possible.
  • When shopping, park farther away and walk more between stores.
  • Take walking breaks at work.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Clean your own house.
  • Mow the lawn yourself.
  • Choose leisure-time activities that get you moving. Golfing, skiing, bowling, dancing, or playing tennis or basketball can all add to your overall activity level.

Almost everyone can do some form of exercise, but to exercise safely you must start very slowly and build up gradually. You should check with your doctor before beginning a vigorous exercise program if you:

  • Are a man over 40 years of age
  • Are a woman over 50 years of age
  • Have risk factors for heart disease such as high blood cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, diabetes, or cigarette smoking
  • Have symptoms of heart disease (pain in the chest, neck or shoulder during exercise, shortness or breath, faintness, or dizziness) or known heart disease

Start by finding out how much exercise you are getting now. Look back on the last three days and write down the approximate length of time you spend being physically active. Then gradually increase the minutes you spend being physically active, adding a few minutes each week.

When you are exercising vigorously, check your heart rate periodically by counting your pulse at the neck or wrist. Count your heartbeats for 10 seconds, then multiply by 6 to get the beats per minute.

In the early stages of your exercise routine, try to keep your heart rate within 65% to 70% of your maximum heart rate (your maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age). As you get in better shape, you may be able to let your heart rate climb to 75% of your maximum heart rate.

For example:

  • A 60-year-old man has a maximum heart rate of 160 beats per minute (220 minus 60).
  • So 65% to 70% of this figure is 104 to 112 beats per minute.
  • Thus, this man should count 17 to 18 beats during a 10-second pulse check.

Be sure to include a five-minute warm-up and cool-down period of light stretching before and after exercise to warm up your muscles and avoid injury and stiffness. If you experience any of these warning signs, stop exercising and check with your doctor:

  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat
  • Pain or pressure in the chest, neck, shoulder, or arms, especially on the left side

How -To Information:

Checking Your Progress

Before you start making changes, answer the following questions:

How many times a week do you get at least 30 minutes of activity?

one or less

2 to 3

5 or more

How many eggs do you eat weekly?

more than 3

2 to 3

1 or less

How often do you eat red meat (beef, pork, or lamb) weekly?

5 or more

3 to 5

2 or less

What kind of milk do you drink?



1% or skim

How often each week do you eat cheese or ice cream that is not low-fat?

5 or more

3 to 4

2 or less

How often do you eat baked goods like doughnuts, pastries, or cookies?

4 to 5

2 to 3

1 or less

Including breakfast, lunch, and dinner, how many meals do you eat weekly that include fruits and vegetables?

5 or less

6 to 13

14 or more

As you can guess, the ideal way of eating is shown in the right-hand column, which represent an aggressive approach to lowering cholesterol. If you have blockages of the arteries, this approach can even shrink these blockages.

After three months of making changes, test yourself again with this same self-assessment. If you have more answers in the right columns, you making changes in the right direction.


Cholesterol-Lowering Diet Plans

The American Heart Association recommends a step-wise approach to lowering cholesterol levels.

The Step I Diet

If you have high blood cholesterol and have not tried other dietary approaches, the Step I diet is the place to start:

  • Total fat intake should be no more than 30% of calories.
  • Saturated fat (the kind that is solid at room temperature) intake should be less than 10% of calories.
  • Polyunsaturated fat (liquid at room and refrigerator temperatures) intake should be 8% to 10% of calories.
  • Monounsaturated fat (olive and canola oil) intake should make up the rest of total fat intake (about 10% to 15% of total calories).
  • Cholesterol intake should be less than 300 milligrams daily.
  • Sodium intake should be no more than 2,400 milligrams daily.

Need To Know:

Q: How do I know the amounts of fat, cholesterol, and sodium in the foods I eat? A: Read food labels. The labels on the packaging of the foods you buy will list these amounts, as well as other helpful information such as fiber and vitamin content. The quantities given on food labels are on a “per-serving” basis. The top of the label will define what a “serving” is for that particular food.

