Simple Diet and Exercise: Steps for Lowering Cholesterol Levels

Posted Tue, 02/15/2011 - 5:28pm by Denise Reynolds

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It is now estimated that 102 million Americans have dyslipidemia, or abnormal cholesterol levels. Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, killing more than one in every four people. Lowering blood cholesterol is one of the key prevention efforts you can make today to lower your risk.

Dr. Michael Roizen — you know him as part of the dynamic duo of doctors who write the "YOU" series of health books — has joined forces with Metamucil to present an upcoming PBS series called Younger You. In the series, they encourage all Americans to take small but proactive changes to lower cholesterol and improve overall health and longevity.

Increase Fiber Intake

Of course, as Metamucil is a primary sponsor, the top focus is on fiber — specifically psyllium, the active ingredient in the dietary fiber supplement. Soluble fiber can help lower both total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels by binding it in the digestive tract before it can be absorbed into the blood stream. The recommendation for daily fiber intake is 20 to 35 grams for most adults. Unfortunately, however, most Americans only get about 10 to 15 grams per day.

While Metamucil is a great product for getting in a little extra fiber, it can only do part of the job. Dr. Roizen's recommendation is to get 7 grams a day from the dietary supplement product. That still leaves up to 28 grams that are still needed from natural food sources.

The first and easiest step to increasing fiber is to slowly replace refined flour with whole grains. Make the switch from white bread to whole wheat; trade out your white rice for brown; and, instead of a sugary low-fiber breakfast cereal, opt for oatmeal or a product such as Fiber One.

The next step would be to ensure you are getting the daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables. Try celery and carrots instead of junk food as a snack, or carry whole high-fiber fruits such as apples to work instead of raiding the vending machine for potato chips.

Lastly, incorporate some dried beans into your meal plan, such as kidney, pinto, or lima beans. Throw them into a vegetable soup along with some barley for a nice high-fiber appetizer or entrée.

Increase DHA Intake

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a polyunsaturated fatty acid that can aid in proper heart function and help lower LDL cholesterol. It may even help increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels. DHA levels are especially high in fish, particularly fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and tuna.

Not a seafood fan? Fish oil supplements are readily available today at most major retail stores and in health food stores. Some can still leave a "fishy" taste in your mouth, so a tip for consumers — keep the bottle in the fridge. Lower temperatures can help tame the off taste. If you are vegetarian, you may want to try flaxseed oil, but some studies have found that flax isn't as efficiently converted into DHA in the body. There are also vegetarian dietary supplements made from algal DHA that may be of benefit.

Increase Daily Exercise

Exercise can help improve cholesterol in several ways. First, it increases HDL cholesterol as it lowers LDL cholesterol. Exercise also promotes weight control, which is beneficial for lowering total cholesterol levels. Exercise improves heart function as well as blood vessel function, making the overall risk of developing heart disease less likely.

Of course, many of us find excuses as to why we aren't regularly physically active. For those who don't feel they have enough time in the day to dedicate to a 30-60 minute exercise session, just try increasing the number of steps you take in a day. Wear a pedometer and set daily goals for yourself. Use the first day as a baseline, and gradually increase your step count from there. There are several ways you can move more during the day, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking a little further away from the door, and getting up to talk with a co-worker instead of phoning or emailing.

Getting an exercise buddy can also help, as you are there to both encourage and support each other to maintain a regular routine. Try to find someone at roughly the same exercise level as you and set weekly challenges that are realistic for you both to accomplish. A fun wager between you may also get you motivated!

Gradual Steps Are Best

Changing our daily habits is not an easy task. You will likely stick to positive changes if you gradually work them into your lifestyle. Pick one of these cholesterol-lowering tips and focus on it for one month. After that becomes ingrained in your daily routine, tackle another. Within three to six months, at your next annual physical or cholesterol screening, you will likely see that the efforts have paid off — without the need for expensive medication.

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