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High Cholesterol: Making Lifestyle Changes


High cholesterol is treated with heart-healthy lifestyle changes and medicine. These can lower your cholesterol and your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

You and your doctor may decide to first try treating your high cholesterol without medicine. Changing some of your habits may be all you need to do to lower your risk. Your doctor might suggest that you take medicine too. But medicines don't replace these healthy habits.

How can you make changes?

Eat healthy foods

Start with small changes. Make one or two changes at a time. As soon as you are used to those, make another one or two changes. Over time, making a number of small changes can add up and make a big difference in your health.

Here are some ideas about how to get started.

  • Choose whole-grain bread instead of white bread.
  • Have a piece of fruit instead of a candy bar.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables.
    • Start by adding an extra serving of fruit or vegetables to your meals.
  • Switch from 2% or whole milk to 1% or nonfat milk.
  • Eat lean proteins.
    • Choose a variety of protein foods.
    • Heart-healthy proteins include seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and soy products.
  • Use olive or canola oil instead of butter for cooking.
  • Use herbs and spices.
    • They can add flavor to your food without adding salt.
  • Modify your favorite recipes.
    • Your favorite dishes can still taste good with less fat and calories.

It may take some time to get used to new tastes and habits, but don't give up. Keep in mind the good things you are doing for your heart and your overall health.

Make wise choices when eating out

When your goal is healthy eating, dining out can be a challenge. Here are some ways to make healthy choices.

Plan ahead.
Before you go out to eat, think about what healthy options you might choose. Try to choose restaurants that mark healthy items on the menu.
Think about your portions.
Ask for half-sized or lunch-sized portions. Or choose the smallest fast-food meal option. Split a meal with someone or take half home.
Make your meals lower in saturated fat.
Order foods that are poached, grilled, or baked instead of fried. Ask for sauces and dressings on the side. Choose lean meats and dressings that are lower in fat.
Add fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Try vegetarian options and whole-grain breads and pastas.
Choose healthy beverages.
Drink water, flavored sparkling water, or unsweetened iced tea instead of sugary drinks.
Avoid buffets and all-you-can-eat restaurants.
It's easy to eat too much at these places.

Stay active

You don't have to run out and join a gym to get active. Start small, and try to make exercise a part of your daily routine.

For some people, some forms of physical activity might be unsafe or should only be started after talking with a doctor. If you have any concerns, talk to your doctor before starting any exercise or fitness program.

  • Here are a few tips if you're just starting out:
    • To start, just walk more. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park farther away at the grocery store. Walk your dog for longer than usual.
    • Then find times in your day when you can fit in a half hour of exercise. And find something that you enjoy doing. Make it fun and easy for yourself to do it, and you will be more likely to keep doing it.
    • Work your way up to doing moderate activity at least 2½ hours a week. Or try to do vigorous activity at least 1¼ hours a week.
  • Here are a few tips for taking the next step:
    • Go longer. If 20 minutes of activity a day feels good for a while, try for 30. Or 40. You can do this all at one time, or you can break it up into chunks. For example, get 15 minutes of activity in the morning before work, 10 more during your lunch hour, and 15 after work. Or break it into four 10-minute sessions.
    • Go harder. Spending more time exercising is one way to increase activity. But it's not the only way. If you walk now, try walking faster, or walking on hills or stairs. Maybe even carry a couple of light weights while you walk. The extra energy you use for harder activity will increase your muscle mass and make you stronger.
    • Try something new. Dust off that bicycle and go for a ride. Or try swimming. Going for a swim gives your body a great workout without any impact on your bones, joints, or feet. Add dancing to your routine, paddle a boat, or give yoga a try. Talk to your doctor about activities that might be right for you.

Lose weight if you need to

Focus on health, not diets. Diets are hard to stay on and usually don't work. Eat healthy foods in smaller amounts, and be more active. Work with your doctor to make a plan that will work for you.

If you smoke, quit

Having a plan and using medicines can help you quit. A quit plan helps you plan ahead. Before you quit, you identify the things that are likely to trigger tobacco use and plan how you'll manage them. You also think about what you need for support. Your doctor can suggest medicines to help.


Current as of: June 24, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.


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