The Step II Diet

If you have already been on a diet similar to the Step I diet without enough improvement in your blood cholesterol levels, or if you have existing heart disease, you should follow the more aggressive Step II dietary recommendations. The Step II dietary recommendations as the same as Step I, but further restrict saturated fat and cholesterol intake:

  • Saturated fat intake should be less than 7% of calories.
  • Cholesterol intake should be less than 200 milligrams daily.
  • Calorie intake should be just enough to maintain a healthy body weight.

Very-Low-Fat Diets

Some experts advocate diets that are extremely low in fat for people with severe heart disease or those who do not respond to the Step II diet and do not wish to take cholesterol-lowering drugs. Such diets can contain as little as 18% to 26% of calories from fat, which in practical terms means eliminating almost all meats, dairy products, and added fats.

One of the problems with such extreme diets, however, is that they may be difficult to follow over the long-term. Some experts question whether such drastic reductions in fat intake are necessary, and suggest that very-low-fat diets could raise blood triglyceride levels because of their high carbohydrate content.

The Ornish Program is an example of a very-low-fat diet program that combines dietary approaches with stress reduction and exercise. Research suggests that the intensive Ornish Program can reverse the artery-clogging build up of cholesterol and other substances in people who already have existing heart disease.

Mediterranean Diet

People in Mediterranean regions such as Greece and Southern Italy have a very low incidence of heart disease. Experts think one reason for this low incidence might be the traditional Mediterranean diet, which includes generous amounts of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes (dried beans and peas), red wine, and fish, with only occasional and small servings of red meats.

The Mediterranean diet includes a more liberal 25% to 35% of calories as fat, provided mainly in the form of olive oil, which is rich in monounsaturated fat.

The Mediterranean diet has been shown to lower total cholesterol levels and raise levels of the helpful HDL cholesterol. For some people, the Mediterranean diet may be more palatable and easier to stay on long-term compared with very low fat diets. However, since it allows a more liberal fat intake, some people may get more calories than they need, and gaining weight would erase any healthful effects of the diet.

Medications To Lower Blood Cholesterol

If your blood cholesterol level is higher than it should be, your doctor will probably advise you to try to bring it down with diet and exercise first. For many people, diet and exercise changes can cause their cholesterol level to begin dropping after two to three weeks and to fall 30 to 55 points over three months.

If, after three months of healthy eating and regular exercise, your cholesterol level is still too high, your physician may suggest additional changes to help you lower the fat and cholesterol in your diet even more. If these changes in diet and exercise do not bring your blood cholesterol level down to a healthy level within six months, your physician may prescribe a cholesterol-lowering medication.

Many excellent medications have been developed in recent years. These medications work by different means:

  • Some reduce the amount of cholesterol the liver makes.
  • Some reduce the amount of dietary cholesterol that is absorbed from food.

Need To Know:

Whatever cholesterol-lowering medication you use, have regular blood tests to make sure the medication is working and not causing side effects. In addition, keep up the changes in diet, exercise, and lifestyle. These will help keep your cholesterol levels down and reduce your risk of heart disease and chronic diseases in other ways.

Types of medication that may be prescribed to lower cholesterol include:

  • Niacin. This B vitamin is found in foods and in multi-vitamin supplements. In high doses, available by prescription, niacin lowers LDL (the bad cholesterol) and raises HDL (the good cholesterol). Minor side effects are flushing or tingling skin, itching, and headache.
  • Bile-acid sequestrants. These medications help to limit the liver’s production of cholesterol. Common bile-acid sequestrants include colestipol (Colestid) and cholestyramine (Questran). The most common side effects include digestive problems such as constipation, gas, and upset stomach.
  • HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, also called statins, which are the newest medications available to lower cholesterol.

Statins (HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors)

The statins are a powerful group of drugs used to lower cholesterol. They work by interrupting the final step in the chemical pathway that creates cholesterol in the liver.

Research shows that statins can dramatically reduce the risk for a heart attack, stroke, or death, even in people who have normal cholesterol levels and do not have heart disease. In people with heart disease, statins prevent a first or second heart attack.

Statins are considered safe and well tolerated. Their mild side effects include headaches, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, and gas. They occasionally can cause muscle or joint pain. In rare cases, they can cause liver damage, which is why it’s important to see your doctor regularly if you take a statin.

Common statins are:

  • Atorvastatin (Lipitor)
  • Fluvastatin (Lescol)
  • Lovastatin (Mevacor)
  • Pravastatin (Pravachol)
  • Simvastatin (Zocor)

The Newest Medication to Lower Cholesterol

The latest drug recently released to lower cholesterol is called Zetia (generic name-ezetimibe). Zetia works by lessening the amount of cholesterol absorbed through the intestines following meals, unlike the commonly used ‘statins’, which reduces cholesterol by restricting its production in the liver.

Zetia appears to effect both the bad LDL type cholesterol as well as the good HDL cholesterol by lowering the bad cholesterol and raising the good cholesterol. The total body cholesterol is also lowered, as are the level of circulating fats (triglycerides) in the blood.

Zetia is commonly prescribed together with one of the statin cholesterol lowering drugs because this combination has a more powerful impact on lowering the cholesterol.

Side effects, which are not particularly common and usually mild, include muscle discomfort felt in the abdomen or back, diarrhea, or discomfort in the joints.

Lowering Your Blood Cholesterol: Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Does caffeine raise blood cholesterol levels?

A: Caffeine is found in many soft drinks, coffee, tea, and to a lesser extent, chocolate. Caffeine does not raise blood cholesterol levels, and research has yielded conflicting results on whether caffeine increases risk of heart disease. Based on current evidence, a moderate intake of caffeine does not seem to be harmful.

Q: Should a person avoid eating eggs entirely?

A: Health experts advise limiting cholesterol intake to 300 milligrams or less daily. One large whole egg yolk contains about 215 milligrams of cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends limiting egg yolk consumption to three to four times weekly and focusing on the total diet instead of just one food. The cholesterol in eggs is found in the yolk portion, so you can use as many egg whites as you want. Eggs contain B vitamins, iron and other minerals and are a good source of high-quality protein.

Q: Can fat substitutes help lower blood cholesterol?

A: Many low-fat foods and fat replacers have made reducing fat intake easier. Often, however, these fat substitutes are used in foods such as cookies, chips, or desserts. While lower in fat, such foods often contain the same number of calories as their comparable counterparts. Overeating on low-fat foods can still contributes to obesity, which in turn contributes to high blood cholesterol and other health problems. Further, these foods often lack the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other healthy substances found in alternative food choices such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Q: Should a person avoid dairy products to lower cholesterol?

A: Skim milk and low-fat dairy products contain only small amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol and can easily be included in a low-fat, low-cholesterol eating plan. In addition, dairy products are excellent sources of calcium, a mineral that may help prevent the development of osteoporosis, or brittle bones, later in life.

Q: Should people trying to lower their cholesterol level use margarine or butter?

A: Although butter is high in both saturated fat and cholesterol, some margarines may not be much better than butter. Stick margarines that have been hydrogenated, or chemically changed, contain trans-fatty acids, a type of fat that can raise blood cholesterol levels. Choose liquid vegetables oils or soft margarines over stick margarines or butter. The softer a margarine is, the more unsaturated it is. As a general rule, shop for margarine with no more than 2 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon and with liquid vegetable oil listed as the first ingredient.

Q: Can fish oil help lower cholesterol?

A: Although fish oil may lower levels of blood triglycerides (another type of fat) and very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) cholesterol, it does not seem to significantly lower the LDL, or bad type of cholesterol. However, fish is a great protein source that is very low in fat and saturated fat. Eating fish two to three times weekly does helps to lower risk for heart disease, possibly by interfering with the ability of blood to clot. The American Heart Association recommends that people eat fish regularly but does not advise taking fish oil supplements.

Q: Should people use oat bran to lower cholesterol levels?

A: Oats and oat bran contain generous amounts of soluble fiber, which helps to lower the bad LDL cholesterol and raise the good HDL cholesterol. However, some oat bran muffins can be high in fat and calories, so read labels carefully. Although oat bran may help lower cholesterol, many other foods, particularly legumes and certain fruits, are also rich in soluble fiber. The body needs both soluble and insoluble fiber to function properly.

Q: How do I know the amounts of fat, cholesterol, and sodium in the foods I eat?

A: Read food labels. The labels on the packaging of the foods you buy will list these amounts, as well as other helpful information such as fiber and vitamin content. The quantities given on food labels are on a “per-serving” basis. The top of the label will define what a “serving” is for that particular food.

Lowering Your Blood Cholesterol: Putting It All Together

  • More that one-half of all Americans have blood cholesterol levels that are higher than they should be.
  • High blood cholesterol levels can clog blood vessels, increasing risk for heart disease and stroke.
  • Many factors contribute to high blood cholesterol levels, including your genetic make-up, eating a high-fat diet, being inactivity, and being overweight. A high intake of saturated fat, or animal fat, is the main cause of high blood cholesterol levels.
  • Making gradual and permanent changes in diet and lifestyle is the best way to lower cholesterol levels. These changes include following a diet that contains less than 30% of calories from fat and less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol, eating more starches and dietary fiber, being more active, and maintaining a healthy body weight.
  • Try to make changes in diet and lifestyle gradually and one at a time. Start with whatever is easiest for you to change first.
  • If diet and exercise changes do not bring your blood cholesterol level down to a healthy level, your physician may prescribe a cholesterol-lowering medication.

Lowering Your Blood Cholesterol: Glossary

Antioxidants: Substances in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds that can help prevent or slow build up of cholesterol and other fat-like substances in the arteries. Vitamins C and E and beta-carotene are all antioxidants that help protect against heart disease.

Atherosclerosis: A thickening and hardening of the arteries caused by deposits of cholesterol and other fat-like substances in the lining of the blood vessels.

Body mass index (BMI): A formula used to expresses body weight in relation to height. BMI equals weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared.

Cholesterol: A fat-like substance that can deposit on the artery wall, narrowing or blocking blood flow.

Familial hypercholesterolemia: When very high blood cholesterol levels run in the family.

Heart attack: Sudden closure or blockage of one or more blood vessels to the heart, causing damage to the part of the heart.

High-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL cholesterol): A good type of cholesterol that helps the body get rid of bad types of cholesterol.

Hormones: Chemicals produced by an organ or part of the body and carried in the bloodstream to another organ or body part to affect its function; different hormones have difference effects on the body.

Hydrogenation: A process in which vegetable oils have been artificially hardened, making them more like a saturated fat

Hypercholesterolemia: High blood cholesterol levels.

Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL cholesterol): A bad type of cholesterol that tends to deposit in the artery wall and narrow or block in the artery.

Maximum heart rate: The fastest your heart can beat, estimated by subtracting your age in years from 220.

Plaque: A build up of cholesterol and other fat-like substances covered with scar tissue on the inner wall of the blood vessels.

Soluble fiber: The type of fiber that can help reduce blood cholesterol levels. Foods such as oat bran, dried beans, and some fruits are high in soluble fiber.

Triglycerides: Another type of blood fat that can also block blood vessels and lead to heart disease.

Very-low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (VLDL cholesterol): A type of cholesterol that transports triglycerides in the blood. Some VLDL cholesterol is converted into LDL cholesterol, a bad type of cholesterol that tends to deposit in the blood vessels.

Lowering Your Blood Cholesterol: Additional Sources Of Information

American Dietetic Association 
Phone: (800) 877-1600

American Heart Association 
Phone: (800) 242-8721

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute 
Phone: (301) 251-1222

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